An Escalating Arms Race Will Not Solve the World’s Multidimensional Problems
The process did not begin with the war in Ukraine but, seen from a Western perspective, it is undoubtedly the factor, along with the perception transmitted in recent years that China’s emergence as a global power poses a threat, that best explains the now seemingly unstoppable arms race.
According to the latest data, collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), global military spending in 2021 was up 0.7 per cent on the previous year, and 12 per cent compared with the figures from 2012. This level of growth not only represents an all-time record since 1987, amounting to over US$2.1 trillion (2.2 per cent of global GDP) but also confirms the upward trend of the last seven years. These figures and trends seem surprising at first sight, considering that they coincide with a global economic and financial crisis (2008) and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic (2020).
The period in question has seen a widespread decline in economic growth, so one would presume that priority would have been given to social measures to help those hardest hit by the crises.
In a context that increasingly points to a prolongation of the war in Ukraine, to ongoing tensions between China and the United States, embroiled in a battle for world leadership, to the sustained efforts of other regional powers to dominate their neighbours, and with over 30 conflicts underway in various parts of the world, the arms race is clearly still thriving, also driven by the need felt by many countries to modernise their military capabilities in the (mistaken) belief that this will increase their security.
The most notable of them all are the United States, which accounted for 38 per cent, and China, 14 per cent, of overall military spending in 2021. If we add India (US$76.6 billion), the United Kingdom (US$68.4 billion) and Russia, the overall percentage is 62 per cent. And if to these we add France (US$56.6 billion), Germany (US$56 billion), Saudi Arabia (US$55.6 billion), Japan (US$54.1 billion) and South Korea (US$50.2 billion), the total percentage of the top ten defence spenders rises to 75 per cent of the overall total.
The US deserves a special mention here, with spending of US$801 billion, a slight fall of 1.4 per cent on the previous year, amounting to 3.5 per cent of GDP (two-tenths of a percentage point less than the previous year) – a drop that will not be maintained this year, since US president Joe Biden ratified the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023 on 23 December, allocating a total of US$857.9 billion to this area, which represents an annual increase of seven per cent.
China, meanwhile, has reached US$293 billion, which equates to 4.7 per cent of its GDP, an upward trend that has been uninterrupted for 27 years. Very far behind them is Russia, which increased its defence budget for the third consecutive year, with a rise of 2.9 per cent to US$65.9 billion, which represents 4.1 per cent of its GDP. More broadly, the data gathered by SIPRI shows that average military spending as a share of government expenditure by all countries worldwide is 5.9 per cent, and that three of the five regions covered in its analysis have seen an increase in military spending, with a rise of 3.5 per cent (US$586 billion) in Asia and Oceania, 3 per cent in Europe (US$418 billion) and 1.2 per cent in Africa (US$39.7 billion), and a fall in this spending in the Middle East (3.3 per cent, with US$186 billion) and the Americas (1.2 per cent, with US$883 billion).
Are security and welfare antithetical?
In short, the figures and trends point to a notable increase for the current year, mainly due to the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the climate of growing concern over the fate not only of Ukraine itself but the security of, at least, Europe as a whole. And although Ukraine increased its defence spending by 72 per cent following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, reaching a total of US$5.9 billion in 2021 – even though in this instance the figure is 8.5 per cent less than the previous year – everything points to it having reached a new all-time record in defence spending in 2022.
And in the wake of these decisions, the fervour for increased armament is also gaining momentum in countries such as Germany, which has approved the creation of a special fund of €100 billion and has pledged to speed up the pace of reaching the 2 per cent of GDP military spending target by 2027.
The same is true of the other leading NATO members, which are under increasing pressure from Washington to meet their 2014 commitment to reach this percentage as soon as possible. Japan, in the meantime, has decided to break the ceiling it set for itself in 1976 and double its defence budget to become the world’s third largest military power by the end of the decade.
The picture emerging from this powerful militarist trend illustrates the continuing strength of the mantras inherited from the Cold War, summed up in the notion that more weapons mean more security and that si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war).
It is a mindset centred on state security, to which human security is invariably subordinated in the name of the supposedly higher interests of the former. Accordingly, driven by the quest for power and a greater focus on defending one’s own borders against possible external threats, there is a tendency to justify military spending that all too often ends up relegating to second place the needs and expectations of the people who inhabit these states.
Against this backdrop, and without questioning every state’s right to defence and the role of armies as a last resort against those who opt for violence, the first thing to understand is that the issues of security and wellbeing are not antithetical but are the two basic pillars of peace, both within and beyond the borders of all states. Understanding that meeting the needs of one’s own population is the best way to guarantee social peace and stability in the face of any revolutionary or violent pressures is therefore fundamental.
For this reason, in a context of growing social unrest resulting from crisis upon crisis that are placing coexistence in jeopardy, it seems even more necessary to focus, rather, on wellbeing, trying to strengthen the social, political and economic instruments that prevent anyone from being left behind, as well as carrying out the reforms needed to face the future with greater confidence, in the awareness that the climate crisis requires structural change.
It is clear that many of the problems that lead to violence, be it at national or global level, are not fundamentally military in nature, nor can they be solved in that way. It follows, therefore, that armies and weapons should not be the tools of choice to solve the multidimensional problems that characterise today’s world and conflict prevention measures need to be strengthened, both at national and international level, precisely to avoid the final outcome of undesirable violent confrontation.
Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde is an economist and a retired army officer. He is co-director of the Institute of Conflict and Humanitarian Action Studies (Instituto de Estudios sobre Conflictos y Acción Humanitaria - IECAH). He specialises in security, peace building and conflict prevention, with particular focus on the Arab-Muslim world. Twitter : @SusoNunez
This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin