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Guns or butter?

Globally, nations spend nine times more on military endeavors than on combating hunger

Guerra Ucrania
A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions in Bakhmut, February 2023.YASUYOSHI CHIBA (AFP)
Moisés Naím

Last year, global military spending surged by nearly 7%, marking the largest increase since 2008, according to researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Collectively, governments expended over $2.4 trillion on military personnel, equipment and weaponry. That is 2.4 million times a million dollars.

There are so many better uses for resources on this scale. Globally, nations spend nine times more on military endeavors than on combating hunger. Indeed, global military expenditures are approaching the $2.5-$3 trillion that the United Nations estimates would be necessary to achieve all of the Sustainable Development Goals. These goals include eradicating hunger and providing electricity, sanitation, health and education services to everyone worldwide. We might have achieved all that, but we didn’t, because we spent the money on weapons instead.

The “peace dividend” so warmly welcomed in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Soviet Union reducing the need for arms spending, seems a distant memory. Instead, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and in response to a recalcitrant and irredentist China, global powers have redirected resources towards military efforts that could have improved the lives of hundreds of millions.

This trend is global. Each of the world’s 10 major powers significantly increased their military budgets in 2023. Russia’s military spending grew by 24%, totaling 13 times the budget of the U.N. World Food Programme, which assists those on the brink of famine. Ukraine, for its part, boosted its military spending by 51% to $65 billion, three times the budget that UNICEF allocates to the world’s most deprived children.

It is no surprise that countries in the middle of a shooting war are ramping up their military budgets. However, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has had global repercussions, prompting governments everywhere to also arm themselves. Meanwhile, the United States also increased its expenditure to an astonishing $916 billion, accounting for 38% of the world’s total military spending.

China’s military spending, though still less than a third of America’s at “just” $296 billion — equivalent to 70 times the global expenditure on malaria control — is nonetheless increasing rapidly, at a rate of 6% per year compared to 2.4% in the U.S. The military gap between these two leading powers is narrowing annually. What might happen when it closes altogether, nobody can tell.

Many argue that this arms race became inevitable the day Vladimir Putin decided to destabilize Europe by invading Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron vigorously maintains that, given the Russian threat, Europe cannot continue to rely solely on a Washington increasingly pivoting to the Pacific in response to China’s strong geopolitical ambitions.

Even modest military powers are increasing their military budgets. Spain, for example, increased its defense spending by $2 billion last year — a sum similar to what the entire world has pledged to alleviate the humanitarian crisis caused by the Civil War in Sudan.

Countries that were forced into pacifism after losing World War II are now actively preparing for potential armed conflict. Japan, for instance, is rapidly increasing its military budget and is projected to become the third-largest military power by 2027. Germany has made a drastic shift in its military policy, purchasing an expensive fleet of F35 fighter jets and advanced digital command-and-control systems.

In a more dangerous world, it is natural for governments to feel strong pressure to arm themselves, yet it remains a tragedy. One reason for the extraordinary economic and social success of Japan and Germany post-1945 is that these countries were barred from wasting scarce resources on their armed forces, allowing them to instead strengthen their economies and societies.

Justified or not, needed or not, this arms race makes us all poorer.

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