World Military Spending Still Rising

Despite economic recession and government austerity, the world’s military spending continued to grow last year, exceeding $1.7 trillion, with the United States accounting for more than two-fifths of that money, as Lawrence S. Wittner reports.

By Lawrence S. Wittner

On April 17, as millions of Americans were filing their income tax returns, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its latest study of world military spending. In case Americans were wondering where most of their tax money — and the tax money of other nations — went in the previous year, the answer from SIPRI was clear: to war and preparations for war.

World military spending reached a record $1,738 billion in 2011 — an increase of $138 billion over the previous year.  The United States accounted for 41 percent of that, or $711 billion.

Afghan commandos demonstrate their skills for U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Camp Morehead, Afghanistan, April 23, 2012. (Defense Department photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Some news reports have emphasized that, from the standpoint of reducing reliance on armed might, this actually represents progress.  After all, the increase in “real” global military spending — that is, expenditures after corrections for inflation and exchange rates — was only 0.3 percent. And this contrasts with substantially larger increases in the preceding 13 years.

But why are military expenditures continuing to increase — indeed, why aren’t they substantially decreasing — given the governmental austerity measures of recent years?

Amid the economic crisis that began in late 2008 (and which continues to the present day), most governments have been cutting back their spending dramatically on education, health care, housing, parks, and other vital social services. However, there have not been corresponding cuts in their military budgets.

Americans, particularly, might seek to understand why in this context U.S. military spending has not been significantly decreased, instead of being raised by $13 billion — admittedly a “real dollar” decrease of 1.2 percent, but hardly one commensurate with Washington’s wholesale slashing of social spending.

Yes, military expenditures by China and Russia increased in 2011. And in “real” terms, too. But, even so, their military strength hardly rivals that of the United States.  Indeed, the United States spent about five times as much as China (the world’s #2 military power) and ten times as much as Russia (the world’s #3 military power) on its military forces during 2011.

Furthermore, when U.S. allies like Britain, France, Germany and Japan are factored in, it is clear that the vast bulk of world military expenditures are made by the United States and its military allies. This might explain why the government of China, which accounts for only 8.2 percent of world military spending, believes that increasing its outlay on armaments is reasonable and desirable. Apparently, officials of many nations share that competitive feeling.

Unfortunately, the military rivalry among nations — one that has endured for centuries — results in a great squandering of national resources. Many nations, in fact, devote most of their available income to funding their armed forces and their weaponry.

In the United States, an estimated 58 percent of the U.S. government’s discretionary tax dollars go to war and preparations for war. “Almost every country with a military is on an insane path, spending more and more on missiles, aircraft, and guns,” remarked John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus. “These countries should be confronting the real threats of climate change, hunger, disease, and oppression, not wasting taxpayers’ money on their military.”

Of course, defenders of military expenditures reply that military force actually protects people from war. But does it? If so, how does one explain the fact that the major military powers of the past century — the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and China — have been almost constantly at war during that time, in one way or another? Perhaps the maintenance of a vast military machine does not prevent war but, instead, encourages it.

In short, huge military establishments can be quite counterproductive. Little wonder that they have been condemned repeatedly by great religious and ethical leaders. Even many government officials have decried war and preparations for war — although usually by nations other than their own.

Thus, the release of the new study by SIPRI should not be a cause for celebration. Rather, it provides an appropriate occasion to contemplate the fact that, this past year, nations spent more money on the military than at any time in human history.

Although this situation might still inspire joy in the hearts of government officials, top military officers and defense contractors, people farther from the levers of military power might well conclude that it’s a hell of a way to run a world.

Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual (University of Tennessee Press).

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2 comments on “World Military Spending Still Rising

  1. Kenny Fowler on said:

    ” But why are military expenditures continuing to increase — indeed, why aren’t they substantially decreasing — given the governmental austerity measures of recent years?”

    It’s what we do best. Ten years of the “War on Terror” has been very lucrative for some.

  2. G. Peterson on said:

    I didn’t have to read far to realize this Lawrence S. Wittner is just another liberal professor. I strongly suspect that a number of things he alleges in this piece are not factually true. For example, the US accounts for 41% of world military spending in 2011, while China spent a paltry 8.2%? That the US outspent Russia by a factor of 10 in 2011? I don’t see how this can be true, for Obama holds the same anti-military views as does the professor. The numbers liberals use to augment their case can seldom be trusted. To them, their agenda is so important that any amount of lying or obfuscation is justified. The end justifies the means. If the professor could, would he abolish the US military? Ask him this: does evil exist in the world (as a justification for a stong military)? He probably would answer: No, but if it does, we are it.
    He refers to Washington’s wholesale slashing of social spending?! What is he talking about? Under Obama, social spending is up dramatically. How else do you explain adding over 5 trillion dollars to the federal debt in just 3 and a half years?
    The professor really gives himself away when he lists the “real dangers” we face. Look at what is at the top of his list–Global Warming! What a silly delusional fool. The truth is, Global Warming is not a real threat at all. It is all trumped up. The science is corrupted. There are over 31,000 American scientists that signed a petition denying the reality of man-made Global Warming. It is a world-wide hoax promoted by liberals lusting for power and wealth under a one-world government. Ronald Reagan once said, “The problem with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, it is that they know so many things that simply aren’t so.” Right on! The professor’s views are not just woefully wrong, they are dangerous, as he feeds this garbage to young minds full of mush.