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A New Global Arms Race - part 1

by Richard Palmer
(United States)

The world is becoming more dangerous than ever before. That’s the type of statement you may read in the newspaper or hear a presidential candidate say. But how do you prove that it is true? One trend that gives us a good indication is military spending.


In 2011, the world was spending massive amounts on its military. Although military expenditures have shrunk slightly each year it remains at a historic peak surpassing its height of the Cold War. The world is spending more than during the Cold War, or any other time, except for the height of World War II.

The reason this indicates the danger in today’s world is not just as simple as saying, the more money spent on weapons, the more dangerous the world is. It matters who’s spending it. And when you look at those facts, the picture is even more disturbing.

Europe

Let’s start by looking at defense spending in Europe.

Last year, Russia increased its defense budget by 8 percent; this year, it has said it wants to increase its budget by 15 percent. This move by Russia has prompted some dramatic jumps in European military spending.

Lithuania is increasing its spending by 50 percent. Latvia is boosting its by 15 percent; Estonia, 7 percent. Ukraine is expected to double its military spending this year.

Further West, the increases, though not quite as extreme, are still pretty dramatic. Poland pledged to spend an extra $38 billion between 2013 and 2022. This year, France promised a $4.4 billion increase by 2019, Sweden an extra billion. Norway and the Netherlands both announced increases in the hundreds of millions.

The most important thing about these statistics is not the numbers themselves, but the direction of the trend. For years, Europe’s militaries have been shrinking. Now that has changed—spending is going back up again.

“These decisions present fundamental revisions of long-standing military spending practices in most of the countries that saw their defense budgets in more or less constant decline since the end of the Cold War,” wrote the Royal United Services Institute, a UK-based think tank. “The recent developments might therefore be regarded as being indicative of a substantial change in the countries’ defense discourse both at the political level and within the broader public debate.”

The most important example of this is Germany.

Last year, several news outlets, including the Trumpet, noted that some German leaders were talking about increasing the defense budget. Just the fact that people were talking this way was news—for years it has been all about cutting the budget.

At first, former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was one of the only high-profile people calling for an increase in military spending. “It is appalling that Germany recently decided to cut military spending by about €800 million (US$1.05 billion) in 2015,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in September 2014.

Around this time last year, others started joining him. The New York Times wrote that the current defense minister Ursula von der Leyen was “pondering aloud the possible revision of what has long been a political no-go: raising the budget for defense spending.”

“Now I am being asked whether we should spend more money,” German defense expert Thomas Wiegold said. “That has never happened before.”

Now that extra spending has happened. In March, Germany announced an extra €8 billion ($9.1 billion) on its military. That’s an increase in spending of 6.2 percent. This went from unthinkable to hearing people talk about it, to actually happening—in around a year.

Now people are calling for even more. The outgoing Germany army chief of staff, for example, has called for an increase in spending of around $23 billion. The new parliamentary ombudsman for the armed forces, Hans-Peter Bartel has called for billions more to be spent.

Middle East

We see the same trend in the Middle East.

The main driver of this increase is Iran. In this year’s budget, Iran increased its defense spending by 30 percent, and the recently concluded nuclear deal could open the door to even bigger increases. The U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote:

The limits to Iran’s military expenditures have been a matter of necessity more than intent, and this necessity has resulted from international pressure and sanctions as the limits imposed by Iran’s GDP and its need to support a large native population. Iran has been subject to expanding and crippling sanctions, leading to a devalued currency, significant reductions in oil exports, trade disruptions, higher inflation, and a shrinking economy.

In other words, Iran wants to spend even more on its military, and the main thing holding it back has been the sanctions. Once those are gone, we’ll see that spending rise even more. The American Action Forum crunched some numbers and concluded that extra income made available to Iran by the deal would mean that its defense budget would increase $10 billion to $15 billion—though they also note, “Nothing in the deal would prevent Iran from spending more than that to fund their military or terrorist organizations and authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East.”

This jump is having a big impact across the region, most dramatically in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s fourth-largest military spender. And its spending has exploded. Since 2005—just 10 years ago—its military expenditure has more than doubled. In 2014 it increased 17 percent, the largest increase in any of the world’s big spenders.

The Saudis are set to increase their defense budget by another 27 percent over the next five years, according to IHS Jane’s Aerospace, Defense and Security. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are also planning to up their spending—Qatar quite substantially. Qatari officials announced $23 billion worth of potential deals last year, in what IHS Jane’s called “unprecedented increase in investment in the military.”

The Financial Times noted that these countries are all “seeking more advanced weaponry from the U.S. to counter what they fear could be an emboldened Iran.”

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