The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its annual assessment of global military spending this week, and the results are stunning. In the leadup to the COVID-19 crisis – the most significant threat to humankind and human security in decades – the governments of the world were busy investing in the sort of defense that is of almost no practical value in shielding us from this pandemic.
Global military spending peaked at over $1.9 trillion last year, the highest level in five decades. Spending by the United States has been the driver of this massive expenditure, accounting for 38 percent of the total — over two-and-a-half times what China spends and over ten times what Russia spends.
In short, the SIPRI report throws into sharp relief the inadequacies of Washington’s notion of security — thousands of Americans are dead, and our massive military budget did little to protect them. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, which are on the front lines of the effort to blunt the results of this pandemic and prevent future outbreaks, receive roughly $8 billion per year in U.S. government resources, a tiny fraction of the more than $700 billion lavished on the Pentagon. That’s a total of less than 2 percent of U.S. defense spending for both agencies combined. Looked at in another way, the $35 billion the Pentagon spends on nuclear weapons each year could pay for 300,000 ICU beds, 35,000 ventilators, 150,000 nurses and 75,000 emergency room doctors.
At the global level, the new SIPRI figures speak to a devastating misallocation of resources that favors means of violence over means of actual security. The tradeoff is particularly acute in societies already marked by extreme poverty or glaring inequalities, where SIPRI found some of the highest levels of military spending relative to Gross Domestic Product: Saudi Arabia (8.6 percent); Algeria (6.0 percent); Kuwait (5.6 percent); Jordan (4.7 percent); Lebanon (4.2 percent); and Pakistan (4.0 percent). Countries in the midst of longstanding wars, like Yemen, are particularly vulnerable given that their health systems and access to basic commodities such as clean water have been devastated by a conflict fueled by major military spenders like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The United States shouldn’t be devising five-year plans for growing the Pentagon’s bloated budget or spinning out scenarios for new weapons designed for a hypothetical war with China. Instead, there needs to be long-term planning for addressing the threats global publics actual face: Lack of access to public health, growing economic inequality and the effects of the climate crisis, which if left unchecked could make the COVID-19 pandemic look like a minor incident.
As retired Gen. David Barno and Nora Bensahel have noted, “many Americans will look at the immeasurable damage wrought by the pandemic and conclude that defending the homeland from catastrophic threats is far more urgent than defending against foreign threats far from American shores.”
There is another way. Last June, the Center for International policy released the report of its Sustainable Defense Task Force, which foreshadowed our current predicament. It concluded that, “[T]he most urgent threats to U.S. security are non-military, and the proper national security tools ought to be non-military as well.”
The task force – a group that includes former White House, congressional and Pentagon budget officials, retired military officers and think tank experts from across the political spectrum – has devised a plan that could save over $1.25 trillion in proposed Pentagon spending over the next decade. Those funds could be invested in other urgent national needs.
Elite concepts of national security have lost touch with the needs of average people, both in the United States and around the world. The status quo understating of security is out of step with the lived experience of people across the globe. The shattering consequences of COVID-19 are a symptom of that dissonance. Our security priorities need to change now.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and co-director of the Center’s Sustainable Defense Task Force. Elias Yousif is the program and research associate and acting director at the Center’s Security Assistance Monitor.