Check your expectations (1) right-wing wimps and left-wing weaponistas

By Lorenzo

There is a joke in modern American politics–the Republicans want a big defence force they don’t want to use anywhere and the Democrats want a small defence force they want to use everywhere. Implicit in the joke is that the Republicans like military spending and the Democrats don’t. Because the right is “strong” on defence and the left is “weak” on defence.

But is that correct? The 1991-92 Gulf War was the first time the US had got into a major war under a Republican Administration since the Spanish-American War of 1898 (it entered the Dynasts’ War, the Dictators’ War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War under Democratic Administrations). So, are the Democrats the warmongers?

Faced with a major external threat, a country (and its government) has three basic options; re-armanent, alliances or appeasement. They are not mutually exclusive, but they do involve different costs. In particular, re-armanent requires significantly increased spending, which means either increased taxes, increased borrowing or cuts in other expenditure or some combination thereof. If significantly increased regressive taxation is problematic–morally, politically and fiscally–then increased taxes will fall on the wealthy. (Estate taxes, for example, were relatively easy to collect and significantly driven by military expenditure [via].) Cutting other expenditure also tends to be politically problematic and is not likely to be sufficient. Borrowing simply defers the “who pays?” issue and, depending on the stance of monetary policy, can be inflationary, with inflation tending to be more problematic for income from capital than income from labour. Depending on exchange rate regime and other factors, increased borrowing and shifting production from civilian to military goods can also involve considerably increased state control over the economy.

So, which side of politics is generally more hostile to increased taxes, borrowing and state interference in the economy, the left or the right? So, which side of politics do we expect, when in office, to be more willing to use alliance and appeasement and which to chose re-armanent in the face of increased external threat?

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Britain wins the race — 37 to 19

Based on the above analysis, Harvard political scientist Kevin Narizny has examined the political record of the late C19th and C20th for US, British and French politics and finds that (pdf) (via), with one exception, centre-right governments preferred alliances and appeasement to deal with rising external threats while centre-left governments preferred re-armanent.

So, the notionally anti-militaristic British Liberal Government of 1905-1915 decisively outspent the militaristic Second Reich in the 1907-1914 naval arms race by raising taxes on the wealthy dramatically, provoking a constitutional crisis which led to the power of the House of Lords being greatly reduced and higher taxes. Meanwhile, upper class interests in the semi-democratic Reich were able to largely block tax increases. So the left-of-centre liberal democrats of Britain decisively out-built the overtly militaristic Reich in the dreadnought race. Turning the High Seas Fleet into the most disastrous military investment in history, as it (along with the open-ended aggrandisement of Weltpolitik) guaranteed the UK would be anti-German in any general European conflict but failed to overturn British naval superiority.

Earlier, facing the 1894 Franco-Russian alliance and the generally increased competition from other imperial powers, the then Conservative Government of Britain had gone for alliances (with Japan in 1902 and France in 1904) plus accepting US hegemony over the Americas–the alliances and appeasement response.

With the rise of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s Lebensraum strategy, the French Popular Front government of 1936-8 was far more willing to spend on re-armanent than its centre-right opponents (to the extent that the Defence Minister Daladier rejected the General Staff’s budgetary proposal as inadequate, the Cabinet approving an increase in expenditure on the army 50% larger than the generals had asked for: France’s 1940 defeat was result of incompetent military leadership, not lack of men or materiel). The British Conservatives famously relied on appeasement as their preferred strategy to deal with Hitler, being extremely reluctant to increase defence spending.  In the US, it was the Republicans who regularly sought to block defence expenditure increases in the late 1930s and during the 1948-1960 Cold War period.

So, faced with an external threat, centre-right politicians find the increased taxation and borrowing required to fund re-armament politically very unpalatable. Conversely, whatever their rhetoric in opposition, centre-left governments find taxing the rich to pay for increased defence spending much more acceptable. Hence centre-right governments engage in appeasement and build alliances, centre-left governments build up the armed forces.

Defense Spending to GDP

There is one obvious outlier–Ronald Reagan, who famously increased US defence spending. Though not as much as people think–US defence spending only got to 7% of GDP, which is rather lower share of GDP than it had been during the first decade or so of the Cold War. Reagan also reined in other expenditures and presided over a massive surge in federal deficits. As Narizny points out, this borrowing binge was made acceptable to Republican interests through supply-side economics (increased economic strength through tax cuts and regulatory reform) and that Fed Chair Volcker reined in inflation (so the deficit spending was not inflationary). A case of an outlier which does not contradict the underlying thesis.

More recently, Dubya also financed his wars with low-inflation deficit spending, while Al Gore and John Kerry both campaigned on higher defence spending than Dubya proposed.

So, when it comes to dealing with increased foreign threat, when in office, it is the right who tend to be the alliance-and-appeasement “wimps” and the left who are the enthusiasts for warriors and weapons. Any contrary rhetoric in opposition tends to be trumped by the reality of sectional interest when in office. Or, as Narizny puts it:

In periods of critical military weakness, British, French, and American grand strategy was highly politicized, serving parochial interests as much as national ones. All governments try to find some way to secure their state from foreign threats, but their choice of arms, alliances, or appeasement is profoundly influenced by the material preferences of their domestic coalitions.

15 Comments

  1. kvd
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Faced with a major external threat, a country (and its government) has three basic options; re-armanent, alliances or appeasement.

    Nary a nod to neutrality or isolationism?

    So, are the Democrats the warmongers?

