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War, a $2tr Boondoggle


By Greta Zarro

In Ireland the total defence sector allocation, including Army pensions, will be €994 million in 2019 (around 0.291% of GDP), an increase of €47.5 million over 2018.  Target strength for the Permanent Defence Force is 9,500. Total world military expenditure rose to $1822 billion in 2018, representing an increase of 2.6 per cent from 2017, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI); and it will approach $2tr this year. At around 2.3% of GDP most countries spend ten times the percentage Ireland does. It allows Ireland to spend more on other sectors.

NATO members including the UK are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence.  Donald Trump suggests they double that figure to a little less than the percentage he says the US spends.  Nato itself says the US spends 3.5% of GDP on defence.Last year it spent $623bn and other NATO countries spent $312 billion, for a total of nearly a trillion dollars spent on defence by NATO members. China spent  €175bn, Russia $61.4bn.Worldwide there were 20.5 million people — or one out of every 330 — serving in the armed forces, according to an International Institute for Strategic Studies report, ‘The Military Balance 2009’. There were also an estimated 49.8 million reservists and seven million serving in paramilitary units. China has the biggest military with 2 million (US, 1.3 million) and 500,000 reserves (US, 865,000).


The far-reaching social and ecological impacts of war, and ongoing preparations for war, should compel us to work for non-violent conflict resolution. Despite the illusion of safety and comfort that is perpetuated by pro-war politicians selling interventionism and regime change for the sake of ‘national security’, our civil liberties, communities, and the environment are threatened every day that governments facilitate the invasion and bombing of countries abroad.

In their wake, war, and preparations for war, such as the network of military bases around the world, leave permanent environmental damage to soil, water, air, and climate. The US Department of ‘Defense’ is the largest institutional consumer of oil($17bn/year) in the world, and the largest global landholder with 800 foreign military bases in 80 countries. The US military is also the third-largest polluter of US waterways, not to mention the waterways of countries it has invaded, such as Kuwait, Iraq, and Vietnam. Wars all over the world wreak havoc on the environment, including those waged by guerrilla forces, whose attempts to stay unseen encourage adversaries to destroy the forests that provide cover. Millions of hectares in Europe, North Africa, and Asia are under interdiction because of tens of millions of landmines and cluster bombs left behind by war. A 1993 US State Department report called landmines “perhaps the most toxic and widespread pollution facing mankind”.

Beyond the ecological devastation that war causes, military spending drains our economy, costing the globe trillions of dollars annually that could be better spent on fixing infrastructure, ending world hunger, providing clean drinking water, transitioning to renewable energy, raising minimum wages, and so much more. According to Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier of the Political Economy Research Institute, investing in peacetime industries produces more jobs, and, in many cases, better-paying jobs, than would spending that money on the military. The National Priorities Project calculates that just 1 year of US military spending could pay for more than 9 million clean energy jobs, or 8 million elementary school teachers. The United Nations’ Office for Disarmament Affairs juxtaposed global military expenditure and the UN budget, for 2010: military spending was 12.7 times higher than the Official UN Development Assistance ($128bn), 604 times higher than the regular UN budgets for Peace and Security, Development, Human Rights, Humanitarian Affairs and International Law ($2.7bn), and 2508 times higher than the combined expenditures of the (UN) International Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Organizations3 ($0.65bn). The opportunity cost of bloated military expenditure is extraordinary.


According to the 2018 Global Peace Index, produced by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), the global economic impact of violence is $14.76tr, 12% of global GDP. The UN estimates that the global food crisis could be solved for a price tag of $30bn a year. That amounts to 1.5% of global annual military spending. The world’s worst humanitarian crisis is currently unfolding in Yemen, which is facing the largest and fastest growing cholera outbreak ever documented, as a result of Saudi-led airstrikes that bombed water, sanitation, and other vital infrastructures. The UK has facilitated this violence by licensing over £4.7bn worth of weapons to Saudi forces.

On top of being economically and environmentally disastrous, war is counterproductive; it endangers more than it protects.In early August the UN warned that a recent pause in international terrorist violence may soon end, with a new wave of attacks possible before the end of the year and according to a declassified intelligence report on the war on Iraq, “despite serious damage to the leadership of al-Qaida, the threat from Islamic extremists has spread both in numbers and in geographic reach”. In fact, research from Peace Science Digest shows that the deployment of troops and weapons exports to another country increase the chance of attacks from terrorist organisations from that country.

Terrorism actually increased during the ‘war on terror’, according to the Global Terrorism Index. “The past decade has experienced the largest surge in terrorist activity in the past fifty years”. Conversely, a groundbreaking study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan illustrates that, over the period 1900-2006, non-violent civil resistance has been twice as successful in resisting tyranny and oppression and resolving conflicts as violent intervention.

If the reality is that non-violence is a more effective means of achieving security than violence is, why do the countries of the world continue to collectively spend trillions annually on war? Military spending is in fact self-perpetuating, as countries stockpile weapons in an arms race against each other, fearing to be the one left ‘defenceless’.

In diverting countless dollars from vital social and ecological needs, military spending exacerbates wealth inequality.  According to IGI Global, “the relationship between military expenditure and the growth rate GDP is nonlinear in the sense that at first with increase in the military expenditure the growth rate rises and after reaching the peak it declines with the further increase. There are also significant opportunity costs of military expenditure both in terms of GDP and economic development as a step-up in the military expenditure leads to the decline in the other forms productive expenditures like that in health, education, and infrastructure among others”.

Characteristically too, it channels money from the public purse into privatised industries. As a result, it further concentrates wealth in a small number of hands.

In short, the $2tr business of war is a corporate boondoggle, lining the pockets of the elite, while draining our economy of vital funding for social and environmental needs. Under the guise of security, war fuels more conflict than it prevents, while consuming precious natural resources.

We are charged with cutting off the profiteering from war, shutting down polluting military bases, demilitarising security, and reallocating war dollars to peace. Learn from, network, and strategise with peace educators, activists, and grassroots organisers on October 5-6 in Limerick at #NoWar2019, World BEYOND War’s fourth annual global conference on war abolition.


GretaZarro is Organizing Director, World BEYOND War