Military spending around the world totaled $1,676bn in 2015, nearly $250 for every one of the earth’s 7 billion people. Arms producers have direct access to the upper echelons of power, shaping policy and exercising considerable influence in how the world is run. Rich governments treat arms makers and dealers with remarkable charity. They help them out with subsidies, favorable export rules and a generosity of spirit and funding that most businesspeople could only dream of. Leaders of middle-income and poor countries who want to buy weapons are feted and lobbied by a slick industry that wheels out defense attachés, government ministers, and even royalty as testament to their political connection and clout, not to mention generous financial subsidies and payoffs.
Why does the arms business possess such influence and clout across the globe? The answer is complex, but one of the key reasons is that arms merchants and their government supporters can turn to a set of time-honed and well-packaged arguments to justify the status quo. They tell us that their products make and keep us all safer. They argue that the defense sector is vital to the economy and job creation. They claim that they are at the cutting edge of technological innovation.
All in all, the makers and sellers of weapons have been astonishingly successful in telling a story so deeply embedded in public narratives and political discourse that it is simply taken for granted. The defense industry narrative is like a set of clothes that a politician seeking office—still more so, in office—and the civil servants, academics and journalists concerned with government, put on to go to work every morning. The inconvenient truth is that each one of the claims is either deeply questionable or simply untrue.
The arms business needs to be undressed. Every rotten item needs to be thrown out. Then, we will find, there is hardly anything left. The arguments are nothing more than myths, enforced by repetition and given weighty authority by the power players who trot them out whenever there is the hint of change that might be to their disadvantage.
Global Arms Trade – Myth 1:
HIGHER DEFENSE SPENDING EQUALS INCREASED SECURITY
‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’
So goes the much-repeated phrase, taken to heart around the globe. Indeed, the world spends a great deal preparing for war: at least $1,676bn in 2015. With such high levels of spending, and the innumerable threats that arms purchases are said to protect us from, it would be easy to accept this adage at face value: why on earth else would responsible governments pour such huge sums into military spending? Unfortunately, the reality is a lot more complicated.
It is unclear that large outlays on defense make a consistently measurable difference in providing security to the countries that buy weapons. Moreover, there is solid evidence showing that, in certain instances, spending money on buying weapons may actually decrease a country’s security.
Between 2011 and 2014, as defense budgets were reduced in the West, the ‘rest of the world’ was increasing its expenditure year-on-year.
Largest spenders worldwide: USA, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Russia has increased its military spending 92% since 2010 alone. Saudi Arabia vastly expanded its defense budget by 97% between 2006 and 2015.
The dominance of the top fifteen spenders should not obscure another important trend: military expenditure is growing rapidly globally, even in some of the poorest regions of the world. Indeed, SIPRI identifies twenty-three countries that have doubled their military spending between 2004 and 2013. Among them are some of the world’s poorest nations.
Despite regional and global increases, the United States remains far and away the world’s largest spender on its military, spending more than the next ten nations in the world combined, and four times its closest rival, China.
The US is currently on track to fund the most expensive weapons program in human history, the F-35 fighter jet, which will cost roughly $1.4trn to build and operate over its lifetime.
DOES DEFENSE SPENDING LEAD TO SECURITY?
There are a number of ways in which spending on defense may actually make us less secure.
1. The ‘security dilemma’, or the ‘spiral of insecurity’.
The ‘security dilemma’ occurs when a state with no hostile intentions believes that states around it, while not necessarily expressing any outward enmity, could pose a long-term security threat. The state responds by increasing its own sense of security through building up its defense capacities. However, states around it see this increase in defense spending, and come to believe that the original state now has hostile intentions; they, in turn, increase their own defense capacities. This cycle continues as both parties increasingly divert resources towards their own defense, leading to an arms race. This ‘spiral of insecurity’ can, in the worst case scenario, lead to actual conflict.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Germany’s leaders had come to believe that it was being surrounded by hostile forces including Russia, France and Great Britain. In response, Germany started to build up its military forces, in particular its naval forces, which all other parties began to believe was evidence of Germany’s ill intentions. Great Britain, which had built its military power on its navy, was particularly alarmed. The other three parties, seeing this, also increased their weapons, leading to an enormous arms race. This race created tensions between all the states; so much so that, when a political crisis unfolded upon the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary and Russia both mobilized and Germany then invaded its neighbors, provoking one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. The arms race may not have been the cause of World War I (human affairs are always more complicated than that), but it was a substantial contributor to the tensions that led to war.
2. When the spending is wasteful or inflated due to corruption. Usually this involves the perennial problem of cost overruns in the defense sector, dragging projects years into overtime and absorbing scarce economic resources that could be spent on things that encourage security—like health, education and infrastructure.
When corruption enters the picture, defense transactions might only take place because of the illicit money to be earned, without any concern for real strategic need.
3. Wars can make you less secure in the long term. The third way in which defense spending can actually decrease security is when military spending funds wars that, despite their intentions, worsen a country’s security situation.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is arguable that the two largest US military engagements of the 21st century so far have actually left the United States and the world less secure than if they had never been undertaken.(Gosh!) Not only did the conflicts cost trillions of dollars and cause hundreds of thousands of casualties, but they have contributed to an increase in terrorist activity and capabilities in areas well beyond the boundaries of the two states.
The war in Afghanistan—the longest war in US history—is in one respect a response to the ‘blowback’ from US military interventions of the 1980s. The CIA spent hundreds of millions of dollars arming and training Afghan mujahidin forces to help them fight off the Soviet occupation of their country.
