YPFP Brussels: Does Defence Matter?

Posted on October 20, 2013

“If you want peace, prepare for war”, said the Roman strategist, Vegetius. The same could be said about global security and defence spending in today’s unstable world. After all, the timely and well-targeted use of force - such as in Libya in 2011 or Mali in 2013 - can turn the tide of global insecurity. 

Given this, it could be assumed the West would value the policies, organisations and military forces that guarantee security as highly as any government department. Yet in reality, the financial crisis has driven down defence spending across the Western world.

For example, only four NATO members - the UK, US, Greece and Estonia - currently meet NATO’s discretionary target of spending 2% or more of national GDP on defence.

Recent reports estimate that European countries have cut defence spending by an aggregated 1.8% a year since 2001.

And between the UK, France and Germany alone, over 80,000 soldiers in uniform have left the ranks of the armed forces since 2008.

Counting the cost

Confronted by this stark reduction in defence capacity and capability, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently challenged an audience of European politicians to weigh the impact of global insecurity against the cost of well-funded defence sectors.

This stark calculation included examples such as:

  • Two million refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict, with millions more livelihoods destroyed, causing untold societal and economic costs for generations to come;
  • Somali Piracy which threatened global trade routes in 2011 carried an estimated cost of 7 billion dollars in lost income, insurance and ransom payments;
  • Anti-state jihadist terrorism inflicted between 2.2 and 3.3 trillion dollars’ worth of damage during the 11 September 2001 attack on New York in the US, and today continues to kill and maim in fields as far apart as Mali in North Africa to Afghanistan in Central Asia.

“I know it's difficult to calculate a total cost”, the Secretary General concluded, “But [such] examples illustrate that while there is a cost to be paid for defence, the cost of no defence is much higher.

Weighing both sides of the defence coin - NATO Defence Matters

In many ways, the crisis Rasmussen and others identify in Western defence is one of public opinion. If they could better illustrate to populations the balance of payments between the benefits of security and failing to invest in defence, perhaps a better equilibrium could be achieved?

Over the past six months, NATO has been working with prominent research institutes from eight Alliance member countries to look into this question. These institutes discussed defence with representatives of civil society, and drew upon the results of public opinion polls. Some also conducted interviews with policymakers and parliamentarians.

The result is a project called “Defence Matters”. It will try to answer questions such as:

- Has public perception of security relegated defence policy to a second tier priority?

- Do politicians lack justifications to convince electorates, or have military capabilities simply lost their relevance in addressing contemporary security concerns?

- To what extent are these perceptions determined by a lack of appreciation of the economic benefits of international security and stability?

- Is the role and value of the defence industry taken into account in these calculations?

Join the debate

At 19.00 on Monday 28 October, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy Brussels, generously supported by NATO, hosted some of the leading think-tankers involved in the Defence Matters project for an interactive panel discussion on these questions.

Check out photos from this event here.

You can follow the live-stream from Twitter on this Storify piece.