The Great Defense Spending Distraction

Why you can’t just throw money at problems like the Islamic State and Ukraine.

There's nothing like a good round of international conflict to bring the folks who want to spend more on defense out of the closet. The last few weeks, even months, do not disappoint. A commitment to "spend more" or "spend something" is almost as good as doing something. NATO is in high dudgeon this week, meeting about Vladimir Putin's intrusion into Ukraine (when are folks going to call it the invasion it really is?). And the allies have a side order of the Islamic State (IS) and Syria on the table as well.

Typically, defense budgets have become the avatar that stands in for action. In Wales the call for spending more on defense is not going "gentle into that good night," (to misuse the words of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas). For months, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been singing from the "burden-sharing" hymnal, joining virtually all of his predecessors since the 1970s in calling for the European allies to spend more on defense. The outgoing NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has joined the call.

This week, the members of NATO are very likely to trot out, once again, the meaningless joint commitment first made in the 1970s to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, a level only achieved today by the United States, Britain, Greece (who really only care about the Turks), and that superlative NATO Baltic ally, Estonia. Germany itself comes in at 1.3 percent; even France is below the line.

Making more defense money the symbolic substitute for policy is not a weakness of NATO alone. The call for "more" in response to world events has become a hardy staple of U.S. domestic arguments over the budget. The ubiquitous, Obama-bashing, non-appropriations (meaning they aren't really responsible for money decisions anyway) talking head, Sen. John McCain, seized the IS and Ukraine moment to continue his decades-long tour on the Sunday talk shows (who never seem to tire of him) calling for more U.S. defense spending and relief for DoD from the constraints of the Budget Control Act and the dreaded "sequester" monster.

Even the administration has not resisted the temptation to throw money at crises. In June President Barack Obama made a point of calling for $5 billion more in (80 percent) defense spending (20 percent belongs to State, after some political infighting in the administration) to fund counterterrorism partnership activities (still undefined) with other countries. As I noted when he made this pledge, the money seemed to substitute for the absence of any details about the strategy or the programs these funds would support. He pledged even more security assistance funds to the African Summit in August, with minimal program details.

Throwing money at a problem is a tried-and-true Washington response to crisis. When the crisis is domestic, conservatives come up on the net and the air is filled with cries of "big government." The Obama administration's request for nearly $4 billion to deal with the immigration crisis of this past summer is still languishing in the Republican House.

But when the call is for homeland security (over $600 billion spent since the Department was created) or, especially for DoD and the military, throwing money is the favorite political gesture. The defenders of defense will spare no dollar in vocalizing their commitment to our security. In the early part of this century, after 9/11 and with troops in Iraq, Congress not only voted every dollar requested for special war spending bills, it asked no serious question as it doubled non-war defense spending, as well. More money was the answer.

Now we are again being told that the Europeans should spend more and the United States should unshackle the defense budget from any discipline as a way of saying we are serious about the challenges we face.

Truth time: it has never been about the money. It's about the policy and the capabilities, stupid.

What is at issue in Europe is capability. If the Europeans ever actually reached the 2 percent defense spending threshold across the Alliance, they would still produce an excess of the kind of defense capability that is not needed (heavy ground combat units or very small air forces) that do not work together well), and militaries that duplicate, rather than complement each other. 

They spend enough to create up-to-date, deployable forces, but the ones too many of them build are nationally based and static. And they do not build them to a common, trans-European, integrated plan. There is a significant Italian ground force, an even larger German one, a very large French one, and a small, but agile, British one. But there is not much in the way of a European force that eliminates the duplication among these national forces and is designed in an integrated way to deploy rapidly inside or outside the European theater.

It is taking the Europeans too long to buy adequate European air lift for the French to deploy forces to Africa and the aircraft they are buying (the A400M) will likely need refueling (little European capability exists) to deploy forces out of the European region. Europe struggles to put a modern, cross-country, drone capability together.

