The international path toward self-destruction

by Cesar Chelala

The latest report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that, after allowing for some data uncertainties, world military spending in 2011 as essentially unchanged from that in 2012. This breaks a 13-year-long run of continuous military spending increases. It might be a cause for celebration if it still didn’t represent a totally objectionable allocation of people’s funds.

It is difficult to assess whether this leveling of military spending represents long-term change, since some countries have diminished their spending while others have increased it. If the leveling is due mainly to some countries’ economic crises, might higher spending resume as soon as these crises end?

For example, most European countries’ dire economic situation may mean that spending will continue to fall for the next two to four years. This is probably the case with countries such as Greece (down 26 percent since 2008), Spain (18 percent), Italy (16 percent), Ireland (11 percent) and Belgium (12 percent), whose economies have been ravaged by the recent crisis. In contrast, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — the top three spenders in Western Europe — have made only cosmetic cuts amounting to less than 5 percent.

Lower military expenditures didn’t follow the same pattern in both Western and Eastern Europe. While in Western Europe military spending didn’t begin to fall until 2010, following the government’s stimulus measures in 2009, in most Central and Eastern European countries military spending began to fall in 2009, because their weaker economies couldn’t sustain high budget deficits, among them those due to military expenditures.

In the case of the United States, military spending is likely to fall, due mainly to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and diminished number of troops in Afghanistan. In these cases, reduced spending on the additional war budget, also known as Overseas Contingency Operations, will probably continue to fall if plans to end combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014 are fulfilled, and if the U.S. doesn’t get involved in another major war as could be the case with Iran.

Military spending continues to increase in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. If the Middle East conflict continues to deteriorate, it could change the expenditure situation significantly. If this doesn’t happen, though, SIPRI believes that the rapid increases of the last decade are probably over for now.

Despite its 2009 severe recession, Russia has increased its military spending by 16 percent in real terms since 2008, which includes a 9.3 percent increase in 2011. Russia has now overtaken the United Kingdom and France, and is now the third largest military spender worldwide, following the U.S. and China. Further increases in military spending are planned in Russia, according to some experts.

In Asia, increased military spending by China in 2011, estimated in 6.7 percent in real terms, accounts for the total regional increase. In the rest of Asia and Oceania, total military spending slightly decreased by 0.4 percent, reflecting a mixed pattern of increases and decreases.

Although China has increased its military spending by 500 percent since 1995 and is now the second highest military spender in the world, its spending ($143 billion in 2011) has remained stable as a share of GDP, at approximately 2 percent since 2001. Thus China’s increase only reflects the country’s rapid economic growth.

According to SIPRI’s estimates, the world’s military spending in 2011 was $1,738 billion, of which $711 billion was by the U.S. To put this number in perspective, it is several hundred times the World Health Organization’s annual budget. In 2010, WHO’s annual budget was $5 billion.

World military spending is also several hundred times higher than the annual budget for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which, at $10.8 billion, has nearly twice the budget of WHO, and the Gates Foundation, whose annual budget for global health is $2 billion.

That leading world powers would devote astronomical sums to activities aimed at destroying life to the detriment of the paltry sums to improve people’s health says volumes about the difficulties in creating a more peaceful, harmonious world.

Cesar Chelala is a winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.