Traditionally neutral nations prepare to join the again-relevant NATO military alliance, governments boost defense spending, and tensions soar between generally liberal-democratic countries on the one hand, and authoritarian regimes on the other. It's like waking from a pleasant decades-long dream of relative peace and growing prosperity to a world that's again on the brink of conflict. Whether or not hostilities spread, a new focus on war means greater risk and hard choices.
The immediate culprit is, of course, Russia and its regime led by Vladimir Putin. Russia invaded Ukraine in an old-fashioned land-grab and sees threats in efforts to support its victims.
"NATO is essentially going to war with Russia through a proxy and arming that proxy," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian state TV April 25 in a huff that anybody might assist the targets of Russia's bombs, tanks, and troops. He added that the risk of nuclear war "cannot be underestimated."
Western officials rattle sabers themselves, though with more cause.
"We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine," U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters on Monday in a statement that will certainly be seized on in Moscow.
Not that international tension is confined to Europe. China is expanding its presence in the Pacific with artificial islands that serve as military bases and territorial outposts. They are "unsinkable aircraft carriers" that "help to cement Beijing's claims on waters rich with fish and minerals," in the words of The National Interest's David Axe. China's rivals are troubled by the project, and by its expanding alliances.
"We have respect for the Solomon Islands' sovereignty, but we also wanted to let them know that if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence, power-projection capabilities, or a military installation, then we would have significant concerns and we would very naturally respond to those concerns," the U.S. State Department's Daniel Kritenbrink told reporters this week about that country's relationship with China.
So, the battle lines—real in Eastern Europe and potential in the Pacific—are drawn between two large blocs facing off across a divide of ideology and interest.
"World military spending continued to grow in 2021, reaching an all-time high of $2.1 trillion," the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI) reported this week. "Russia increased its military expenditure by 2.9 per cent in 2021, to $65.9 billion, at a time when it was building up its forces along the Ukrainian border," the group added. "China, the world's second largest spender, allocated an estimated $293 billion to its military in 2021, an increase of 4.7 per cent compared with 2020."
The largest spender, the United States at $801 billion, reduced outlays by 1.4 percent last year. But that was before the war in Ukraine; the Biden administration plans a boost.
"Once Congress approves the request — and, in all likelihood, makes it bigger — U.S. defense spending will be larger in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was at the height of the Vietnam War or President Reagan's Cold War buildup," Doyle McManus noted for the Los Angeles Times.
In the Pacific, Australia and South Korea are expanding their militaries; Japan plans to nearly double defense spending out of fear of China. In Europe, Germany is beefing-up its long-neglected armed forces. Poland, which has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees, is doing the same. The European Union plans a rapid-deployment force independent of national militaries. And, perhaps most dramatically, Finland and Sweden, which maintained neutrality through the Cold War, may join NATO together.
"The irony is that Mr. Putin's cruel war in Ukraine will achieve the opposite of his ambitions: NATO will emerge from this crisis larger, stronger and more united," Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former secretary general of the military alliance, wrote in The New York Times.
NATO and related alliances may emerge larger and more united, but only because of increasing divisions elsewhere. Some degree of rearmament is inevitable given the aggression of autocrats in Moscow and Beijing. After all, "defense against threats, foreign and domestic, is one of the main reasons governments exist in the first place," Christopher Preble noted in his 2019 book, Peace, War, and Liberty. But preparation for war is expensive. That cost may be unavoidable, but it's real, nonetheless.
"While most people abhor war, libertarians have always had special reasons for doing so because of the unique threat that wars pose to liberty, including the loss of life and property," Preble added.
Stronger national defense establishments may be necessary, but this is unfortunate for world prosperity. The end of the Cold War and the spread of international trade were miraculous for improving the situation of the world's most vulnerable people.
"The speed of poverty alleviation in the last 25 years has been historically unprecedented," Alexander Hammond of Britain's Institute of Economic Affairs wrote in the happier year of 2017. "Not only is the proportion of people in poverty at a record low, but, in spite of adding 2 billion to the planet's population, the overall number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen too." He added: "The new age of globalization, which started around 1980, saw the developing world enter the global economy and resulted in the largest escape from poverty ever recorded."
Growing prosperity occurred in an environment of trade and free markets after the fall of the Communist bloc. It occurred while military budgets slimmed as the threats they addressed disappeared. That's important, because military spending on bombs, guns, and armor you hope to never use displaces other uses of wealth. It even discourages economic growth, by diverting resources to less-productive uses. It also, perversely, tends to encourage the overall growth of government, even as authorities draw from economies hampered by military expenses.
"The evidence is irrefutable: throughout human history, government has grown during wartime or during periods of great anxiety when war is in the offing, and it rarely surrenders these powers when the guns fall silent or when the crisis abates," Preble observed.
The world is back on a war footing, and there may be no alternative so long as autocrats threaten their neighbors. But we'll all pay a high price in lives, liberty, wealth, and lost opportunities as we are dragged away from an all-too-brief interlude of relative peace and prosperity.