Globalist Perspective

World Military Spending — Mutually Assured Self-Destruction?

Is the leveling of world military spending in 2011 the start of a trend — or a temporary lull?

Credit: Rafal Olkis/


  • World military spending in 2011 was $1.738 trillion. Of that, $711 billion — almost 41% — was accounted for by the United States alone.
  • Having overtaken the UK and France, Russia is now the third-largest military spender worldwide, after the United States and China.

The latest report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that, taking into account some data uncertainties, world military spending in 2011 was essentially unchanged when compared to 2010. This breaks a 13-year run of continuous military spending increases. And it would be a cause for celebration — except that it is still a totally objectionable spending of people’s funds.

It is difficult to assess if this leveling of military spending represents a long-term change. Although some countries have diminished their spending, others have kept it as usual or even increased it. On the other hand, the leveling may be due mainly to the global economic crisis, meaning higher spending will resume as soon as the crisis has passed.

For example, the dire economic situation in most European countries may mean that spending will continue to fall for the next two to four years. This is probably the case in countries such as Greece (down 26% since 2008), Spain (18%), Italy (16%), Ireland (11%) and Belgium (12%) — countries that were ravaged by the recent crisis.

In contrast, the United Kingdom, France and Germany — the top three spenders in Western Europe — have made only cosmetic cuts amounting to less than 5%.

In the case of the United States, military spending is likely to fall, due mainly to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and diminished number of troops in Afghanistan. In these cases, reduced spending on the additional war budget (also known as Overseas Contingency Operations) will probably continue to fall if plans to end combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014 are fulfilled — and if the United States doesn’t get involved in another major war (as could be the case with Iran).

Meanwhile, military spending continues to increase in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. If the Middle East conflict continues to deteriorate, it could change the expenditure situation significantly. If this doesn’t happen, though, SIPRI believes that the rapid increases of the last decade are probably over for now.

Despite its severe recession in 2009, Russia has increased its military spending by 16% in real terms since 2008, which includes a 9.3% increase in 2011. Russia has overtaken the UK and France to become the third-largest military spender worldwide, after the United States and China. Further increases in military spending are planned in Russia, according to some experts.

In Asia, increased military spending by China in 2011, estimated at 6.7% in real terms, accounts for the total regional increase. In the rest of Asia and Oceania, total military spending slightly decreased by 0.4%, reflecting a mixed pattern of increases and decreases.

China has increased its military spending by 500% since 1995, and now has the second-largest military expenditures in the world. However, its level of military spending (at $143 billion in 2011) has remained very stable as a share of GDP, at approximately 2% since 2001. Thus, China’s increase only mirrors its rapid economic growth.

According to SIPRI’s estimates, the world’s total military spending in 2011 was $1.738 trillion. Of that amount, $711 billion — almost 41% — was accounted for by the United States alone.

To put that $1.738 trillion in perspective, it is several hundred times the World Health Organization’s annual budget, which in 2010 was $5 billion.

World military spending is also far more than a hundred times higher than the $10.8 billion budget of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the $2 billion Gates Foundation budget for global health initiatives. It is, in fact, about a hundred times higher than the combined budgets of these organizations.

That leading world powers would devote such astronomical sums to activities aimed at destroying life — while applying such paltry sums to the improvement of people’s health (particularly the most vulnerable) — says volumes about the possibilities of creating a more peaceful, harmonious world.

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About César Chelala

César Chelala is a global health consultant and contributing editor for The Globalist. [New York, United States]

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