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International Politics

The Strange Naiveté of Paul Krugman


The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Dr. Krugman titled: “Conquest is for Losers: Putin, Neocons and the Great Illusion”[1] in which he draws parallels between Vladimir Putin and American Neo-conservatives, warning that in both cases aggressive military action has weakened rather than strengthened their nations. The Princeton economist restates Norman Angell’s argument from 1909[2] that war between industrialized states was now futile, due to economic interdependence and the advances in weaponry. “Plunder isn’t what it used to be,” writes Dr. Krugman, asserting that modern societies can treat the conquered as ancient Rome used to, and therefore the financial incentives to war have dissipated. “War makes you poorer and weaker, even if you win.”

These are extraordinary assertions for which Dr. Krugman gives very circumstantial evidence. Even taking into account that this article is a short opinion piece, constrained to fit into a very limited space, the reader is asked to take a lot on faith. If war is so self-evidently unprofitable and fruitless, why is it still so prevalent? Either national leaders are improbably stupid or there is more to it than meets the eye.

Balance of Power

It is important to note that, just like Mr. Angell, Dr. Krugman at no point states that war is impossible: only that it will always be unprofitable to both victor and vanquished in the modern world. But Krugman uncritically transposes Angell’s argument out of its historical context: a period in military history when technological advances overwhelmingly favored the defense. Military history is full of these cycles: for example, improvements in armor and fortifications in the Middle Ages favor the defense until improvements in gunpowder weapons returns the advantage to the offense. In Angell’s time, the vast increase in the armaments industry, together with the invention of the machine gun and improvements to chemical explosives, meant that the largely infantry armies of Europe were doomed to slaughter. Angell noted this and was right that at that time warfare between industrialized nations was mutual suicide.

Only 15 years later, advances in the internal combustion engine, mass production and flight meant that the offense had recaptured the initiative. The balance of war had shifted and there was a temporary window of opportunity for an attacker to exploit these advantages against an unprepared opponent at relatively low cost. This is what Hitler did so successfully. The Germans successfully conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France while suffering 33% fewer casualties than the Imperial German Army did between the 2nd of August and the 10th of September 1914 on the Western Front alone (216,270 versus 305,584 casualties). The Nazis then proceeded to plunder the occupied territories of valuables, industrial equipment, artwork, even slave labor as thoroughly as any Roman legion ever did.


We have lived through a similar revolution in warfare since the 1980’s. After the Second World War, both the US and USSR had learned how to stop blitzkrieg and both nations had the industrial and manpower base to prevent either side from easily winning a decisive victory in Europe. The result of any war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact would have been a high-tech attritional stalemate, similar to the enormous losses suffered by both sides in the battles of the Kursk salient, but protracted in time and space. Advances in computing, satellite technology, stealth, imaging and communications made possible a revolutionary advance in “force multipliers”: effects that magnify the destructive power of a given weapons system.  The First Gulf War, pitting roughly equal sized Coalition and Iraqi forces, should have resulted in far higher allied casualties if the early Cold War equations had held true. Thanks to the military revolution developed in the United States, however, the allies suffered less than 1,000 total casualties out of 900,000 troops deployed, while inflicting over 100,000 Iraqi casualties.

The power of the revolutionized American military was never tested against a “peer” or “near peer” opponent like the Soviet Union, but it is safe to say that Russian military planners have restructured their own forces in response to the new challenge presented by the Americans. For a brief time, and barring the deterrent imposed by nuclear armaments, the US really could have defeated any conventional opponent with relative ease. This shifting in the balance of power between offense and defense led directly to the overweening and immoral ambitions of neo-cons and their tragic miscalculations of the true costs of a second Gulf War.

Precisely because nuclear armaments remain the one unanswerable deterrent, they are highly valued by regimes that consider themselves particularly under threat. North Korea has nukes and the Kim dynasty remains in power; Iraq did not, and Saddam Hussein was hanged like a chicken. That lesson has not been lost on leaders in Tehran. There is a good reason why Iran’s nuclear program went into high gear after President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech. Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Petro Poroshenko undoubtedly regret the Budapest Memorandum and giving up Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal[3]; I find it hard to believe that the Russia would be meddling in a nuclear-armed neighbor.