A significant portion of this aid was diverted by Pakistani intelligence, which used it to support Islamic extremist groups that have engaged in terrorism in South Asia and beyond. Aid that did reach Afghanistan often ended up in the hands of foreign fighters and forces that had an anti-US orientation.
Once the Soviet occupation had been repelled, and a nasty civil war was concluded, these groups turned their attention to attacking the United States and its interests. Following the civil war, many of them became part of the original cadre of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida organization, which was hosted by the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
The Taliban itself has received substantial support from Pakistani intelligence. As a result, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 to root out Al Qaida, it was in part addressing a problem of its own making. And the mission of driving Al Qaida out of Afghanistan soon morphed into a large-scale counterinsurgency effort designed to defeat the Taliban and remake Afghanistan as a pro-US ‘democracy’ (or at least a pro-US regime, democratic or not). Fifteen years later the Taliban remains a major force in Afghanistan, the regime in Kabul is rife with corruption, and Al Qaida has entrenched itself in Pakistan.
This is what the United States and the world got for Washington and Europe’s investment in a trillion-dollar military undertaking in Afghanistan.
The case of Iraq is, of course, even more striking, in that it was without question a war of choice, and it has spawned a new generation of militant extremists, notably ISIS, who largely use military equipment supplied to the country by the US itself.
4. Military spending isn’t always intended to protect citizens. The fourth way in which defense spending can decrease the security of citizens is that in undemocratic states, military spending can make citizens less safe. Indeed, spending on one’s military in many cases does not mean protecting the country, but rather protecting the ruling elite from its people or discontented groups within the population, rather than protecting the people as a whole from external or internal threats. Even in more democratic, or partially democratic countries, the military may suppress legitimate dissent among citizens and marginalized groups.
The less free a country is, the more it tends to spend on the military.
5. Using the military to solve the world’s security issues isn’t always the best bet.
The fifth way that military spending can decrease security is that massive military expenditure can increase the tendency to seek military solutions to non-military problems.
One example of this has been the decades-long US ‘war on drugs’ which has been used to justify aid to death squads and repressive regimes abroad and mass surveillance and incarceration at home. For example, the multi-billion US ‘Plan Colombia’, designed to help the Colombian government dismantle the drug cartels there, included aid to a corrupt military that regularly abused human rights and aerial application of pesticides in large parts of the country. To the extent that Plan Colombia helped undermine the drug cartels there, the drug trade was merely displaced to Central American countries like Honduras and Mexico, where high levels of violence by drug gangs have become the norm.
Other suggested approaches, like reducing drug demand in the US by expanding treatment programs and providing alternative forms of employment in impoverished areas, have received only modest resources relative to the sums spent on military methods of fighting drugs.
In the US, the Pentagon budget is roughly fourteen times the budget of the US State Department. This is truly remarkable: in its relationship with the outside world, the US devotes 1,400% more to projecting military power than it does on building alliances and finding non-military solutions to conflicts.
As for peacekeeping, the US contribution to UN peacekeeping efforts is less than 0.5% of what it spends on military activities. If the United States devoted a tiny fraction of what it spends on its own military to support the cost of the United Nations and multilateral peacekeeping, a robust international capability could be on call to enforce peace agreements, protect potential victims of repression and genocide, and separate warring parties.
The idea that there is a military solution to terrorism has also been put into serious doubt by an influential 2008 study by the US-based RAND Corporation—a think-tank esteemed by conservatives. The study reviewed the life-cycles of 648 terrorist groups from 1968 to 2006, identifying the ways in which these groups ended. It found that in 43% of cases, terrorist groups ceased to exist because they were successfully integrated into the formal political process. In 40% of cases, the groups disappeared because of successful policing efforts. A further 10% of terrorist groups stopped their military activities because they achieved their main aim. And, most importantly for this discussion, only 7% of terrorist groups were snuffed out as a result of military campaigns.
Using the military to win the ‘war on terror’ is simply not going to work. More to the point, it is likely to be counter-productive, fueling resentment and undermining long-term regional goals.
As the Jones and Libicki note: Our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism. Military force usually has the opposite effect of what is intended: it is often over-used, alienates the local population by its heavy-handed nature, and provides a window of opportunity for terrorist-group recruitment.
Human security is defined by the United Nations as ‘the right of all people to live in freedom and dignity, free from poverty and despair’. Underpinning this is the recognition that ‘all individuals, in particular vulnerable people, are entitled to freedom from fear and freedom from want, with an equal opportunity to enjoy all their rights and fully develop their human potential’.
When security is thought about in this way—and it is hard to argue that a population that is chronically malnourished is not at risk—the type of threats that need to be addressed changes drastically. Instead of just focusing on threats from war or conflict, human security requires us to look at all the various risks that are faced in the world today that undermine human dignity, drive poverty and put billions of people in a constant state of emergency of survival. Some of these risks include access to clean water, food security, climate change, health pandemics, violent multinational organized crime and repressive states that use their monopoly of violence to terrorize their own populations. There is little doubt that, when considered in this light, the world suffers a serious human security deficit.
Military expenditure is massive, and fails to substantially tackle any of the major threats to human security. If only a fraction of military spending was focused on broader human security goals, the improvement in the security profile of billions of people around the world would be tremendous.
The goals of freedom from want and fear are most likely to be achieved in democratic states that are accountable to their populations. But huge amounts of global military spending is directed towards maintaining dictatorships or repressive regimes.
Perhaps it is time to recognize one powerful fact: even a small reduction in defense spending, one that sees resources properly devoted to the human security dangers faced by the majority of the world’s population, could actually make the world safer, healthier, more prosperous and more secure.