Peace dividends and war preparation – some unpopular truths

By Bernhard J. Seliger

“Si vis pacem, para bellum” (If you want peace, prepare for war), goes a famous saying by a Roman war strategist, Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, in the 4th century. This is one of the most sobering, pessimistic views of peace and war, and indeed, of the nature of mankind ― but unfortunately, it is only too true. Nothing can illustrate this better than the current war in Europe.

For 30 years after 1989, European states and the European Union lived under the illusion that the Cold War threat, which had hung for so many decades over the fate of Europe, was removed once and for all. While the idea of the “End of History” as proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama in 1992 (which was Western liberal democracy as the final stage of all world history) might have been refuted only a few years after its publishing, with independence civil wars in southeastern Europe and continued war in the Middle East and unresolved tensions around the globe, at least European politicians often lived in the illusion that for those parts of Europe being part of the European Union or those aspiring to become members this paradisiac end state was indeed achieved.

“For the first time in history, Germany is surrounded by friends, not enemies,” was a frequent mantra of German politicians. And it was indeed right and a miraculous change from only a few generations before, when those friends still had been “arch”-enemies, like in the case of Germany and France.

And this new fact of a peaceful surrounding also meant that finally a “peace dividend” could be reaped, about which so many theoretical thinkers on the left had dreamt for decades: The German army was radically downsized, to around a third of the Cold War size of East and West German military together, conscription was given up to the applause of young men, and instead of an army able to defend against an attacking enemy, the new concept was that of a few well-armed and well-trained special troops for intervention “at the Hindukush,” far from the German homeland. Clearly, this came with a massive downsizing of the German defense budget.

However, like many good things, the perennial peace did not last. For once, the U.S. was tired of granting military protection to Europe, which on a whole seemed to be much richer and very much able to defend itself. U.S. President Donald Trump in his boisterous way demanded a rise of European defense budgets to 2 percent of the GDP, which was a NATO goal, but conveniently missed by many countries, in particular the largest European country, Germany.

German politicians reacted with horror, outrage and derision to Trump’s demand. But though the messenger was unpopular, it would have been better to have heard him earlier ― which would also have been better regarding his warnings of a too-large energy dependence on Russia. Indeed, in particular, Germany throughout the last 15 years missed the slow but recognizable geopolitical build-up of tensions leading to the Russian attack on Ukraine.

When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, many Germans still were unsure about the correct interpretation ― after all, Crimea had not been too long Ukrainian territory, and it succumbed fast and seemingly almost without resistance to the Russian invasion. The Russian wars in the Caucasus, then, were too far away to be understood and appreciated by Western European powers. In the end, for the Kremlin the situation was not so different from that of Germany under Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War II: one success after the other, one invasion after the other, and the feeling that the West ultimately was too weak for a powerful reaction.

The German preoccupation with energy transition brought an ever-growing energy dependence on Russian gas and oil ― after deciding to abandon nuclear power and coal power and resisting calls for gas fracking, or allowing LNG terminals to be built on the instigation of environmentalists, who now with the Green Party were a governing member in many German states and sometimes in the federal government.

When the big bang came with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, first it seemed that the German government finally woke up: “Zeitenwende” (change of an era) Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the time in which we live and promised an extra 100 billion euros for the German Bundeswehr (army). This, however, was immediately watered down and currently, the German defense contribution stands at around 1.4 percent of GDP, far from NATO´s target 2 percent goal. And news from the ground is also frustrating: a recent test of German Puma tanks brought all of them to a standstill in a few hours, due to technical failure.

At the same time, there is a veritable leadership vacuum at the political top. And this really shows the deep insight of the above-cited Roman adage: had Germany prepared better for war, many painful steps now, when cutting Russian oil and gas imports already create economic difficulties, would not have been necessary. Even more, a stronger and more coordinated answer to Russia’s previous provocations may completely have deterred Russia from war; in this sense, there would have been a war-preparation dividend.

South Korea is in a very different position, never having really experienced the end of the Cold War due to its often-hostile neighbor. But also here, dreams of the peace dividend are very much alive. Young men do not like to go to the army, and the duration of conscription saw a promised reduction. And while South Korea is clever and technologically able enough to see the conflict in Europe as an opportunity, with major weapons deliveries to EU states, it also has its own flaws in defense, as shown by the recent incursion of North Korean drones up to the presidential residence area.

The answers to North Korean provocations in the form of tit-for-tat missile launches, live-fire exercises shooting into neutral waters and drone hunting shows, have something of a helpless air to them, from a country not really interested in ratcheting up tensions, but not knowing what else to do with a naughty neighbor. One area, where probably room for improvement is large, is cooperation not only with the U.S., but with the other democratic states here in the region, in particular Japan.

Unfortunately, in large parts of society and politics, this seems to be an impossible choice. But it really has a strong parallel to the European situation: as the U.S. is reluctant to defend Europe alone, it also needs a sizable contribution to defense in East Asia, and this can only be effective in a coordinated approach among East Asian states, foremost Japan and South Korea. To dismiss this means not preparing well for war to defend peace. And North Korea, as well as China, is happy to deal piecemeal with neighbors who fail to unite against the threat.

This does not and should not mean reckless or provocative behavior from the South. It is more a question of firm signaling of an emerging new alliance in East Asia. And indeed, it could be accompanied by a renewed civilian conciliatory policy, which was originally outlined in the “bold plan” of the administration of President Yoon Suk Yeol. This would be very important to make it very clear that preparation for defense is not a preparation for war, but for peace. 2023 will probably see an end to the war in Ukraine.

If European countries stay together like in 2022, only one outcome, namely Ukrainian victory, is feasible. It would need, however, much stronger engagement from central European powers like Germany. If this would come true, the geopolitical situation in East Asia might also change considerably. Korea should be prepared for that.
Dr. Bernhard J. Seliger is a resident representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF) in Korea, based in Seoul. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he traveled frequently to North Korea, where he implemented projects on forestry, environment and renewable energy as well as medical cooperation. He is an honorary citizen of Seoul and Gangwon Province.