Today, the “window of opportunity” – if you want to call it that – has closed, and we are again in a situation of near parity between peers. The US no longer enjoys so obvious or such overwhelming superiority that it can impose military outcomes on regional powers. Russia’s military is sufficiently improved that any conflict over Ukraine must be considered a chancy proposition unless the US fully mobilizes. A similar situation exists with China in the Far East. It is not clear which revolutionary technological advance will once again tip the scales in favor of the offense – robotics, cyber warfare, artificial intelligence, directed energy weapons, hypersonic missiles – the only guarantee is that military technology will continue to evolve and the cost-benefit analysis that potential aggressors face will evolve with it.

Fortunate Sons

There is another reason I find Dr. Krugman line of reasoning so strange. His close identification of the national interests with those of ruling elites seems to contradict his usual perspicacity in identifying and skewering elite interests on economic issues. Why should the decision to go to war be any different? It is useless to say “wars have made America poorer and weaker.” The proper question is: which group in America has war made poorer and weaker, if that’s even true? The first part of the question is the easiest to answer: it is the tax-paying groups that are poorer for having to pay for the additional trillions in military expenses related to these never-ending conflicts. As the wealthiest 1% in the US pay very little tax in proportion to their wealth and income, so too has the cost to them been minimal. Furthermore, the war has directly profited many businesses that are owned by these elites, those who supply the US military with hardware or software and those who contract services to the occupation services; while indirectly, the fact that these military adventures were in large part debt-funded has benefited those who are capable of investing in Treasuries – not your average industrial worker.

It is true that the United States has suffered a tremendous loss of prestige internationally, which has reduced US influence on the world and greatly destabilized international politics. Yet I question whether neo-cons and their allied elites are greatly concerned about that result. If anything, global instability and the fear it generates benefits them. The perpetuation of an extraordinary terrorist threat means the indefinite extension of the extraordinary measures used to combat it; measures like the PATRIOT Act, the illegal and unconstitutional activities of the NSA, the militarization of internal security forces, the use of torture, the indefinite detention and rendition of combatants and other prisoners, and the use of assassination even against American citizens without due process of law. The never-ending War on Terror serves both a business and political purpose: it makes certain people rich while perpetuating the politics of fear. The politics of fear, in turn, permit the gradual erosion of American civil liberties and constitutional guarantees.

The American people have forgotten Benjamin Franklin’s warning: “he who sacrifices liberty for security will have neither.”

The benefits and costs of war are not shared equally by all: it has always been the case that the poor bear the heaviest burdens, in terms of increased fiscal contributions as well as the direct sacrifice of their lives. No less an authority than Creedence Clearwater Revival assures us that:

“Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes,
Oooh, they send you down to war, Lord,
And when you ask ‘em, ‘How much should we give?’
Oooh, they only answer ‘More! More! More!’”[4]

Increasingly, the sons and daughters of the wealthiest Americans eschew national service altogether, or manage to find themselves in the Texas Air National Guard rather than flying combat missions over Hanoi[5]. How different that reality is from our previous experience with public leaders from the Greatest Generation:

  • Harry S. Truman (D) – Captain of Artillery during World War 1 despite an eye condition and head of household status that would have kept him at home[6], 1905 to 1911 & 1917 to 1919
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) – career military, served in World War 1 & 2, 1915 to 1952
  • John F. Kennedy (D) – Lt. PT-109 and PT-59, USN, in the Pacific Theater during World War 2, 1941 to 1945
  • Lyndon B. Johnson (D) – Lt. Commander, US Naval Reserve during World War 2, briefly saw combat in Pacific Theater during inspections, 1941 to 1942
  • Richard Nixon (R) – Lt. Commander Air Transport Command, USN, in the Pacific Theater during World War 2, 1942 to 1946
  • Gerald Ford (R) – Lt. Commander USS Monterey, USN, in Pacific Theater during World War 2, 1942 to 1946
  • Jimmy Carter (D) – Lt., USN nuclear submarine program, 1946 to 1953
  • Ronald Reagan (R) – Captain, Army Air Service, 1937 to 1945
  • George H.W. Bush (R) – Lt., USN, TBM Avenger pilot 1942 to 1945

These were the last American Presidents to see active military service, despite the US having been involved in Korea, Vietnam, and a dozen minor military actions since then. President Clinton (D) avoided the draft for Vietnam, President W. Bush flew F-102’s over Texas in the Air National Guard, and President Obama – who was admittedly too young to serve in Vietnam – has no military service.

those who served

I don’t mean to imply that every politician, or even every President, should have military experience. But it is nevertheless true that no one hates war as much as a soldier:

“I it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.” William Tecumseh Sherman

