Saturday, June 12, 2004

I enjoy zablogger, but every now and again I find myself taking issue with something that he says. Writing about Ronald Reagan today, he says:

Sure he helped bring about the end of the cold war, but not before rising military spending to unprecedented levels and to suggest that it was he who essentially broke the back of USSR communism is just false. The Soviet UnionÂ’s move towards Perestroika was the result of decades of build up; it just so happened that he and Gorbachev were in place towards the end. Interestingly Gorbachev wrote an article on Reagan this past week suggesting that Reagan was keen to end the cold war more out of concern for his legacy then world peace!

There are a couple of points that I want to make about this. Firstly, American military spending under Reagan was by no means 'unprecedented'. In fact, according to the Centre for Defence Information, military spending during the Reagan years peaked in 1988 at $372.8 billion which might seem high but is in fact less than earlier build-ups in the 1950s and late 1960s. In fact, given that the US economy had expanded significantly since the 1950s and 1960s, relative spending was lower than those figures imply. Off-hand I'd say that Reagan pushed military spending up to roughly 5 percent of GDP which is comparable to that of Great Britain and France during the same period. The reason why people often assume that Reagan was a dramatic aberration is simply that his administration was flanked by Jimmy Carter's on one side (who reduced spending to abnormally low levels) and Bush Snr on the other who was able to reduce spending as a result of the collapse of the USSR.

Now, lets have a look at zabloggers second claim, that Reagan played little or no role in the Soviet Union's demise. This is a difficult position to hold since it suggests that the Soviet Union was immune to external pressure. In fact, given the nature of the regime (much of its internal legitimacy was derived from its claim to be able to defend the Soviet people) it's likely that the Soviet leadership was acutely sensitive to external pressure. And just what kind of pressure might it have been experiencing in the 80s? The major problem for the Soviets was that in deciding to develop an anti-ballistic missile shield (the Strategic Defence Initiative), the American's threatened to unbalance the strategic equilibrium into which the two powers had settled in the late 60s. Mutually Assured Destruction rests on the premise that even if you launch your nukes first, enough of your enemies will survive to ensure that he will be able to strike back and destroy you. Reagan threatened to remove the Soviet's second strike ability by building defensive systems able to prevent the few missiles that would survive a first strike from actually getting through. I want to transgress here a little because this is a point that is often misunderstood. SDI was not intended to make America impregnable from a first strike. Defending against the hundreds, possibly thousands, of missiles that would be launched in a massive first strike would've been impossible. It was designed, rather to prevent those few of the enemies missiles that would have survived a first strike from getting through. Removing this second strike ability would've put the Soviets in an acutely uncomfortable strategic position. In the event of a crisis, the Americans have an incentive to launch first and the Soviets have no means of retaliation. This is the logic of strategic deterence. Once the American's had committed to building SDI, the Soviets had two options, follow them or negotiate. As it happens, the tried to pursue both courses simulataneously. Early efforts to develop a missile shield were expanded (see this Federation of American Scientists' paper for an interesting account) and secondly they sought further arms reductions under the revived Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty process. There was limited scope for further expanding the Soviet military budget and as the 80s progressed it became clear that the American's were not willing to make enough concessions to ensure Soviet security, although Reagan came close during a meeting with Gorbachev in Helsinki. There was little option for them but to try and normalise relations with the West. Once it became clear that their strategic position was being undermined by SDI, they really had no choice.

I'm certainly not advocating the view that Reagan came to power with a clear map for defusing the Soviets but I have no doubt that he and his advisers understood the implications of SDI for the strategic balance and furthermore that once the USSR began to buckle they were wise enough to keep the door to negotiations open. I'm also not trying to suggest that this was the only factor at work. The Soviet Union's internal contradictions would have brought it down eventually anyway, but as yesterday's Economist argues:

A system which believes that a small group of self-selected possessors of the truth knows how to run everything is sooner or later going to run into the wall. But Reagan brought the wall closer.

As for zablogger's final claim, that 'Reagan was keen to end the cold war more out of concern for his legacy then world peace', all I have to say is that I don't really doubt it. Politicians (like most people) are usually motivated by self-interest on one level and the desire to leave a legacy is the most common manifestation of that self-interest. The question really ought to be what sort of legacy is left. In Reagan's case I think it is something for which we can all give thanks.

4 Comments:

At 13 June 2004 at 15:29, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly, on your point about military spending at 5% of GDP, comparative military spending as a percentage of GDP was even higher still under Kennedy; approaching near double digit figures at the time.

The Reykjavik meeting on nuclear weapons reduction is also a much neglected part of the Reagan tale - where he genuinely challenged Gorbachev to form part of an initiative to eliminate all ballistic nuclear weapons within a decade - something which startled both his European allies and even Pentagon officials.

Wayne

 
At 14 June 2004 at 17:14, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrew,

Firstly glad you take issue with me sometimes. I always get worried what's being plotted when everybody agrees....

My concern is that surely 5% of GDP is an absolutely huge amount for military spending? Sure if may have happened many times in the past by many countries, but still 5%! That to me spells serious military build up.

Also on your SDI, surely if the US had landed 20,000 odd nukes on the USSR they never needed bother strike back? The world was sooner or later dead (or have I been reading to much "on the beach" by Neville Shute). Further my understanding is that the idea of shooting one missle out of space with another is very unlikely and no test has ever preformed very well.

 
At 14 June 2004 at 17:15, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry fotgot to add a name.

It was me.

zaBlogger

 
At 14 June 2004 at 18:32, Blogger Andrew Black said...

Hi, er, ZA

I suspect that the answer to this:

'My concern is that surely 5% of GDP is an absolutely huge amount for military spending? Sure if may have happened many times in the past by many countries, but still 5%! That to me spells serious military build up'

is that it depends. The military spending of the great powers in the 19th century was usually comparatively small but by the turn of the century had started to rise. AKAIK Great Britain was spending almost 10 percent of GDP on its military by 1910. Spending increased considerably during the war of course before falling back during the 1920s and early 1930s. I don't want to be completely reductive here but I have no doubt that one of the things that emboldened Hitler was the fact that his principal rival, Britain, was spending so little on weapons (and of course this will partly determine how we evaluate Reagan's build-up in the 80s). Again, spending went up during the war and then remained high in all major powers right through to the mid 50s. After that the picture is less clear. US spending declined then shot up again during Vietnam before declining in the 70s. British spending never really dropped below 5-6 percent throughout the cold war. French figures are harder to read because they seem sometimes to include spending on the gendarmerie. Soviet military spending is anybody's guess although I've never seen anbody argue that it was less then 10 - 15 percent of Soviet output.

Sorry for the potted history, but I want to show that 5 percent, whilst high-ish, is certainly not extraordinary. Another way to think about this is to consider that very high military spending usually impacts negatively on the economy (less money for education, health, infrastructure etc) but the US economy has been healthier since the 80s than for a long time before.

As for whether it constituted a military build-up I'd suggest that it did. But that, surely, was the point. The US pushed up spending, much as it had done during Vietnam and Korea, to confront a threat. The question we ought to ask is whether or not that increase was effective. I'd argue that on balance, given that the Cold War ended without a shot being fired, it can be adjudged to have been effective. I suppose there's a subjective issue here, namely, do you think that the USSR posed a real threat to the West? If you do then surely you'd support an increase in military spending (to, as I've argued, not exceptional levels). You'd be particularly supportive in hindsight because it appears to have worked.

As for this:

'Also on your SDI, surely if the US had landed 20,000 odd nukes on the USSR they never needed bother strike back? The world was sooner or later dead (or have I been reading to much "on the beach" by Neville Shute). Further my understanding is that the idea of shooting one missle out of space with another is very unlikely and no test has ever preformed very well.'

The point is that under 'Mutually Assured Destruction' the US would never launch its 20 000 because it knew that the Soviets would have enough missiles left to hit back. It was this strategic stalemate which caused the powers to spend so much energy pursuing war by proxies. But of course if the US eliminates the Soviets ability to strike back it gives them much more strategic latitude. A lot of the Cold War was about brinksmanship. Would the powers ever contemplate firing those missiles when doing so would, as you point out, kill us all? In order for the deterent value of Nukes to be effective though, both sides had to publicly commit themselves to using them as a last resort. The theory of deterence is interesting because most of it turns on an assesment of your opponents psychology. This is why the Cuban Missile Crisis was important. It apeared to confirm to the SOviets that the Americans were prepapred to risk the destruction of the US eastern Seaboard in order to ensure long term security whilst to the Americans it seemed to show that the Soviets were all bluster.

Finally, it appears that SDI was beyond 80s technology, indeed it appears to be beyond 21st centurt technology too. But that's not the point. Reagan seems to have gambled that the Soviets would BELIEVE that the Americans could field a credible anti-missile system. They did and thus they were left with little option but to negotiate.

 

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