January 22, 2024 - 1:00pm

Last week was a truly strange time in the British Isles. In his first major speech as British Defence Secretary, Grant Shapps said that Britain should prepare for war with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea in the next five years. Meanwhile, in Dublin Chinese Premier Li Qiang met Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and touted the “huge potential” of deeper economic and trade cooperation between the two countries.

Ireland and Britain are both close allies of the United States and are stitched into the same global security architecture. Why, then, is one country preparing for war while the other is boosting ties with the supposed enemy? The only possible answer to this question is that the Irish government does not think such a conflict is going to take place. So, who does?

The answer appears to be Nato, which last week announced it would begin drills for a third world war. Yes, Nato wants to prepare for World War III — that is, a global conflict which would likely escalate into a nuclear war and destroy the world. At surface level, it would appear as if the adults have left the room. A closer look provides even more evidence of this.

Consider Shapps’s newly defined axis of evil. Taken together, these countries boast a total of 8.2 million troops, counting both active army personnel and reserves. Yet shortly after his apocalyptic speech the Defence Secretary was on the defensive, insisting that the British Army would not dip below 73,000. Even adding America to the mix produces an army which pales in comparison to its supposed adversary: the US Army, currently in the midst of a terrible recruitment crisis, has a total of 1.07 million troops. If the UK and US tried to take on the four countries on Shapps’s blacklist there would be eight enemy troops to every British or American soldier. 

Then consider how we would get those soldiers from here to there. Earlier this month it was announced that UK aircraft carriers cannot be sent to the Red Sea thanks to a shortage of sailors. As in America, the British military is experiencing an extreme shortage of personnel due to a recruitment crisis. Is this reversible in the five-year time horizon Shapps is giving for World War III? Not a chance. Is he then suggesting that Britain should conscript all military-age men to fight the new axis of evil? How might that poll with the public?

The reality is that these machinations can be boiled down to Nato’s attempt to regain relevance against the backdrop of a deteriorating situation in Ukraine. The alliance threw all its weight behind Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s nation, and it is no secret that the war is not going well for them. On Saturday Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico claimed that Ukrainian concessions are necessary to bring the conflict to an end, and reiterated his opposition to Kyiv joining Nato. The alliance’s backup plan appears to involve preparing the Western world for total global war and potential nuclear annihilation. Watching on, it is hard not to be reminded of the black comedy of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. 

In the past few years, it has become popular to posture over conflict with Beijing. Politicians and talking heads say that we must rearm to meet the threat of a rising China, yet we are never told what this conflict would look like and how we would win. Nor are we ever instructed on when the militarisation will take place, how much it will cost or how it will work. It is always signalled that this remilitarisation will happen at a vague point in the future. Perhaps it is time for proponents to fill in the blanks.

In the meantime, countries such as Ireland are cutting trade deals and becoming wealthier — and so more powerful and influential. In a nuclear age, with many large powers, military might is far less important than economic strength because an all-out war would only lead to all-out obliteration. Britain needs to decide. Does it want to go down the route of remobilisation, allocating men and money away from growing the economy and toward the building of a large army? Or does the country want to build bridges in trade and commerce and try to make itself more prosperous and influential? Right now, it seems like Britain doesn’t know.

Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional, and the author of The Reformation in Economics