For What Its Worth: World Military Spending

World military spending in 2017 will likely rise faster than it has in several years, as it is being driven primarily by government commitments to invest more into state military budgets. Yet, while governments claim motives to raise military expenditure are in response to systemic shifts in the geopolitical system, the outcome of these actions will most likely lead to an erosion in confidence and willingness among state and non-state actors to cooperate effectively in a multilateral context.

For instance, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has maintained a comprehensive and continuous database on estimated state military expenditure since the end of the Cold War. SIPRI defines military expenditure as the “economic resources devoted to the military,” which includes the associated costs of personnel, logistical operations, armament and equipment, infrastructure, and research capacities. While this definition is fairly encompassing, different interpretations often lead to variations in reported military expenditure.

Understanding the actual expense is important, however, as insights beyond the monetary value are also significant. Military expenditure reveals not only a states’ relative availability of funds to invest in costly resources, but also the states’ perceived security, or more precisely its insecurity, at a given point in time.

Military expenditure is most commonly associated with representing a state’s ability to defend its interests, as well as its capacity to press its will through coercive military means. Military capacity has historically been used to achieve political balance or leverage against others in the system of states. Based on this, competition to spend on military capacity has historically been a strong motivator for state actors pursuing power.

Yet, a system that operates on the political priority to assert and seek military power is a system based on high levels of insecurity, that most often fails to promote cooperative alliances, trust or respect for the protection of common public goods, including peace, the environment, and human rights.

Military expenditure as measured in terms of a state’s Gross Domestic Product helps to further clarify the true economic cost of this investment. For example, it assists in assessing the political priorities of a state and the potential opportunity costs that are foregone in economic growth and development.

At a world level, the cost of military expenditure is significant and creates a challenge to sustaining confidence and encouraging free and open dialogue between state and non-state actors to work towards important collective goals, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that were agreed upon in 2015. World military expenditure, in 2015, was estimated by SIPRI at $1676 billion dollars, which is around 2.3% of world GDP. In 2016, Dr. Sam Perlo-Freeman of SIPRI proposed that “reallocating only around 10% of world military spending would be enough to achieve major progress on some key SDGs.”

This, however, appears to be an unlikely near-term goal considering the climate towards multilateral cooperation appears to be in retreat, driven most fervently by the US, and other states.

The US governments’ political shift towards an “America first” policy has been clearly announced in recent proposals that seek to, not only reassert military expenditure as a top national priority, but also drastically reduce cooperative funds used traditionally to build diplomatic and transnational goodwill relations. With that said, French Ambassador to the UN, Francois Delattre, recently stated that “America’s retreat and unilateralism, or even the perception of it…would create the risk of coming back to the old spheres of influence policy, and history teaches us that it has only led to more instability.”

In hand with this, should be the conscious thought that the global political society has, for the first time in history, asserted our shared humanity to be our common denominator. Following from this, human security issues (including development, protection of the environment, and basic human rights) have come to be at the centre of collective cooperative state efforts. Reverting from this current position to an era when military power was revered and worked in complete disregard of human security, would be an almost unthinkable regression, particularly considering “the vast majority of humankind desires a peaceful life” (Global Campaign on Military Spending).

Carolina Morison