Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Why I no longer question the portion of my taxes that supports the military

It’s a while since I last posted, not because of a lack of stimulating books, articles and conversations but more down to a lack of hours in the day. But a book I have just finished reading, Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, made me revise the way I think about military spending. It made me question one of my long-held beliefs: that to make the world more peaceful Western nations should reduce what we spend on the military. This, I thought, is worth sharing.

Paul Collier is an economist who is tackling one of the world’s toughest problems: how can economic development get started in the poorest nations on Earth where growth has been absent for decades. He identifies four poverty ‘traps:’ conflict, natural resource dependency, being landlocked and bad governance, and explains why these lead to self-perpetuating poverty. He takes a pragmatic view in admitting that the scope for Western assistance is limited and much of the impetus for change in these countries has to come from within. But he also identifies four instruments the West has at its disposal that can make a difference: aid, international laws, trade policy and military intervention.

This last one got my attention. Having observed the war in Iraq, I and many of my generation would associate intervention with resource imperialism. But Collier makes a case for intervention based on the consequences of a lack of it. He explains how the US entered Somalia in 1993, but withdrew after 18 American casualties caused a wave of bad publicity. In Somalia, he points out,

‘by 1995 around 300,000 people had died… but the biggest killer consequent upon the withdrawal was not what happened in Somalia but the lesson that was learned: never intervene. It took only months to prove how disastrously wrong this lesson was. Remember that 1994 was the year of Rwanda. We didn’t want another Somalia, with another eighteen American soldiers killed, so we got Rwanda, in which half a million people were butchered, entirely avoidably, because international intervention was inadequate.’

Collier explains how the British operation in Sierra Leone in 2000 dispersed a rebel army with a few hundred men, very likely averting a civil war. He articulates very clear circumstances when military intervention is warranted, and warns us from being put off the idea by the calamity that occurred in Iraq – or else we may have another Rwanda on our hands.

For one thing, the historical perspective on military interventions is crucial when considering the events in Libya last year and the ongoing conflict in Syria. For another I no longer question the value of the proportion of my taxes that go towards paying for the UK military. The important thing is to be vocal about how the military is used. Very few situations warrant the violence of a military incursion, but when they do we should not be afraid to use force.

If this topic interests you, this TED Talk gives some further (more rhetoric-driven) arguments for the importance of Western countries’ armies.