It is no coincidence that in the first 80 years of the 20th Century, the great American Republic fought in 4 major wars and two minor ones[7]; while in the following 34 years, we have fought 3 major wars, and been involved in at least 8 more or less minor actions, including very sizeable ones like the invasion of Panama, the air campaign against Serbia, and the peace-keeping missions in Lebanon and Somalia[8]. Part of this is due to the increasingly multipolar and fractious world since the thawing of the Cold War’s frozen conflicts; but another part is undoubtedly due to the elimination of the draft. It is easier by far to deploy the professionals on missions than to call up conscripts. When the American Republic went to war, it mobilized its whole manpower base across all social strata, which had a high political cost. When the American Empire goes to war, it mobilizes next to no one[9]. As a nation, we seem to feel that this is what our boys and girls have signed up for, so it’s okay.

This has introduced a class element to American warfare that was largely absent from our previous conflicts. As a rule, our all-volunteer force is largely drawn from the lower and lower middle classes. To be sure, there is some representation of the upper income groups in the military academies and the officer corps, but the wealthiest families do not typically send their children to serve in the Armed Forces. These findings are largely corroborated by independent studies conducted by the University of Maryland[10] and Syracuse University[11] between 2005 and 2008. These studies found that ethnicity is not a major determinant of likelihood to serve, rather it is factors that are more closely associated with social class: individual education level, parental education level, family income and immigrant status.

This is class warfare in its most literal sense: the sons of the poor and of immigrants are sent to die by rich leaders who have never seen the inside of a barracks or mess hall. And while some might argue that this has always been the case – with some justice – at least in previous conflicts, the sons of the rich exposed themselves to the malice of the enemy also. No one can doubt that a Kennedy or a Bush could have served safely in some comfortable staff job during World War 2, but the former asked for active duty at sea and commanded a motor torpedo boat in the Pacific, while the latter volunteered as a naval aviator and piloted a dive bomber against Imperial Japan. There was still a sense of duty and patriotism, of civic responsibility, that pervaded American society at all levels.

This is critical in understanding one of the basic flaws in Dr. Krugman’s argument: elite interests increasingly diverge from that most Americans; indeed from what could be called American interests. It is wrong then to argue that war is ultimately detrimental to US interests; those do not necessarily matter to the ruling elite. We must only look at whether war is damaging to elite interests to determine whether they shall occur or not: and to the extent that those running the country are able to deflect the fiscal costs and human loss upon members of the lower classes, while profiting from government contracts and solidifying their grip on political power, it is hard to see why they should avoid it.

I believe that this fundamental flaw significantly weakens Dr. Krugman’s argument, if it does not invalidate it completely. There are other questionable assumptions that make me question whether Mr. Angell’s conjecture still holds true, including a common, but erroneous, misconception of the “profitability” of past wars.

  1. That American neo-con adventurism in Iraq and Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Crimea are comparable parallels from which similar conclusions can be drawn;
  2. That the bloody and disastrous outcome of the Second Gulf War were pre-determined, and so is the outcome of Mr. Putin’s conflict with Ukraine and the West;
  3. That we can even begin to calculate the opportunity costs of war and peace in a manner that would allow us to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of these two states of affairs.

rove putin

1. Neo-cons on the Volga?

Krugman’s article attempts to draw a straight line between the disastrous American invasion of Iraq and the Russian intervention in Ukraine, and the economic consequences of each, has too many holes to hold water.

The American campaign was a blatantly aggressive campaign of “democratic imperialism,” the misguided grand strategy of accelerating and fulfilling Francis Fukuyama’s prediction[12] through brute force, screened by the non-existent threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. If Operation Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent occupation had proceeded as planned, there is no doubt that we would have invaded more countries on the “Axis of Evil” and probably others that were not on it, including the “second tier of evil” states like Cuba, Libya and Syria.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine have been of a mostly defensive nature. Caught off guard by the sudden putsch against pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych by pro-Western (and Western backed) Ukrainians, Vladimir Putin acted to secure one of Russia’s vital national interests: access to the Black Sea through the naval base in the Crimea. With the election of a highly pro-Western government in Kiev in May, Putin faced the new threat of Ukraine joining the EU and NATO, which is about as tolerable to Russia as Mexico becoming a Chinese satellite would be to the United States. Russia fed only enough equipment and supplies to the separatists to keep them alive until August, when it became clear that more was needed to prevent their outright defeat: only then did Russian troops cross the border in large numbers. Even then, there has been no drive on Kiev or even an attempt to link the Crimea with Southern Russia by land. The Russian military demonstrated its superiority over their Ukrainian adversaries and then stopped.

