The war in Ukraine has accelerated the trend observed for a decade. Europe is rearming, from Scandinavia to peaceful Germany, via France, which has decided to increase its defense budget by 30% for the next seven years. Europeans, who have long lived on the “peace dividend” since the end of the Cold War by choosing to reduce their armies, are therefore taking the path of Asian countries and Russia, behind the United States, whose spending far ahead of the rest of the world.
The adage is well known: if you want peace, prepare for war, the Romans used to say. This is roughly the argument justified by governments when adopting increased military budgets, France included. “The duty of peaceful states is to show the adversary that he cannot win, underlines MP LR Jean-Louis Thiériot, vice-president of the defense committee at the Assembly. If the Ukrainians had had 300 more fighter jets, the Russians would probably not have launched the invasion. War is the continuation of politics by other means. If we’re not sure we’ll win, we don’t go. »
The balance of terror
Recent history seems to go in the direction of the partisans of rearmament. The Cold War between the United States and the USSR was accompanied by a race for nuclear missiles but also for tanks, planes and warships, which was undoubtedly unparalleled. The two blocks then crumble under arms. Spending by the US military represented 10.5% of gross domestic product in 1955 compared to 3.5% in 2021. Those of the USSR, 20%. However, the “balance of terror” did not lead to a new world conflict, with Moscow and Washington limiting themselves to maintaining wars on the periphery.
Geopoliticians and defense experts are still divided on the effect of the arms race on peace during this period when the world repeatedly came close to the brink of general explosion. “The answer to this question is probably that yes, the accumulation of weapons, particularly nuclear weapons, contributed to deterring the USSR and the United States from going to war, adds François Heisbourg, special adviser at the Strategic Research Foundation (1). But I cannot demonstrate the causes of an event that did not happen. »
“The arms race is more an effect than a cause”
Conversely, the link between rearmament and the outbreak of hostilities remains difficult to demonstrate, as the causes of a conflict are multiple. The First World War was, for example, preceded by an increase in the defense budgets of several European powers, as well as a race for ships between Great Britain and Germany, but nationalisms, the interplay of alliances, the spiral of fear and emotions, imperialist rivalries undoubtedly weighed more when hostilities broke out. “The arms race is more an effect than a cause,” analyzes historian Robert Frank, a specialist in international relations. But this does not promote a good atmosphere between nations. »
The perception of the rearmament of its neighbor and rival weighs in fact on international diplomacy. “The German generals before 1914 are worried about the modernization effort launched by the Russian Empire, insisting on the fact that if there is to be war in Europe, it is better sooner than later”, continues Robert Frank. Another example, the Japanese military advises hitting the Americans at Pearl Harbor in 1941, for fear that the rearmament announced by Washington will eventually force them to abandon their expansionist policy.
This is the famous “Thucydides trap”, comments François Heisbourg. This concept designates a situation where a dominant power and an emerging country end up confronting each other. The expression refers to the famous work of the Greek historian Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War. At the time, the Athens of Pericles, on the strength of its victory against the Persians, aroused great concern on the part of its rival, Sparta, which had no other solution than to intervene militarily to retain its place. leader of the Hellenic world. According to Graham Allison, inventor of the Thucydides trap, a conflict between the United States and China would be inevitable according to this principle, barring a change in policy. But here again, the rise of Chinese military power is only one parameter among others.