Kant's categorical imperatve and defence policy

A simple (not flawless) way of checking whether one's policy is ethical is to apply the categorical imperative; would the outcome be a good one if everyone behaved like this?

I have repeatedly argued on this blog (and elsewhere) that small powers should not create or maintain well-rounded miniature military forces, as such armed forces are near-useless for deterrence and defence. Or did you hear any good of the deterrence and defence values of the armed forces of Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania during the Second World War? The only small power that resisted a great power successfully was Finland, and it did only so for a short time under uniquely favourable circumstances.

Likewise, I argued repeatedly that even some of the bigger NATO members such as Germany should orient their armed forces towards a specific threat scenario, complementing their alliance rather with contributions tailored to their situation rather than well-rounded armed forces in ignorance of any threat scenario. Germany could disband its navy with absolutely no harm to its or its allies' security, for example.

Moreover, military budgets should be set in the context of the military overspending of allies (that is, one should spend less due to others overspending rather than to emulate their silliness).

This doesn't seem to be an ethical course of action at first look and certain not very deep thinkers mis-use the word "freeriding" a lot even in the current real world situation.

To think so requires a static look at the world. My advice would change if the overspending by allies would end, for example. To devise a budget in context of allied budgeting may just as well lead to an increase of own spending when allied overspending ends.

A deterioration of air power or sea power or the primary threat scenario becoming unrealistic would lead to different conclusions, a different optimum, a different advice.

So what really drives my thinking about force structures is not a simplistic preference for less, but an appreciation of real world circumstances; the size of threats, the capabilities of allies, the own economic and fiscal capabilities and the own geographical position.


I do assert that much of the advice regarding more military spending, more warships, more combat aircraft, more tanks, more brigades is not driven by an appreciation of threat capabilities, allied capabilities and geography. Most calls for "more" rather seem to be driven by money interests, officer self-interests or very much subjective power fantasies. This ranges from millionaire CEOs and lobbyists to flag ranks who put their service before their country to simple fanbois.



  1. Powers are small in relative terms. Some investments are less useful for them, but skipping on certain capabilities altogether creates a reliance on allies. These allies can make hefty demands in return for their service and can become altogether unreliable. The time it takes for an ally to turn unreliable or even adverserial is shorter than the time it takes to build up a navy without naval knowledge. You have to factor in the costs of adapting to changing situations, which would modify your statement.
    Some investments should be kept to a minimum, while others are at the core of national protection with corresponding funding. I think Israel is a good example for efficient resource allocation by a small power and even they have a navy. A historic example would be Prussia that still had a small navy despite focusing on its army and cheaper coastal defence.
    Considering German forces, you neglect our role in an alliance with global aspirations. The US wants allied navies to support them in their contest with China. Getting on the bad side of the Americans by refusing to participate in the core struggle of the 21st century might have hell to pay for perceived treason.
    So what are the costs of going extreme in optimisation and not having certain features such as a navy? Does the force overall become more brittle like optimised systems usually do?

    1. No, the smallness itself creates a reliance on allies.

      "global aspirations" - article 87(a) basic law, period.

      You appear to insinuate that a small power could spend enough to defend against a great power. You also appear to insinuate that Germany could have a navy that's effective at deterrence and defence without allies, contradicting conclusive evidence to the contrary.
      Wishful thinking is not a good basis for allocating billions of Euros every year.

    2. A German navy wouldn't be able to defend against a number of major powers, but it's able to solve problems with most powers. Theoretically, Germany has the potential to arm up like Russia, which I'm not advocating, but which we might come closer to with this 2% goal.

      As a longtime reader of this blog, I find it interesting and agree with you a lot, but in some regards I have a different view. I think countries such as Japan or Germany constructed their institutions for limited souvereignty, while the US, Russia or China built for full souvereignty. The difference is that a country with limited souvereignty has institutions relying on a partner who doesn't share an equal reliance, but can stand alone. As a country of limited souvereignty, our regulations have to be flexible to accomodate the wishes of the dominant partner. During the Trump presidency, this reliance was questioned by the German chancelor and it seems we will sometime have another presidency of that ilk, so the relationship is breaking. Without the US, we face the problem as financially most potent member of the EU to contribute to the maintenance of our intertwined interests.
      This may mean more navy and other stuff than one wouldn't advocate without that break. Maybe there are more cost efficient solutions than the US pursues, but I think we have to assume in the future a stronger connection of our economic exchange beyond the waters surrounding Europe. In relative proportions wealth in Europe shrinks in comparison to other regions, which I posit means that our overseas exchange will grow in importance.
      If not only NATO; but the EU also breaks apart, we might focus on territorial integrity with some navy to sort out minor global problems. I'm not sure whether it's cost efficient to join the growing number of countries with flattops, but proportional to the dependence on maritime traffic and economic activity abroad, we should have some measures to pose a proportional threat against interference with our interests. Such a counter would work against most countries in the world, but not against all countries.

