Military Power vs Economic Power in History

by James Graham

Throughout history military power has been paramount and economic power a luxury. This has slowly changed to the point that the two roles have been reversed. Japan, China and even the United States have relied on economic prosperity to finance formidable military forces. Conversely the Soviet Union, Iraq and North Korea have relied on their military to build economic power with little or limited success.

Economic power can be defined broadly as the capacity to influence other states through economic means. It is composed of a country's industrial base, natural resources, capital, technology, geographic position, health system and eduction system. Military power on the other hand is the capacity to use force or the threat of force to influence other states. Components of military power include number of divisions, armaments, organisation, training, equipment, readiness, deployment and morale.

Military equipment, a key factor in military power can be purchased from a range of countries. Russia, Israel and China are willing to sell their hardware to almost any state in the world. The United States, Japan and the European countries are more selective in the countries they will sell to, but are still big arm's exporters. All a state needs to purchase arms in the international marketplace is hard currency. This allows states with economic power to easily obtain military equipment. While the other aspects of military power like training and morale are harder to obtain through conversion of economic resources, it is not impossible. A well financed force is able to send members overseas for training and pay its members well. A highly paid soldier is likely to exhibit a high standard of professionalism and have high morale. If a state has the economic resources it should be able to increase its military power.

At the close of World War Two both the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves in parallel positions of military and economic power. Both arrived at this position largely through converting their economic resources into military resources during the war. The two superpower's actions in the next fifty years make an interesting comparison.

The U.S.'s continued military dominance survived in tact until the mid 1970s. During this decade it faced a major military defeat but more importantly its economy stagnated. With a stagnating economy the U.S. could not increase the amount it spent on its military forces without serious domestic political difficulties. Only when the economy picked up during the 1980s could the U.S. resume increasing its military power.

Under the Regan administration 1981-1989 the U.S. increased its military expenditure significantly and commenced the key Strategic Defence Initiative. This project threatened to radically alter the balance of power between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by rendering Soviet intercontinental nuclear missiles ineffective by means of a nationwide anti missile system. One of the aims of the S.D.I. project described in a defence guidance document was "to open up new areas of military competition and obsolescence previous Soviet investment or employ sophisticated strategic deception options to achieve this end." The S.D.I project was one aspect of the American spend Moscow into the ground strategy. Under this strategy the U.S. not only used economic power for conversion purposes but also as a military weapon in itself. A weapon that proved extremely effective.

The Soviet Union employed a more unbalanced strategy towards the growth of its military power. Soviet military industries directly employed 10 million people including the most highly trained scientists and the best educated workers. The military segment of the economy accounted for 25% of the Soviet Union's gross national product and half of all manufacturing in the Russian republic was devoted to the military. This mindset relegated the expansion of economic power to a second order priority. While this strategy worked well for close to thirty years in the long run it was a failure. By the 1980s the Soviet economy had deteriorated to such an extent that it could no longer support the Soviet military machine let alone help increase the country's military power.

Military crackdowns did however allow the Soviet Union to maintain and prolong its economic power. In Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively, Soviet troops kept Eastern Europe under Soviet control and hence in the Soviet economic block for an additional twenty years. Eastern Europe rebelled again in the late 1980s. By this stage Soviet economic power had declined to a point that its political masters and citizens no longer had the political will to use Soviet military power to suppress the rebellion.


Military Power vs Economic Power in History
Military Power vs Economic Power (Part 2)