Despite the vast rivers of blood and treasure poured into wars over the centuries, the nations of the world continue to enhance their military might.
According to a recent report from the prestigious Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), world military expenditures grew to a record $1.63 trillion in 2010. Middle East nations alone spent $111 billion on the military, with Saudi Arabia leading the way.
Arms sales have also reached record heights. SIPRI's Top 100 of the world's arms-producing companies sold $401 billion in weaponry during 2009 (the latest year for which figures are available), a real dollar increase of eight percent over the preceding year and 59 percent since 2002. These military companies do a particularly brisk business overseas, where they engage in fierce battles for weapons contracts. "There is intense competition between suppliers for big-ticket deals in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America," reports Dr. Paul Holtom, Director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Program. Until recently, in fact, defense contractors scrambled vigorously to sell arms to Libya.
In numerous ways, the United States is at the head of the pack. Of the $20.6 billion increase in world military expenditures during 2010, the U.S. government accounted for $19.6 billion. Indeed, between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. government increased its military spending by 81 percent. As a result, it now accounts for about 43 percent of global military spending, some six times that of its nearest military rival, China.
U.S. weapons producers are also world leaders. According to SIPRI, 45 of its Top 100 weapons-manufacturers are based in the United States. In 2009, they generated nearly $247 billion in weapons sales—nearly 62 percent of income produced by the Top 100. Not surprisingly, the United States is also the world's leading exporter of military equipment, accounting for 30 percent of global arms exports in the 2006-2010 period.
Being Number 1 might be exciting, even thrilling, among children. But adults might well ask if the benefits are worth the cost. Are they?
Let's take a look at the issue of terrorism. Much of the last decade's huge military buildup by the United States was called for in the context of what President George W. Bush called the "War on Terror." And the costs, thus far, have been high, including an estimated $1.19 trillion that Americans have paid for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus thousands of Americans and vast numbers of Afghans and Iraqis who have been slaughtered. By contrast, the benefits are certainly dubious. Neither war resulted in the capture or killing of the terrorist mastermind, Osama bin Laden, who was tracked down in another country thanks to years of painstaking intelligence work and dispatched by a quick commando raid. Wouldn't Americans (and people in other lands) be a lot safer from terrorism with fewer wars and better intelligence?
Of course, there is also the broader national security picture. Even without terrorism, the world is a dangerous place. War is certainly a hardy perennial. Nevertheless, simply increasing national military spending does not make nations safer. After all, when one country engages in a military buildup, others—frightened by this buildup—often do so as well. The result of this arms race is all too often international conflict and war. Wouldn't nations be more secure if they worked harder at cooperating with one another rather than at threatening one another with military might? Even if they were not the best of friends, they might find it to their mutual advantage to agree to decrease their military spending by an equal percentage, thus retaining the current military balance among them. Also, they could begin turning over a broader range of international security issues to the United Nations.
Maintaining a vast military apparatus also starves other areas of a society. Currently, in the United States, most federal discretionary spending goes for war and preparations for war—and this despite an ongoing crisis over unemployment and a stagnating economy. Continuing this pattern, the Obama administration's proposed federal budget for fiscal 2012, while increasing military spending, calls for sharp cuts in funding for education, income security, food safety, and environmental protection. Even as congress wrestles with the thorny issue of priorities, huge numbers of teachers, firemen, health care workers, social workers, policemen, and others—told that government revenues are no longer sufficient to fund their services—are being dismissed from their jobs. Other public servants are having their salaries and benefits slashed. Social welfare institutions are being closed. Thus, instead of defending the home front in the United States, the immensely costly U.S. military apparatus is helping to gut it.
Ultimately, as many people have learned through bitter experience, militarism undermines both peace and prosperity. Perhaps it's time for government officials to learn this fact.
Dr. Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is "Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement" (Stanford University Press).