Examine the extent to which expenditure on arms and the armed forces is justifiable in the modern world.
With all its wars, terrorist attacks and genocides, history might suggest that the armed forces has a critical and unquestionable role in any nation-state. However, as Steven Pinker puts it “We believe our world is riddled with terror and war, but we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence’. Since the peak of the cold war in the 1970s and 80s, organised conflicts of all kinds, such as civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, terrorist attacks, have declined throughout the world and their death tolls have declined even more precipitously. Despite the trend of the New Peace, world military expenditure in 2013 is estimated to have reach $1.747 trillion and 2012 saw the highest total military spending than in any year since World War 2. Are these military spendings a good return on its national-security “investment’, for it is clearly an investment intended for peace and security. This essay aims to show that expenditure on arms and armed forces are justifiable in the modern world to a very small extent because it facilitates violence, results in power imbalance and its money can be put to better use.
First, expenditure on arms and armed forces is not justifiable as such military spendings facilitate violence and thus violates human rights. Countries without military capability cannot easily undertake “wars of choice” or wars whose purposes evolve, as in Iraq, from dismantling wars of mass destruction to promoting democracy. The last five major wars that the United States undertook, namely Korea 1950, Vietnam 1955, Kuwait 1990, Afghanistan 2001 and Iraq 2003 were the ones in which the United States attacked countries that had not directly attacked the United States. Furthermore, wars involving powers that have the military and economic capability allows for such conflicts to exist for prolonged periods of time. For example, four out of the five wars mentioned above are still unresolved.
The United States possession of military establishment that has a capability far beyond its ability to defend the homeland hence gives it a capability to undertake wars of choice, to the extent that Vietnam and Iraq prove to be miscalculations and strategic blunders. In the UK, the Ministry of Defence redefines the purpose of the armed forces as “meeting a wider range of expeditionary tasks, at greater range from the UK and with everincreasing strategic, operational and tactical tempo” which “could only conceivably be undertaken alongside the US”. This means that their ‘defence capability’ is now retained for the purpose of offence. Expenditure on arms and armed forces is hence not justified on the grounds that they facilitate violence in the world as countries claim moral authority to launch attacks on other countries in the name of benign foreign intervention.
Second, the disproportionate expenditure on arms and the armed forces is not justifiable because wars are no longer the biggest threat to a nation. A report published by the Oxford Research Group argues that modern defence policies are self-defeating. They concentrate on the wrong threats and respond to them in a manner which is more likely to exacerbate than to defuse them. The real challenges, it contends, are presented by climate change, competition over resources, the marginalisation of the poor and our own military deployments. By displacing people from their homes and exacerbating food shortages, climate change will cause social breakdown and mass migration. Competition for resources means that the regions which possess them – particularly the Middle East – will remain the focus of conflict.
As improved education is not matched by better prospects for many of the world’s poor, the resulting sense of marginalisation provides a more hospitable environment for insurrection. Aids leaves a generation of orphaned children vulnerable to recruitment by paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. The war on terror has created the threats it was supposed to defeat, by driving people to avenge the civilians it has killed. By developing new weapons of mass destruction, the rich nations challenge others to try to match them. In 2012, the United States allocated 37% of its budget on military spendings but only 2% on diplomacy, development and war prevention. This is also more than spendings on healthcare and responses to poverty combined. The budget would contribute far more to security if it was spent on energy efficiency, foreign aid and arms control.
Furthermore, the danger and paradox of military spending is that the bigger the budget, the more powerful the lobby because which can fight for its own survival. This leads to loose budget constraints and poor control over spendings and programmes. In Saudi, the corrupt relations that have been cultivated with the princes result in civil servants defending not the realm but the arms companies. Even in countries with reputable governments such as the UK, some abuses in military activities arise because Congress cannot possibly effectively oversee such a large operation where programs involving $24 billion are enacted as a single line item. Hence, military spendings intention of protecting the state may be compromised by other motivations.
Last, the expenditure on arms and armed forces is not justifiable because the disproportionate distribution of military expenditure leads to an unjustifiable imbalance of power. In 2013, nearly four-fifths of all military expenditure was made by 15 states and just 2 states, the United States and China, made nearly half of all military expenditure. American primacy in the global distribution of capabilities is one of the most salient features of the contemporary international system. Their expenditures on arms is more than the next 14 countries combined together. This extraordinary imbalance leads to a unipolar world likely to be built around rules and institutions as desired by the United States.
The extent to which the powerful countries can translate its formidable capabilities into meaningful political influence is debatable as the United State’s selective involvement in Vietnam or Iraq but lack thereof in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era seems to reflect that America’s foreign policy , especially after 2001, has been a reflection simply of the idiosyncratic and provocative strategies of the Bush administration itself rather than a manifestation of the deeper structural features of the global system of power. Hence, expenditure on arms and armed forces is justifiable to a small extent as it has allowed for the presence of many ‘bullies’ on the world stage.
However, expenditure on armed forces can also be justified as nations do have the sovereignty and right to protect their own nations. Ironically due to the current situation of massive military spendings, the world is still vulnerable to threats, especially from terrorism, in the modern century. The drastic increase in United State’s military spending in the last decade can also be justified by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Hence, it is in the nation’s interests to be as prepared as they possibly can. Since the beginning of civilisations, violence has had an unmistakable role in societies and there is little evidence to indicate its extinction in the near future. Some argue that it is human nature to challenge, oppose and expand.
Furthermore, mistakes in history such as when Neville Chamberlain wanted to cut Defence spending in Britain and “appease Hitler” to achieve “peace in our time” have resulted in world leaders who are well guarded against making the same mistakes. Military capability is also an important source of legitimacy for governments. For countries like the United States, their formidable military capability is also a source of national identity and pride. From yet another perspective, it is also the responsibility of governments to deliver and ensure that the security of its people is ensured within its means as stated in Rousseau’s social contract. Under these arguments, the expenditure on arms and armed forces still seem to have a justifiable place in a country’s budget.
Yet, it is important to keep in mind that there are means other than a larger military force to ensure these security needs are met. Despite the initial failures of League of Nations, defence treaties such as NATO founded in 1949 are encouraging initiatives that have successfully reduced military spendings. The organisation constitutes a system of collective defence whereby its member states agree to mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party. Such institutions allow smaller nations to rely on the more powerful ones so that their budget can be more efficiently allocated to build their economies and such is the case in countries like Hungary, Poland and Ukraine.
History shows that countries can reduce spendings quickly if they so desire. In the United states, military spendings declined by 74 percent in the first year after World War II and 23 percent in the first two years after the Korean War ended. Today’s slow decline in spending on obsolete systems arises not because of the increasing threat of war but because there are weak budgetary and virtually non-existent political pressures on military spendings. Given that expenditures on arms and armed forces facilitate violence, leads to inefficient allocation of budgets and global power imbalances, it is justified to a very small extent.