Incentives Matter

     Human action is guided and constrained by two and only two factors:

  1. Incentives,
  2. Constraints.

     Sometimes the changes to those things come in a form we fail to recognize at once. Sometimes we aren’t paying attention. And sometimes they stroll up and bite us on the nose:

     After years of delinquency to meet its NATO obligations, Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe has finally committed to spending at least 2 per cent of its GDP on defence spending.

     Speaking before the Bundestag on Saturday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “From now on, more than 2 per cent of our GDP will be invested in our defence,” announcing that the German government will commit an additional €100 billion in this year’s budget towards the German military, the Bundeswehr.

     While Germany has increased its defence spending over recent years, it has consistently failed to reach the NATO threshold, spending just 1.53 per cent on defence last year, according to NATO figures.

     The state of the German armed forces was lambasted last week by the chief of the army, Alfons Mais who wrote that “the army that I am allowed to lead, is more or less bare.”

     “The policy options we can offer in support of the Alliance are extremely limited. We all saw it coming and were unable to get our arguments through to draw and implement the conclusions of the Crimean annexation. That doesn’t feel good! I’m [disturbed]!” the army chief continued.

     My, my! Germany – one of the foremost “at all costs keep the idlers comfy” welfare states under the American defense umbrella called NATO – has decided that a nontrivial defense just might be a good thing to have around. All it took was an invasion of Ukraine by the very power that once subjugated half of Germany, reduced it to poverty, and shot anyone who tried to leave. Who would have guessed?

     Mind you, one doesn’t defend a nation with mere money. It takes men with guns, tanks, aircraft, and a competent command cadre. At one time, Germany had those things. Perhaps the experiences of the World Wars soured them on their military traditions. They’d better hope they can resurrect their earlier expertise before the Russian bear gets hungry again, because Ukraine isn’t likely to sate its appetite.

     A reminder: Vladimir Putin, who has ruled Russia essentially singlehanded for a couple of decades now, once said, quite publicly, that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was among the greatest geopolitical tragedies in all of history. If the possibility that the hour has arrived for reversing that “tragedy” isn’t uppermost in his thoughts, I can’t imagine what would be.


     President Trump was aware of how NATO, and the incentive it created toward flaccidity in the European members, was draining the United States and creating a culture of “defense dependency” in Europe. He wasn’t the first to see it, though others of similar penetration never reached the White House. Since FDR there hasn’t been even one president who frowned upon the “entangling alliances” about which George Washington warned us so vividly. Indeed, nearly all of America’s heads of state since the New Deal have sought to entangle the U.S. ever more firmly. The exception was the man who shocked the political Establishment by breaking their hegemony over the White House: Donald J. Trump. That should tell you something.

     Trump’s critics slandered him in all the usual ways, most relevantly for this subject as an “isolationist.” But Trump was nothing of the sort. He valued America’s international standing, but was adamant that in all dealings with foreign powers, America and Americans come first. He resented the notion that other wealthy nations had made themselves into America’s defense clients, and had used the funds that should have gone to military preparedness to fatten their layabouts. His demand that European NATO increase its funding to its continental militaries was consistent with that conviction.

     Trump understands incentives and what they do to the thinking of executives. It’s been his meat and drink for fifty years. He learned in the most complex and difficult market in all the world: New York City real estate. The lessons apply nicely to foreign dealings – and they don’t stop with the enervation of the European members of NATO. Their relevance extends to America’s own military. The recent treatment of our fighting forces as a laboratory for social engineering is bringing them ever nearer to impotence.

     Predatory governments – that is, all governments, past, present, and future — look upon a fat and lazy neighbor with avid eyes. Tom Clancy summarized the matter nicely in Debt of Honor when he described warfare as “armed robbery writ large:”

     “War is the ultimate criminal act, an armed robbery writ large. And it’s always about greed. It’s always a nation that wants something another nation has. And you defeat that nation by recognizing what it wants and denying it to them.”

     You needn’t be a fan of his fiction to appreciate the penetration in that statement. It echoes the thoughts of an American Founding Father: John Jay:

     Nations will go to war whenever there is a prospect of getting anything by it. – John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers.