Europe has made progress on operating jointly, as the more static European deployment in the Balkans shows. France, with U.S. support (lift, intelligence, drones, refueling) has done well in North and West Africa. But spending more is not what the Europeans need to do, as the Center for a New American Security pointed out this week. And insistently demanding that they do it misses the point. What's missing is a common, integrated European defense policy, defense industry, and military capability. The European Union has not met this goal, though it was set out in the 1990s, and the Europeans have not done much better in the NATO context.

The same critique applies to the United States. Americans outspend every other country in the world on defense. They put up 70 percent of the Alliance's total defense spending.  They even have a special little fiscal kitty -- called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds -- that has allowed DoD to escape "sequester" and the BCA with minimal damage for the past three years.

Properly coordinated with the allies, the United States could fund every cent of the current anti-IS air operation, and even a more extensive one including IS in Syria (the wisdom of doing so is another question) within existing budgetary resources, including the OCO funding.

But, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, conflict is the last refuge of a budgetary scoundrel. Rather than make tough choices, provide budget discipline, focus on the enormous budgetary overhang created by a large bureaucracy and a legion of contractors providing services to DoD,  it's just easier to ask for more. Rather than build the European capacity the United States and its NATO allies think they need, it is easier to bang the drum of "burden-sharing." The conflicts in the Ukraine and the Middle East are being used to avoid the hard work of discipline and efficiency in defense planning on both continents.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Playing Nostradamus

Big data show that history does indeed repeat itself. What does that mean for foreign policymaking -- and tackling crises from Ukraine to Syria?

Working in policymaking is a lot like being a real-life time traveler: It is an inherently forward-looking process in which decisions are made today based on an estimate of what tomorrow might look like. Yet as the finger-pointing that accompanies every global crisis, from Ukraine to Syria, makes clear, humanity's ability to forecast the future is poor at best.

This doesn't have to be the case. From the ancient Egyptian symbol of the Ouroboros (a serpent eating its own tail) to the Hindu concept of the Yuga (cyclical epochs) to the science-fiction world of Isaac Asimov's "psychohistory," thinkers have long reasoned that history repeats itself and can thus be measured and predicted. In the case of psychohistory, it was posited that, much like weather forecasts, the future actions of human society could be estimated at high accuracy if there was just sufficient data and computing power. 

So has the failure to accurately forecast what will happen in the world -- and to make policies to prevent catastrophe -- merely been due to a lack of information about historical cycles? The answer, it seems, is "yes."

The Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) project, which I founded, monitors the world's broadcast, print, and web news from nearly every country in more than 100 languages and compiles a daily list of more than 300 categories of events -- from riots to appeals for peace -- down to the city level. It currently has more than a quarter-billion records from 1979 to the present, all of them available in Google's BigQuery analysis platform. The resolution, time scale, and geographic coverage of this database makes it ideal for exploring whether history really does fall into regular patterns, and if those patterns are sufficiently robust to forecast the future.

Turn back the clock to Jan. 27, 2011: Egypt is wracked with anti-government protests, and analysts are furiously trying to determine whether there will be a quick resolution or whether the protests will bring months of turmoil to the country. Using GDELT and BigQuery to answer this question, a timeline could be created measuring the intensity of unrest (defined as material, nonverbal conflict) in Egypt by day over the preceding two months. Then, the history -- from 1979 to 2010 -- of unrest in every country in the world could be searched and compared to it. This could be done using a rolling, 60-day window. Take Afghanistan, for instance: The timeline of that country's unrest from Jan. 1, 1979, to Mar. 2, 1979, could be compared against the selected period in Egypt. Then, Afghanistan's unrest from Jan. 2, 1979, to Mar. 3, 1979, could be analyzed -- and so on. This would allow researchers to identify past periods in history that are most similar to Egypt's tumultuous two months.