      I don't think spending alone helps a small power to defend against a great power, but a small society can organize its resilience against a larger group. Switzerland for example seems to be able to defend against each of their neighbours individually. Singapore had a similar problem and developed the "poison shrimp" idea. This harnessing of efforts launched them as the dominant power in the region. It's not just spending on the military, it's about how all institutions of a small entity work towards preserving itself.

    3. The word sovereignty is the wrong one here.
      Germany could tell the U.S. to F off any time, without any serious downside. I even suppose we would be better off in many ways.
      The actual political behaviour is more a consequence of the trans-atlanticism ideology (an extension of the westward orientation grand strategy of Adenauer) than anything else. The politicians want to do things together for the sake of doing things together, same story as with the EU.

    4. I agree that it looks like that on the surface, but I doubt it's so simple under the hood. I consider it better to describe the US as a superpower with a number of vassal states more or less following them. Whatever the case, the relationship with the US seems to come to an end nevertheless.

    5. I am with you in some points. The German Navy is small anyway and Germany is not a coastal nation like UK, France, Italy. So saving on these force would be good on first sight. However, noone can be sure how alliances and loyalties can change in short time. We just had Brexshit. So maybe not today, not next year nor in 5 years after some political changes the situation can get completely different.
      Imagine a country without all neccessary assets and forces being suddenly on their own (again). Rebuilding a navy from scratch again will be outmost difficult: Getting the shipbuilding knowledge back in-country, finding new places for new naval harbours (I assume many of the former navy harbours will be converted to luxury quarters), training for crews...

    6. That, too, implies that having a navy would be of use if and when we have less allies. It wouldn't be of use unless it's unaffordably bigger than the current one. To enable the German navy to escort one blockade-breaking convoy from Hamburg to the Mid-Atlantic against the currently underfunded Russian navy would require at least one carrier, an improvement over the current frigate fleet in size (x2) and quality (especially readiness, but also AAW) or equivalent capabilities with other types of ships. It could not be done against the land-based air power of the UK, much less RAF+RN combined. We would need 1/3 USN carrier fleet and destroyers to force one convoy around the British Isles against the British' will.

      So no matter how alliances change, the idea that a German navy could justify its expenses AND be affordable fiscally is unsupportable.

      It's a common problem that people are satisfied with a vague idea but don't think it through. This makes them vulnerable to deception, myths, and too readily willing to accept the status quo as fine. Nobody can really think everything through to the last details, but a much better effort can be made usually.

      I'm sure at some point I did believe this 'let's maintain competencies' trope as well, but I waved it goodbye long ago. Most often, those competencies aren't all that good, and rather surrounded by institutional petrification, myths, conservativeness, harmful tradition and false beliefs. It is often a good idea to start over.

    7. "global aspirations" - article 87(a) basic law, period.

      Every German only has the freedom to worship the Basic Law, everything else is wrong per definitionem. Because the Basic Law is holy, invariably sent down by God and never goes wrong. Amen.

    8. As long as the basic law fits Last Dingos personal worldviews. In all other cases the basic law is to be ignored.

    9. There's exactly one case in which I oppose the German constitution 8the spoken part by the supreme court, not the original written text): The ruling that the Kosovo Air War was not a war of aggression in violation of constitution, North Atlantic Treaty and Charter of the United Nations was an act of distortion. It was committed to protect politicians.
      And even in this case I call on people to pay attention to article 87(a), because the supreme court ruling was crap and a lie.

      Besides, I'm tired of such substance-free brain fart comments, so don't expect such bollocks to last long in the future.

    10. Strawman bullshit comment was deleted.
      Commenters better display an ability to argue with positions that exist in reality rather than positions that only exist in their mind. Discussions against your own fantasy bullshit belong into your brain, not into the public.

  2. The start into your post is strange to say at least. I would instead of using the categorical imperative more think in the context of a Schwerpunkt. Especially your following statements about the armies of smaller countries and of specialisation make more sense if you think them from beeing an Schwerpunkt instead of an overstressed, abstract and tautological philosophical principle with only few true valure for practical decision making, especially in warfare and moreover in defence and detterence.

    Despite this i fully agree with your conclusions that it is one of the greatest failures in our actual militaries and especially within our military alliances that there is no specialisation and no Schwerpunkt at all, but instead as you described it perfectly an overall concept of miniature armies which all have maximum width with insufficient depth.

    For the question of spending i see two main problems: first if one nation in an alliance is spending less than the others because they are overspending, this will give this country an advantage over the others. This will lead inevitable to the point in which the others will either not defend the underspending nation because they regard this as egoistical behaviour or in which they will also beginn underspending their forces. Both will weaken the alliance overall.

