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It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the United States has the largest military in the world by far. As of 2019, the US military budget accounted for almost 40 percent (38%) of the entire world’s military spending, with the US spending more money than the next ten nations combined. This data comes from a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI. You can find the full report in the description below. The report lays out in detail the accelerated military spending of recent years, including the United States and its massive jump from just under 700 billion to 738 billion, a 5% increase over 2018. That increase alone is more than most countries spend on their military budget. But the United States isn’t alone. Military spending has been on the rise around the world. As usual, the US is leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, but what’s going on here? Why is worldwide military spending increasing, and why does the US spend so much money on theirs?
As with most questions, to answer this one properly, we need to go back in time for a bit of context. After World War 2, the United States was in a fairly strong position to assume the title of the world’s greatest superpower. Thanks to her geography, the US had been isolated from the conflict abroad. We had done our part in bombing european and japanese cities into oblivion, but our own military and industrial hubs were left intact. The War had devastated most of Europe, and this meant that these countries needed to spend huge sums of money to rebuild their shattered cities. The United States had no such problem. The resources we would have spent rebuilding the nation could instead be pumped into the military, strengthening our already powerful forces. This privileged position of not having been nuked or firebombed gave America the chance to become a sort of world police force, defending our allies from aggressors, allowing them to spend their money on infrastructure rather than their militaries, and deterring enemies from attacking in the first place.
With the rapid rebuilding of Russia and the ascendancy of the Soviet Union, suddenly the US had a problem on its hands. A foreign entity bent on taking America’s spot as the dominant world power. The Cold War led to a rapid escalation in military spending from both powers, and marked the greatest spending until today. The US and Svoiet Union both stocked up on nuclear weapons and spy planes and poured huge sums of money into beating each other in the new arena of spaceflight. Eventually the Soviet Union dissolved and tensions relaxed. Military spending dropped as world leaders realized that maybe nuclear war is a bad idea. Then in 2001 the US was whipped into a frenzy again when 9/11 happened. Popular support for military action exploded, and we kicked off a misguided “war on terror” that we’re still fighting today, at the expense of billions of dollars and far too many human lives. From 2001 on, with very few exceptions, the US military budget has kept increasing every year. And that’s where we get back to the question, why? Our perceived adversaries in the middle east don’t have advanced militaries, so why do we keep upgrading our equipment and buying new fighter jets, helicopters, and submarines?
In a word, China. In recent years, China has exploded onto the world stage as a capable economic and military power. In 1990, China only accounted for 2% of the world’s military spending, but by 2018, it had jumped to 14 percent, the second largest behind the US. That’s a massive increase, and the US was spooked. Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated that he wants to fully modernize China’s army by the mid 2030s, and take their place as a premiere world military power by the late 2040s. This goal includes building a military presence that can rival the US. China has already built two fully functional aircraft carriers, with another on the way, and invested in top of the line fighter jets and a significant cyber warfare operation. This last part is crucial, because the hyper-modern US military relies on information-enabled equipment, and if China can find a way to remove those advantages, US supremacy goes out the window. Combine the rapid rise of China with the constant threat of old adversaries like Russia, and you can begin to see why the US feels the need to keep increasing its military budget. The return of what’s called Great Power Competition, the kind we haven’t seen since World War 2, has been the spark to ignite this latest wave of worldwide military spending.
Unfortunately, this is a self-reinforcing cycle that goes all the way back to at least World War 2. The great powers are embroiled in conflict, many are decimated in the process, the US steps in to provide military support for allies and deterrence against enemies. The USSR sees the US as an existential threat, builds up their own military. The US sees this and gets spooked, and increases their own spending. This goes back and forth until the Soviet Union collapses. Rinse and repeat with every new perceived threat. But that’s not the only problem America’s hyper-militarization causes. Having taken on the role of world police for so long, what happens when the US decides to pull out of a region? It leaves a power vacuum that threatens the safety of the entire region because we never gave those countries a chance to build their own defenses. Other nations that the US is on less than friendly terms with see what happens when the US wants something, and will feel the need to build up their own defenses. Diplomacy is used less and less often as we have to justify our massive military budget, which convinces other nations that the US is a threat, and prompts them to buff their own militaries, and the cycle continues.
Spending large sums of money on a military is not itself a necessarily bad thing, unless it saps resources from other critical projects like healthcare (which the US does, but that’s a topic for another video). The real problem with this worldwide increased spending is that it indicates we have entered another era of violent competition between world powers. When nations build new bombers and nuclear submarines, it’s because they intend to have them as an option when the time comes. You can say all militaries are strictly for deterrence, but look around. The US has been fighting a pointless war for almost twenty years, long after it’s become apparent that the conflict began under false pretenses. We’ve dropped atomic bombs on densely populated cities, firebombed others, and have come literally one decision from global nuclear war in the past. If war between great powers breaks out, or even between lesser powers with nuclear weapons, that’s it. The gloves come off and the massive militaries the world has built over the last two decades will be used to their fullest potential. The US is not alone in its dangerous acceleration of military spending, but as the world’s sole superpower, setting an example of nonviolence could go a long way towards ensuring a peaceful future. What do you think? Is the US justified in spending almost 740 billion dollars on weapons of war, or should the country adjust its priorities? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. And if you’d like to learn more about the conflict that launched America to its place as the world’s largest superpower, I highly recommend you check out Apocalypse: World War 2 on curiositystream. It’s a fascinating look at the deadliest war in human history and how it changed the world.
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