Can Christmas truly be the time of peace on Earth? Or are such sentiments meaningless platitudes, uttered perhaps in earnest during the season, but forgotten with New Year’s resolutions by the end of January?
According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, global spending by the top 15 military powers approached $2 trillion in 2018.
At the top of the pack in undisputed first place, is, of course, the United States, where military spending in 2018 alone totaled $649 billion.
In a very distant second place, with military outlays totaling $250 billion (in 2017 constant dollars), was the People’s Republic of China.
And then there is another enormous gap. The third place in military spending is held by Saudi Arabia, where its $67.6 billion outstripped everyone but the U.S. and China in 2018.
Here, all measured in 2017 dollars, are the world’s other ranking top 10 military spenders: India, $66.5 billion; France, $63.8 billion; Russia, $61.4 billion; the United Kingdom, $50 billion; Germany, $49.5 billion; Japan, $46.6 billion; and South Korea, $43.1 billion.
So, let’s look at this in perspective. The U.S. spends 2.6 times as much as second-place China. It spends more than 10 times as much as its Cold War nemesis, Russia. In fact, if you add up all the spending by the other nine top 10 military powers, the U.S. spending is only slightly less than the rest of them combined. The U.S. spent $649 billion; the other nine spent a total of $698.5 billion. But much of the other spending is among our allies. Leaving China, India, Saudi Arabia and Russia out of the picture, the U.S. and its close allies spent a total of $902 billion on arms and military outlays in 2018.
But here’s the second important thing: This isn’t new. In fact, for most of the last 30 years (1988 to 2018), global spending on military forces and armaments has never been lower than around $1 trillion in constant 2017 dollars. And that was just for a few short years from 1995 to 2000. For the other 25 years, the totals have averaged around $1.5 trillion or higher. Do the math, please. Using $1.5 trillion as a reasonable average, that’s over $45 trillion expended worldwide since 1988.
Can this continue?
Are we making the world safer?
Or are the new existential threats we face not remediable by traditional military forces? We need smarter, more-focused military spending, not just more and more of the same. We also need to sow seeds of economic development and empowerment in those areas and populations most vulnerable to the allure of extremism and terrorism.
For the next 30 years, there are two major threats to human survival on what Bucky Fuller once called “this spaceship, Earth.”
The first is global warming and looming ecocatastrophe. The second is international terrorism. The latter is easily not contained or countered by traditional military power — a lesson we should certainly have learned by now from our nearly two decades of failed efforts despite massive military spending in Afghanistan.
We need a global war on global warming. Not just some pious Paris Climate Agreement. We need action. We need resources committed to fighting and winning this ultimate threat to life on Earth. And the only possible way that the world can win this battle is to free up most of those dollars currently dedicated to military spending and create a green energy revolution worldwide.
Will that be easy? Certainly not. But is it possible? Certainly yes.
End the arms race. Or face the end of the human race. Once we begin to see those two as the only choices we have, perhaps the nations and peoples of the world can find common cause and common purpose.
May we all rededicate ourselves to a genuine and lasting peace on earth during this holiday season.
David Peterson is an economist and author. He lives in Duluth, Minn.