Globalist Perspective

Imagining a Post-Military World (Part I)

Can the world’s governments strike a better balance in what it spends on security and what it spends on the world’s neediest people?

Oscar Arias
Credit: Juan Manuel Herrera-OAS (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


  • Our real enemies today are climate change, poverty, inequality, hunger, disease, environmental degradation and illiteracy.
  • The developed world has unprecedented resources to make a difference. Global military expenditure reached $1.73 trillion in 2011, equal to about 2.5% of world GDP.
  • U.S. defense spending increased by 70% between 2001 and 2009, in a world where 925 million people go to bed hungry and 16,000 children die of hunger.
  • With just one-fifth of one percent of world military spending, we could have built a safe home for every single family in Haiti left homeless by the earthquake.
  • Imagine the impact on security of reducing poverty, providing universal primary education, eliminating the digital divide, or reducing hunger and sickness.

When it comes to security, it is increasingly difficult to apply the words and lessons of times gone by to the threats and dangers we now face. Some of the oldest written words anywhere in the world are those found in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Sun Tzu tells us that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

In the 21st century, this advice is hard to hear, because our enemies are not clear to us. We no longer face forces easily defined by formations, flags or uniforms. We can no longer separate ourselves from them by building a wall between our country and theirs. We can no longer defend against them with soldiers and weapons, with barracks and bunkers.

To paraphrase Clement Attlee, we cannot sustain a paradise within our borders if there is hell on the other side. Waves of immigration, both legal and illegal, are literally bringing home the concept that poverty and crime in faraway places can have a tremendous impact on our own soil.

The terrorist attacks of recent decades have shown that our real enemies today are climate change, poverty, inequality, hunger, disease, environmental degradation and illiteracy, which can create dangers anywhere in the world. The interconnected nature of this globalized planet makes it impossible to isolate ourselves.

All of this requires us to change our approach — and the economic reality of our time requires reduced, smarter spending. In the 20th century, we might have used hawks and doves to define our positions, but these ideological separations no longer make sense.

The real question is not whether we should reduce military spending, but how to do so. How can the developed world reduce its military budgets, while protecting the safety of its citizens? How can we spend less, with greater impact?

The costs of military spending

When I was a child, Costa Rica endured a war of its own. When the war ended in 1948, Costa Rica made a voluntary decision that no other country had ever undertaken: to abolish its army and declare peace to the world. By doing this, my country promised me, and all its children, that we would never see tanks or troops in our streets.

My country promised me, and all its children, that it would invest not in the weapons of our past but in the tools of our future. Not in barracks, but in schools, hospitals and national parks. Not in soldiers but in teachers, doctors and park guards.

My country promised to dismantle the institutions of violence and to invest in the progress that makes violence unnecessary. Quite simply, my country invested in its people.

This resulted not only in a healthy, educated and free society. It resulted in concrete gains for national and regional security. When conflicts and civil wars swept through Central America in the 1980s, Costa Rica was able to maintain its stability and freedom from violence. What’s more, this enabled Costa Rica to become the platform for the peace accords that gradually ended the unrest.

And today, while the terrible consequences of drug trafficking in our region and consumption in the developed world are posing serious challenges to our government, Costa Rica continues to maintain its foothold in the world of peace.

Here in the developed world, those achievements might seem distant, or even insignificant. But an oasis of democratic stability in a region that is among the most dangerous in the world, and whose exports of goods and people have a direct effect on its northern neighbors, is valuable indeed.

The basic idea here is that security does not lie in weapons or fences or armies. Security lies in human development. Social spending and military spending have too long been divorced in our minds. Investing in human development is not a competing priority to defense spending. Such investment supports security.

And no matter what the economic constraints are, there is no arguing with the fact that the developed world has unprecedented resources to make a difference. Global military expenditure reached $1.73 trillion in 2011, equal to about 2.5% of world GDP.

Latin America managed to claim nearly $70 billion of that sum, while remaining one of the most violent and economically unequal regions in the world, with almost 200 million of its inhabitants living in poverty.

Of course, these figures are dwarfed by the expenditures of the United States, which is responsible for nearly half of the world’s military spending. U.S. defense spending increased by 70% between 2001 and 2009, in a world where 925 million people go to bed hungry every night and 16,000 children die every day of hunger-related causes.

A comprehensive approach to security cannot postpone attention to the world’s neediest people. In this new century, it is not only foolish and immoral, but also impractical, to spend on the symptoms but not on the disease – to spend on threats but not on their cause.

As a point of reference, consider the $487 billion that the U.S. Defense Department plans to eliminate from its projected spending for the coming decade. Four hundred eighty-seven billion dollars represents a sea of weapons and soldiers.

But it is important to keep in mind what $487 billion represents for human development as well. Here is just one example: that amount could buy 2.4 billion computers from One Laptop Per Child.

That means that every child in the developing world would walk into his classroom tomorrow and find his own laptop waiting for him, with plenty of funding left over for teacher training and connectivity.

Does such a large investment in education sound impossible? Let’s see what could be done with much smaller amounts. Fifty cents on every dollar of the proposed reductions could provide monthly scholarships to 243 million at-risk young people for an entire year.

One quarter out of every dollar could vaccinate three billion people against yellow fever or typhoid. One dime of every dollar could build more than one thousand hospitals, or 16,000 schools. One penny of every dollar could provide a hot lunch to 6.2 million people for an entire year.

With tiny percentages of current world military spending, we could equip all homes with electricity, achieve universal literacy, and eradicate all preventable diseases.

Preventing misery, not avenging it

A disaster that moved the entire world in 2010 provides the most shocking example of all. We could not have prevented the earthquake and hurricanes in Haiti, but we could have prevented what followed. With just one-fifth of one percent of world military spending — that’s 0.2% — we could have built a safe home for every single family in Haiti left homeless by the earthquake.

And, also within that amount, we could have provided clean drinking water for every single Haitian, thus preventing the cholera epidemic. We also could have built a brand new hospital through Partners in Health. We could have fed a hot meal to all of Haiti’s children, every single day. Finally, we could have put all of those children through a year of school.

We all lament poor Haiti’s suffering, but that suffering only continues because of the world’s priorities. Eleanor Roosevelt once asked, “When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery, rather than to avenge it?” I am afraid that we must answer her, “Not yet. Not yet.”

Imagine the impact on security of reducing poverty by half. Imagine the impact on security of universal primary education. Imagine the impact on security of eliminating the digital divide. Imagine the impact on security of drastic reductions in hunger and sickness. These changes would take power from dictators and terrorists in ways that weapons never could.

Certainly, some of the threats we now face cannot be resolved by human development alone. And yet it is impossible to deny that the vast majority of them would be changed forever, or completely eliminated, by a more comprehensive approach.

This is an idea whose time has come. But the change will not occur by chance. It can only occur by choice.

This article is adapted from the author’s keynote address at the Affordable World Security Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 28, 2012. The event was sponsored by the W.P. Carey Foundation and the EastWest Institute.

Read Part II

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About Oscar Arias

Oscar Arias was president of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990 and from 2006 to 2010.

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