Monday, April 13, 2009

On America's Military Expenditure: Responding to Fareed Zakaria GPS

Fareer Zakaria puts a question on American Military expenditure in his very popular Fareed Zakaria GPS programme: Should the America reduce its military expenditure, currently at $651 billion? The logic is that this is way out of proportion with the comparable big power states, and should the nation keep spending as much money as it does. This is a loaded question and will indeed draw a lot of responses. I have my views too, but since I am not an American, I chose to reflect about this here rather than writing back to CNN.

Let us start with how much America really spends on Military. This information is available at various places on the web, but I shall just compile this together here. First, a list of military expenditure by states reveal how much more America spends on Armed Forces. Here are some key statistics. United States spends $651 Billion out of the total reported global expenditure of $1470 Billion, or roughly 44% of the total. Interestingly, total NATO expenditure on military is $1050 billion, or 71% of the total. So, in summary, America spends that hopping $651 billion to secure itself in a world where 71% of all military expenditure is made by its immediate allies. Add to that the military expenditure of Japan, South Korea, Isreal, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and you will get another $180 billion, or an additional 12% of the total, by the American allies.
[Refer for an updated list]

Going into more details, the American military budget is more than next 20 big military states combined. Taking the comparison further, while Americans talk about a military threat from China, China's military budget is $70 billion [about 1/10th of Americas]. For all the talk of a soviet-style resurgence of Russia, Russia spends $50 billion [less than 8% of the United States'] a year. Iran indeed appears a big threat in the list, with $6 billion in military spending, less than 1/100th of America. Besides, Iran indeed have to contend with Iraq's military expenditure [currently standing at $18 billion a year], as well as Saudi Arabia's [$31 billion] and Israel's [$13 billion].

So, this is what it is - United States spends an enormous amount of money on military compared to the rest of the world. Note that all the figures above are annual figures, and such clearly superior military investment has happened for many years now. The military advantage looks even bigger when viewed in perspective of current geopolitical alignments. For every hostile state, America has several allies outspending it many times and have them encircled.

Returning to Fareed Zakaria's point then, does America need to spend so much? Or, is the threat still increasing? Robert Gates made a point while presenting the budget this year. He talked about the much needed realignment of America's military expenditure and said that big power rivalries look increasingly unlikely in the coming days. Rather, the military now needs to prepare for new kinds of threats, terrorism, failed states, economic subversion, and strategic expenditure needs to be refocused accordingly.

There are three main reasons America should reduce its military expenditure. These reasons should also induce other major military spenders to shift its focus from military spending to other areas.

First, investment in military power, like investment in other areas, has declining returns. Bob Gates scrapped the plans for developing F22s, wisely, though these planes would have had unmatched maneuvering power. As Fareed Zakaria puts it, when was an American pilot last involved in a dogfight? Not in last 20 years, would be my guess. Besides, we have already amassed enough firepower to destroy the world many times over, and adding the ability to do it a few more additional times is a clear waste of money.

Second, military power actually confuses, makes a nation weaker beyond a certain point. Take America, for example. It already has enough military power to force every credible threat. However, to keep expanding its military power [which, incidentally, sustains a huge American industry, and an army of consultants and think-tanks, call it the military-industrial economy if you wish], one needs to imagine threats and prepare for it. While one may call this strategic thinking, beyond a certain level, this is indeed counterproductive - putting people in fear of everything from outer planets to their spouses.

Third, Machiavelli got it ages ago, living in a fortress does not make one secure, because a seize can be laid. He suggested that the leader is more secure living inside his people, protected by loyalties and love. More military investment leads to a seize mentality, and cuts off the human connection. The 9/11 could happen because of America's huge military advantage and the resultant complacency, not because of the lack of it.

The world is indeed a dangerous place, full of failed states, terrorist cells, pirate ships and rouge demagogues. However, military power is not enough to secure the world. The key challenge, in the coming years, is one of creation - of trust, prosperity and interdependence - and of communication - of connecting the world in a conversation. Military power, with all its destructive abilities, can not achieve any of these. It can deter, but we now have many times the deterrence force and it does not matter anymore. The challenge now is to build bonds, to seek to understand and to understand in turn. One of my friends wants to build Madrassahs in Bangladesh, which, alongside Koran and family values, will teach science and technology, ideas of humanism and enlightenment, none of which contradict the teachings of Islam. I do think what he is doing will go a long way securing the world, and a $1 million in his project will earn Americans security many times over what any F22 can give[with their $300+ million each price tag]. Bob Gates is right: It is time to realign our strategic thought; however, it is time to think beyond military and talk about soft power.

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