I saw a terrifying graphic on the last page of the most recent Fortune magazine: a chart of military spending worldwide since 1950 in constant dollars, based on numbers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Surprise, surprise, surprise, military spending is at record levels worldwide when adjusted for inflation, an incredible $1.74 trillion in 2017.
The numbers are shocking. The governments of the world spend more than three times on weapons and soldiers than they did during the Korean War and about 25% more than at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s. As a species we are armed to the teeth.
Not surprisingly, like every year since 1950, the United States spends far and away the most on its military, about $610 billion in 2017, 40% of the world’s total and more than 2.5 times spent by the nation in second place, China, which laid out $228 billion for defense. And 2017 is not the peak, as the U.S. Defense Department budget for 2018 is $716 billion, an increase of about 17% in one year. This enormous expansion of spending on soldiers and weapons includes billions of dollars to develop two horrifying new weapons which should be outlawed across the globe: a new generation of nuclear bombs and robotic weapons systems that will operate without human command.
Our budgets for education, mass transit and other infrastructure improvements, healthcare and scientific research certainly did not increase by 17%. In fact Republicans and the Trump Administration want to make massive cuts to the domestic budget. While we brandish our drones and bombs on virtually every continent, our mass transit systems shrivel, our sewers and bridges corrode, our roads form so many potholes they resemble obstacle courses, our children are packed like sardines into classes, we continue to lose our edge in pure science and we have among the highest mortality rates in the industrialized world. If the trends of the past 35 years continue, pretty soon we’ll have an impenetrable defense protecting a ticky-tacky pile of garbage.
The amount we spend on arms becomes even more ridiculous when we convert it to per capita spending. Using the SIPRI numbers and population estimates pulled from various sources, I calculated that in 2017, the United States spent about $1,871 per person on our armed forces, set to increase to $2,198 in 2018. By contrast, the number two total spender on arms is China, which spent about $174 per person on its military last year, significantly below the $229 spent worldwide per person. It seems as if the Chinese are able to keep its population—four times as great as ours—safe for a fraction of what it costs us. Of course, Chinese weapons manufacturing is a cottage industry compared to the enormous and politically connected industrial behemoths in the United States.
When the military expenditures of the top 10 spenders worldwide are converted into per capita amounts, the United States stands alone with the autocratic, anti-Semitic, terrorist-supporting regime of Saudi Arabia, which spends $2,090 per person on its military. The other eight countries on the Top 10 list spend well under $1,000 a year per person on defense, ranging from $64 per capita in India to $865 per capita in France. Some countries that aren’t in the top 10 of spenders: Iran-$178 per capita; Turkey-$225 per capita; Israel-$1,951 per capita on military spending!!
(By the way, the SIPRI website is a great place to find scary numbers about the global arms industry. Besides providing the annual military spending of all countries since 1949, SIPRI has customizable databases of all international transfers of major conventional arms since 1950; the 100 largest arms-producing and military services companies; and all peace (read: armed intervention) operations conducted since 2000, including location, dates of deployment and operation, mandate, participating countries, number of personnel, costs and fatalities.
Even more frightening than the simple fact that the world is awash in guns and soldiers is that 40% of it is controlled by Donald Trump, an inconsistent, insecure and bellicose ignoramus who seems to favor disruption over working together and shows little regard for victims (and in fact may enjoy creating new victims).
Wait, wait, my esteemed readers may ask. We’re a democracy with one set of checks and balances in Congress and the courts, and another in a strong and talented cadre of career military, state, security and diplomatic personnel who transcend administrations. But these checks and balances only work when used. Congress has proven itself unwilling to put limits on the military actions of any president since Lyndon Baines Johnson. And when military misdeeds such as the Iran-Contra deal or the Bush II torture gulag are uncovered, Congress has decided against punishing the president and other decision-makers who committed the crimes. President Obama’s approach to torture exemplifies the American way: let’s sweep the past under a rug and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Meanwhile, career military and diplomatic personnel wring their hands in anguish as Trump makes outrageous statements and policy decisions regarding Russia, North Korea, NATO and Iran.
Which brings us to the latest military spending bill, to which Trumpty Dumpty affixed his signature this week. While broadcast and cable news and the front pages of major newspapers have focused on Trump calling an ex-employee a “dog” and pulling the security clearance of the former Central Intelligence Agency Director who took down Osama bin Laden, buried deep in a handful of newspapers is the news that in signing the military spending bill, Trump claimed in a signing statement that he has the authority to overrule dozens of provisions that he believes constrains his executive power. What that means is that he and his cronies believe that they do not have to follow the law as written.
According to the New York Times, Trump’s signing statements claim he can :
- Ignore a ban on recognizing Russian sovereignty over Crimea.
- Bypass restrictions on bilateral military-to-military cooperation between the United States and Russia.
- Ignore a provision requiring the Pentagon to develop uniform standards for counting and reducing civilian bystander deaths as a result of American military operations.
- Disregard a restriction against reducing the number of active-duty troops stationed in South Korea below 22,000.
Judging from how Congress has responded in the past when presidents have ignored the law in prosecuting foreign wars, what the $716 billion represents is a pool of money that Trump can essentially use in any way he sees fit, as long as the military contractors get their piece of the pie.
Donald Trump’s history of developing and running hotels and casinos demonstrates that when you give this guy a few billion bucks, he screws it all up, losing money for investors and wreaking havoc for suppliers. Now he has $716 billion dedicated to warfare…excuse me…defense…so the mess he creates is bound to be bigger and more painful for its victims. Let’s hope it doesn’t result in a “Big Bang,” this one not creating a new universe but ending human life on our small planet.
Unfortunately, voting for Democrats across the board may not help change our foreign policy. This year’s mid-term is coalescing around a handful of very important issues—healthcare, economic equity, immigration, racism, and the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The Democratic position on all these issues is far better than the Republicans for everyone in the United States except for the ultra-wealthy. The Republic Party has allowed itself to be hollowed out and taken over by what pundits like to call the “Trump base” So by all means pull the lever for any and every Democrat in November.
But as usual, not much is being said about defense spending or foreign policy, and for good reason. From Harry Truman through Obama, both parties have pretty much agreed on the broad outline of defense strategy and foreign policy. Even those who have called for a reduction or eradication of nuclear weapons like Obama have approved budgets that contained increased spending for these weapons of mass destruction. Thus, if the Democrats sweep and then manage to impeach and convict the current president and vice president, the United States may return to being a more consistent alley, but we will still be a bellicose, overly militarized nation. We will still continue to rely on force to get our way far too often, even as we negotiate and enter into peace and trade agreements.