    Moreover it is in my opinion extremly difficult to estimate the correct amount of spending and there is also the danger of underspending. From a position of accounting caution it is therefore better in my opinion to spend more on the military forces AND make an Schwerpunkt in the military procurements AND specialise the armed forces in the alliance. All together would strengthen the alliance and would increase the deterrence.

    A simplistic preference for more would prevent us from being wrong about the factors you mentioned and thus no longer being able to provide sufficient deterrence or from being able to no longer defend ourselves. So the interesting question for me would be how much more accounting caution would be needed here? So you would have to weight and take into account all the factors you name and then come to a necessary value (minimum). So how far beyond the minimum should you equip? In my opinion, it is extremely difficult to balance this out correctly.

  3. "For the question of spending i see two main problems: first if one nation in an alliance is spending less than the others because they are overspending, this will give this country an advantage over the others."

    The solution is to define capabilities and check these. Spending levels are useless without clear definitition of the goals. Spending levels are a cheap politicla tool.

    "From a position of accounting caution it is therefore better in my opinion to spend more on the military forces AND make an Schwerpunkt in the military procurements AND specialise the armed forces in the alliance."

    Wrong sequence of actions.

  4. I can absolutly agree with you, that instead of demanding x % of the GDP it would be much better to demand specific abilities. This would be very good for any procurement because then if you are able to deliver this abilities for fewer money you can spare money. But the problem is imo, that it will be very difficult to define exactly what is needed from whom and to controll it. Within a structure of national militaries this is imo impossible because the different interests are to strong. This speaks imo strongly for an true European army which would stand outside the structure of the nation states.

    The sequence is like it is for specific reasons, therefore it is not wrong. Even to develope an Schwerpunkt we would now need more money as the armed forces are down to the bottom in nearly every area and only after building an Schwerpunkt we can then beginn to expand this system and others will specialise too.

  5. It is possible to define minimum demand as we know the strength of the most likely enemy Russia, then we assign counties with the task to cover a share of this demand. What is the issue? The difficulty is to give up the assumption that medium size country needs to cover the full spectrum.

    And at the strategic level we as EU can hurt Russia with an energy transion within three decades more than with more tanks. But this is of course not as fancy...

  6. What is the sense of hurting russia? What does this deliver in the direction of peace? If you hurt someone very hard this can lead to an escalation. Tanks are deterrence. Hurting someone is not deterrence.

    Also it is not possible to know the strength of russia for sure and moreover it is not possible to share the demand in such a way that it perfectly balances the russian forces. Inevitable you are either to weak or to strong. Therefore it is better to be stronger than weaker.

    1. The oligarchy/plutocracy in Russia is largely incapable of creating a good manufacturing or service export industry. The Russian exports are overwhelmingly fossil fuel and its products. Another big position is gas turbines, I assume that's about replacement engines for Cold War-era aircraft, which will become less and less over time.

      So Russia becomes economically stunted as a consequence of its crappy economic policies if the West reduces its fossil fuel imports from Russia. They could export oil to anywhere (though the world market may shrink), but that's much harder with natural gas.

      It's legitimate to exploit this weakness considering Russia's aggressive behaviour in especially Ukraine, but also its maintaining of open wounds in Georgia and (alleged, 90+% confidence) offensive clandestine actions against the West.

      Russia has responded to oil export revenue crunches by slowing this military reform programs repeatedly. We know that crashing their trade balance into negative by buying less from them will make them less capable of military aggression.

      Russia always has the option of replacing its kleptocrat and aggressive leadership. The actions of its leadership and the inaction of its people against their leadership deserve consequences.

    2. http://wits.worldbank.org/visualization/country-analysis-visualization.html

    3. I almost forgot I wrote about this:

    4. It is for sure legitimte to explore this weakness, but it is not clever. Because the alternative for the current highly corrupt cleptocracy will be far right wing extremists. The majority of the people in russia are actually standing political right from the systema putin. If the russian people will replace their current leadership, the next will be much worse. Also i wonder: you want to hurt people because they are to inactive?! This is legimite?! Everyone that does not think like you must be hurted and must suffer because he does not want to become you. There is no logic in that.

    5. To take away a knife from a man who stabbed others repeatedly over the past 12 years is legitimate. The non-violent way of doing so is vastly superior to the violent way and promises more good than harm done, so it is legitimate.

      And you, anonymous, suck at strawman attacks ("everyone"). All that attack did was expose how you cannot really handle what I wrote and instead unloaded a set of your prejudices and biases onto the topic.

    6. This attempt to take away the knive will not result in disarming russia but to the opposite in a increased risk for war. Your way is therefore only in the short side non-violent. if this is legitimate or not is therefore not the important point here.

      From a pure praktical reason it is more clever to stabilise the current system as it weaks russia more than any alternative. The longer the system putin will be in charge, the weaker russia will become.

    7. Reality already disproved your point.
      The Soviet Union ceased to be a military threat because of economic collapse. Russian Federation military spending gets limited by how much revenue the government generates from oil and gas exports.