     We have a relevant observation by a more recent figure of note, as well:

     The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from the violence to which it owes its very existence. – Mohandas K. Gandhi

     A predator that sees potential prey weaken their defenses, whether deliberately or through neglect, will not trouble to restrain its natural impulses. Six thousand years of human history should be evidence enough.


     The United States cannot defend the whole world. The “world policeman” notion was always a farce. If the nations of Europe come to understand this as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it will be a lesson dearly bought, though the brunt of the price will be borne by others.

     The American foreign-policy establishment must be brought to heel. It will be a prodigious undertaking, for it would imply a great diminution of its importance in national and world affairs. Persons and institutions both inside and outside the corridors of power will fight viciously to retain their perches, their prominence, and their profits. All the same, the invasion of Ukraine has made the necessity clear. It’s time and past time to start withdrawing America from its guardianship, explicit or implicit, over the sovereignty of other nations and the peace of the world.


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    • steveaz on March 1, 2022 at 9:17 AM

    You wouldn’t know it from my pessimistic comments here, but I am an eternal optimist.  That means I am forever scouring the dark clouds for their silver linings.
    So it is with an expansionist Russia.  Most American citizens I know are tired of policing the world and agree that it’d behoove us to share that duty one day.  But, the question of just who we’d partner with in that duty is left unanswered.  I’d like to posit the idea that Russia is an excellent candidate.
    Here are just a few reasons.  First, the country has demonstrated that it can be a devoted partner in delivering satellites and construction materials into orbit, reliably and economically.  Only a competent <i>naval</i> nation could perform such feats.  Second, the nation has a history of cooperating with American war aims.  FDR’s lend-lease, and Russia’s assistance in defeating Germany in WWII come instantly to mind.  And third, Anglo-Saxon nations like our own share a cultural affinity with Russians.  What would NYC’s ballerinas dance to if it weren’t for the country, Russia?
    Last, consider the alternative candidates.  China, the whole, is an American housewife’s worst nightmare:  roaches in the sink, COVID in the fridge, and racoons in the government.  Really?  What about Germany, and its EU?  Hmmm.  The economic bloc is an overt antagonist to free America.  It is in a constant race to bleed capitol and prestige from our shores to itself.  Every bad idea tottering around the heads of the Ottawa/DC/Harvard class originated ‘over there.’  How about Brazil?  One day, maybe…
    To close, if Russia lacks year-round access to the seas, then it cannot be a naval partner with us – certainly not on a par with its contributions to our space program.  And, if we want to nurture a plurality of Sheriff deputies on the seas, to help us keep the world economy running, we should logically want to free Russia from its land-locked cage so She can help to do our bidding there.  Consider the alternatives and take a chance, I say.

  1. A nation that wants an effective military must also take care of the MOST essential part – TRAINED soldiers/sailors/marines.
    And, that also means that the Social Promotion of military leaders has to stop. Clear out the ineffective deadheads, offload/outsource the HR/Diversity/Useless bemedaled staff, and, for God’s sake, get rid of about 4/5 of the Pentagon’s staff. 
    Reduce the services to the essentials:
    Those who fight
    Those who lead them (preferably as close to the action as they can be).
    Anyone with any input on purchasing will be forbidden to work for private industries that sell to the government. If they do, bring them back into service for the express purpose of reducing their rank to PRIVATE, and re-retire them with that status – and retirement pay.

    • SDN on March 1, 2022 at 6:37 PM

    “The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from the violence to which it owes its very existence. – Mohandas K. Gandhi”
    If that were true, then the British government or its’ Indian agents would have shot Ghandi as soon as he opened his mouth.
    Governments are composed of people who have souls….. and when enough of them individually decide to listen to that, governments change course. However, that is the choice of each of them. And we need to make sure that choice is taught.

    1. Sorry, Steve, but it is true — and the British government over India, whatever the individuals’ personal consciences may have said to them, exhibited that violence many times, toward Gandhi and others. Yes, they eventually did pack up and leave, but it wasn’t out of any recognition of the justice of Gandhi’s crusade for Indian sovereignty; it was part and parcel of the British Empire’s dissolution after its exhaustion by the World Wars.

      Ponder the phrase sovereign immunity, and reflect upon its implications. In that phrase lies all the inherent evil of the State — and every State asserts it.

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