Through this analysis I am NOT attempting to justify Putin’s actions. Any violation of national sovereignty by the armed forces of a foreign state without prior attack or with United Nations sanction is reprehensible. Putin bears a very heavy responsibility for the thousands of bereaved families on both sides of the border; but so to do the inept European and American officials who first fomented civil unrest and then lost control of it during the Maidan protests. My sole intent is to demonstrate that the two cases used by Dr. Krugman are fundamentally different in nature and not particularly relevant to each other.

It is also false to say that Vladimir Putin is now learning the folly of his adventurism because of the near collapse of the ruble and the impact on the Russian economy. Let’s be clear: Western sanctions have and continue to be painful, but not crippling. What is crippling is the collapse in oil prices, driven by various factors which mostly have nothing to do with Ukraine. It is certainly true that the US and Saudi Arabia are consciously maintaining levels of production as a strategic play to damage their rivals, but from the Saudi point of view, this is much more about Russian support for Assad than anything Putin might do in Eastern Ukraine. Russia isn’t even the principal target as far as the House of Saud is concerned: Iran and ISIS are.

2. A foregone conclusion?

In other words, Putin might very well have gotten away with annexing Crimea and intervening militarily in Donetsk with only minor economic pain were it not for the conjunction of a number of global factors that have been largely out of any single policy maker’s control. More importantly, he still might get away with it! We don’t know how this will play out, so it is wrong for Krugman to assert that Russia is a “loser” at this point.

Dr. Krugman also exploits the benefit of hindsight to argue that the US intervention in Iraq was always going to be a fiasco; but I see no reason why the rest of us should reach that conclusion. The US military demolished the Iraqi forces just as they had planned to do so; it was only the gross and inexcusable incompetence of the Bush Administration planners who failed to make even the most minimal provisions for occupying the country that resulted in it spinning into chaos. I can very easily imagine a different scenario where different choices are made: provision for basic services in Iraq’s major cities is planned for ahead of the occupation; the Iraqi military and civil services are not completely purged except for Saddam Hussein and his most senior lieutenants; the bureaucracy is allowed to continue functioning as it did prior to the invasion and the Baath party – without key Hussein henchmen of course – is allowed to stand for election.

A more pragmatic – even a minimally competent – approach might have prevented the spiral into chaos that we actually experienced. An enormous amount of human suffering in Iraq might have been averted; then again, an enormous amount of human suffering would then have been transferred to Iran, as we invaded the next country on the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld list.

3. Vis Pacem Para Bellum

“If you want peace, prepare for war,” a saying usually attributed to Roman author Vegetius, but undoubtedly understood by every leader and general since the invention of the club and sharp rock, it nevertheless brings home an important lesson about the opportunity costs inherent in military spending and warfare.

The most well-known case of this is undoubtedly the period of time prior to the Second World War, when Hitlerite Germany was rearming and destabilizing Europe. There were a number of occasions and justifications for military intervention by the Entente powers: the reoccupation of the Saar- and Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria, the Sudeten Crisis and the subsequent destruction of what was left of Czechoslovakia. It is an unknowable question if the Western Powers, with a proper level of armaments and sufficient resolve, could have forced Hitler to back down and thus avoided the Second World War. What we do know is that France and Great Britain, economically exhausted and politically divided, felt they lacked the means to rearm properly and thus lacked the will to stand up to Hitler before it was too late. Any cost-benefit analysis, blessed with foresight of the ghastly costs of the coming conflagration, would clearly have demonstrated the justification for more armaments and even a preventive war against Hitler.

Take another case, the Korean War. We know very well the human and financial costs of the conflict; what we don’t know is the cost might have been had the US not intervened. What if Stalin, emboldened by Truman’s lack of resolve, had occupied Berlin? Failure in Korea might have led to war in West Germany – and America had only the bomb with which to counter the Red Army’s superiority in conventional forces in Europe.

We are never blessed with this kind of foresight and our leaders often get it wrong; yet this thought experiment ought to demonstrate that war is not always the most costly outcome. Nor is it always impossible to know which wars are worth fighting. But Krugman’s channeling of Angell ignores the increasingly evident fact that the interests of the oligarchy increasingly diverge from those of their citizen-subjects; and that is becomes increasingly difficult to talk about the “national interest” in states whose governments have been captured by entrenched, minority elites.

Dr. Krugman ought to know better.