Then, the top two most similar historical periods could be selected, and the average of what happened within them -- what events transpired, how, and in what time frame -- could be computed as a possible forecast of what might happen in Egypt in the immediate future.

Figure 1 here shows the results of this exact process, plotting the relative intensity of unrest on the y-axis. To the left of the vertical black bar is Egypt's selected two months in red, overlaid on top of one of the most similar periods of past world history: events in Sweden, from Oct. 4, 2010 through Dec. 3, 2010, which are shown in green. Sweden's unrest during this period stemmed from the (ultimately disproved) anti-Semitic swastika attack against politician David von Arnold Antoni, the Dec. 7 arrest of Julian Assange, and the Dec. 11 Stockholm bombings. Despite entirely different circumstances, the two countries show nearly identical relative intensities of unrest over their respective 60-day periods.

To the right of the vertical black bar is what then happened in Sweden over the two months after Dec. 3, 2010, compared with what ended up happening in Egypt in the two months after Jan. 27, 2011. Immediately it is clear that, while there are significant differences, the trend lines bear strong resemblance to each other. If an analyst had been running this system in 2011, he or she could have used the Sweden data to forecast what was going to unfold in Egypt: that is, roughly two weeks of notable unrest, then a return to (relative) levels of calm.

Figure 1 - Sweden 10/4/2010 - 12/3/2010 (green left of black line) and 12/3/2010 - 2/1/2011 (green right of black line), compared with Egypt (red). (Click to enlarge)

In other words, by searching for periods of history all over the world similar to what is happening now in a single country, one can look at what happened after each of those periods as a measurable forecast of what might happen in the target country in the future. And as this graph indicates, history indeed seems to repeat itself -- at least as seen through the eyes of the world's news media. (Those mathematically inclined can read the rest of the details of the forecasting, including the underlying code.)

Replicating this process for Ukraine starting on Feb. 22, 2014 (the day then-President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country), and averaging the two most similar historical periods -- from Turkey and Lebanon -- ultimately yields the following forecast (green in Figure 2) compared with what actually happened in Ukraine over the following two months (red). This is particularly noteworthy because, unlike with Egypt, the post-period here exhibits far more complex behavior, breaking from traditional "media fatigue" and other journalistic effects.

Figure 2 - Ukraine (red) compared with average of Turkey and Lebanon (green) in the following 60 days, after the correlated time periods. (Click to enlarge)

Of course, where there is forecasting there is a need to see whether or not it is accurately predicting events. So in addition to timelines, GDELT has developed a daily, visual update that shows the current state of the world, letting analysts watch events as they unfold and compare them to projections. In collaboration with the U.S. Institute of Peace, the new GDELT Global Dashboard offers a rolling, 180-day map of conflict and protests across the globe. The Islamic State's march across Iraq is instantly visible, civil war in Ukraine bursts into view, and the clustering of protests and violence in Nigeria also leaps from the screen. This map is updated every morning, offering both a clickable layer of the latest events and a six-month animated context of what preceded the present state of affairs.

Figure 3 -  The GDELT Global Dashboard. (Click to enlarge)

For thousands of years philosophers and historians have argued that the world moves in broad, predictable patterns that provide insight into the future. Humanity has finally reached a critical juncture where it has sufficient data and computing power to begin to tease apart these patterns and understand them in a way that was simply impossible before. Forecasting the future of Egypt or Ukraine, by looking to all of the history of the last three decades, required more than 2.5 million comparisons -- yet it took Google's BigQuery system just 2.5 minutes to run them. 

Whether the patterns identified capture some kind of new mathematical equation that governs all of human life or -- perhaps far more likely -- a more precise mathematical definition of how journalism shapes our understanding of global events, they demonstrate the unprecedented power of the new generation of "big-data" tools. The world may not quite be at the level of Isaac Asimov's psychohistory, able to predict global events like meteorologists do the weather. But it is now possible to glimpse the future -- and better understand how to shape it.