    Isn’t a warmonger someone who starts/promotes a war? Polite suggestion that you have to come forward to maybe the 1960s before that applies to the USA, Britain or France.

    ‘Appeasement’ is also probably tied up in the economic interests of each nation – and also harsh memories of wars past. I’ve never liked the connotations of the word as ‘cowardly unwillingness to fight’. I think there’s much more to it than that. I have vague (unsubstantiated) memories of close connections between US and German industrial interests for instance.

    Also the pdf linked is dated 2003. Since the US entered WW1 in about 1917, I think the Repubs have only had control of congress (both houses) for less than 20 years of that period – excluding the Depression years. Maybe another way of viewing their position is that of ‘loyal opposition’.

    Anyway, it is interesting -, but I’m wondering does the theory hold for the ‘other side’ of all the conflicts – assuming they had/have a similar right/left political structure? And where do the various Arab-Israeli conflicts fit?

    Thanks Lorenzo. The above queries are not necessarily directed at you; more just musings.

  2. Nigel Davies
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree that for dominant powers, conservatives (read cynical old bastards) believe in playing it safe, and ‘progressives’ (read people who have no real understanding of how the world works), finish up rushing in where fools fear to tread…. (Churchill by the way was a liberal first, and a conservative second… literally. His taking control of the Conservative party would NEVER have happened in interwar peace time.)

    But I would like a comment on non-dominant ‘powers’.

    Australia’s Labor party has always been a disarmament party… not least in 1939 and during the Korean and Vietnamese wars and the most recent wars. New Zealand and South Africa also fit this pattern for Commonwealth countries, and I suspect (without checking heavly) that Canada fits this too.

    So perhaps your current standing in ‘world policeman’ stakes makes your conservatives more careful, and your progressives more interventionist?

    Just idle musings…

  3. kvd
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Nigel I thought we had the Deputy Sherriff? 😉 And I’m trying to think which war since the 60’s has Australia committed to under your ‘progressives’?

  4. Posted April 8, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] The presumption is being threatened directly, so neutrality or isolation is not a practical option.

  5. Posted April 8, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Nerdy spelling suggestion:

    “France’s 1940 defeat was result of incompetent military leadership, not lack of men or material.”

    Suggest:

    “..not lack of men or materiel.”

  6. John H.
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Taking of right wing left wing one of FBFs just mentioned that Maggie Thatcher has died.

  7. Posted April 9, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Done, ta.

    [email protected] I have posted on Maggie’s passing.

  8. Adrien
    Posted April 9, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    More recently, Dubya also financed his wars with low-inflation deficit spending,

    Artificially low inflation.

    So, when it comes to dealing with increased foreign threat, when in office, it is the right who tend to be the alliance-and-appeasement “wimps” and the left who are the enthusiasts for warriors and weapons.

    Is that the explanation for Obama’s Defense Secretary appointments? 🙂

  9. Posted April 9, 2013 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] “Artificially”? Inflation is basically whatever the central bank wants it to be.

    I originally read Obama’s Defence Secretary appointments as clever political coverage–and that his foreign policy is basically moderate Republican anyway–but now you raise the question …

  10. Adrien
    Posted April 9, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    I can see the sense. His first S of D was Bush’s last, hired to continue the job (of cleaning up Rumsfeld’s mess) and the second one is a, (what’s the buzzword for an American Conservative who’s turned his back on Bush’s Neo-Wilsonianism?) anyway one of them.

    The new dude’s job is to trim the behemoth. Good luck there. I suppose being a Republican it might help. Maybe.

  11. Adrien
    Posted April 9, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Inflation is basically whatever the central bank wants it to be.

    Yeah and it was lower than it should’ve been ’cause Greenspan kept the rate down ’cause Dubya wanted his war and, well, didn’t work too well in the end.

  12. John H.
    Posted April 9, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    The new dude’s job is to trim the behemoth. Good luck there.

    His biggest challenge could be the JSF program. That is not looking good and we’re involved with it.

  13. Posted April 10, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    [email protected] The term of art in strategic studies is ‘Realist’. In Walter Russell Meade’s four schools of American strategic thought model they are Jacksonians or Hamiltonians.

    [email protected] The problem was not that inflation was “too low”, but that the Fed allowed NGDP (i.e. Aggregate Demand) to collapse.

    [email protected] Staying ahead of the air-war game is pretty central to Anglosphere security in particular. But the JSF certainly is showing all the pathologies of modern techno-war-projects.

  14. John H.
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Staying ahead of the air-war game is pretty central to Anglosphere security in particular. But the JSF certainly is showing all the pathologies of modern techno-war-projects.

    They might be losing that battle Lorenzo. Both China and Russia now have very capable stealth fighter aircraft J20 and Pak FA. The other issue here is while the USA will severely limit sales Russia is happy to sell some top line fighter aircraft. So the Anglosphere can no longer recoup costs as it did in the good ol’ days.

  15. Adrien
    Posted April 11, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    The term of art in strategic studies is ‘Realist’. In Walter Russell Meade’s four schools of American strategic thought model they are Jacksonians or Hamiltonians.

    Interesting link. I’m afraid I’d have to query Dr Meade’s assertion that Dubya was a ‘Jacksonian’, the first sentence describing the Wilsonian school is telling; the NeoCon rhetoric and expectations of the putcome of the Iraq War were very much Wilsonian. Altho’ one should remember that behind Wilson’s dreams of world peace lay J.P. Morgan’s potentially large bad loans to the British. Just as behind Mr Wolfowitz’s freedom schpiel lay a large reserve of oil.

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