Appendix: Roma Invicta

One final comment on Krugman’s article: the good professor implies that war in the “olden days” was somehow more profitable than it is today. “You can’t plunder a province like the Romans did” – but is this even true? It would argue that it is not and that the same analysis can be applied to ancient times as we apply today.

It is a questionable proposition whether Rome’s wars during the Republic were ever directly profitable; it is even more dubious whether the “Romans” themselves benefited or whether the gains went mostly to a tiny section of the patrician elite in the Senate.

It is true that the ancients had no Geneva Convention limiting the scale and brutality of their innumerable wars; defeated soldiers could expect to be massacred, conquered cities to be plundered, and subjugated civilians would be enslaved. These activities generated a large immediate profit for the Romans: but the average legionary would see very little of it, perhaps a few enslaved barbarians that he could hope to sell on his return to Italy. Most of the booty went to the generals, the consuls appointed to command, and to the Senate itself. Legionaries of the early Republic were basically farmers, single family homesteaders who didn’t have the capital to hire hands to work the fields while they were off campaigning. As Rome’s wars grew ever further afield, many of these men lost their farms through enforced neglect and debt; the creditors were usually the wealthy senatorial class.

Meanwhile, men like Scipio Africanus, Pompey Magnus, Crassus and Julius Caesar grew fabulously wealthy through their military activities. These and others of the patrician class grew ever wealthier through the sinecure of offices and the appropriation of provincial wealth; this in turned allowed them to purchase the land of the smaller freeholders – the Roman “middle class” if you will – who were either killed in battle, indebted and bankrupt, or simply unable to compete with the economies of scale of the new senatorial latifundia made possible by the massive influx of slave labor. So severe was the economic erosion of Rome’s traditional recruiting base for the legions that Rome faced a severe manpower shortage in the Numidian and Cimbrian Wars of the early 1st Century B.C. Gaius Marius instituted a complete reformation of the Roman military, eliminating the property requirement and the obligation of the legionary to provide his own arms and armor. In other words, he instituted a wholly professional military of long-term service armed, paid and provided for by the state (sound familiar?).

The military campaigns of the Roman Republic undoubtedly brought wealth to certain classes of Romans, but at the cost of the destruction of the Roman middle class. Wealth inequality in Italy – something impossible to measure – undoubtedly increased to staggering levels at the height of the Middle and Late Republic. Besides the senatorial patricians, the lesser nobility or equites, greatly benefited from the Pax Romana, that economic sphere that promoted trade in goods, mining, and pirate-free shipping across the Mediterranean-basin. But the vast bulk of Roman citizens were increasingly on the economic margins, and social war was averted by the well-known formula of “bread and circus”: the free daily dole of bread and wine every citizen received and scores of public games and festivities held frequently throughout the year.

Was war more profitable in the ancient world than in the modern? Only to the elite. Plus ça change, plus cést  le même chose.


Sources and Notes:

[1] Paul Krugman, “Conquest is for Losers: Putin, Neocons and the Great Illusion,” New York Times, 21 December 2014

[2] Norman Angell, “The Great Illusion: a study of the relation of military power to national advantage,” G.P. Putnam’s sons, New York, 1913

[3] Though to be fair, Ukraine had physical but not operational control of the weapons on its territory. These weapons could not be used without the Soviet control codes, kept in Moscow and inherited by the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces.

[4] Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son”, Willy and the Poor Boys, Fantasy Records, September 1969

[5] Contrasting former President George W. Bush’s service with that of Senator John McCain

[6] Truman memorized the eye chart in order to pass the fitness test

[7] Major wars: World Wars 1 and 2, Korea and Vietnam. Minor wars: the Philippine insurrection and the invasion of the Dominican Republic.

[8] Major wars: First and Second Gulf Wars (plus subsequent Operations), Afghan War. Minor wars: Invasions of Grenada, Panama; peace-keeping forces in Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti; air campaigns over Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya.

[9] I don’t mean to diminish or pass over the great cost borne by families of our full-time Armed Forces, nor those of our increasingly deployed National Guardsmen and Reservists.

[10] Mark Adamshick, Captain, USN, “Social Representation in the U.S. Military Services,” Working Paper 32,  The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), May 2005

[11] Amy Lutz, “Who Joins the Military? A Look at Race, Class, and Immigration Status,” Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, 01 January 2008

[12] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History and the Last Man,” Free Press, 1992. Dr. Fukuyama argued that the demise of the Soviet Union marked “the end of history” as mankind reached its ideological and economic culmination in a liberal democratic, capitalist state.

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