World Military Spending Rises to a Hefty $2.0 Trillion Despite UN Pleas for Cutbacks
By Thalif Deen*
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 26 2021 (IPS) – The United Nations–
which is desperately seeking funds to help developing nations battling a
staggering array of socio-economic problems, including extreme poverty, hunger,
economic inequalities and environmental hazards– has continued to be one of the
strongest advocates of disarmament.
body has relentlessly campaigned for reduced military spending in an attempt to
help divert some of these resources into sustainable development and
But according to a new report released April 26 by the
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), world military
expenditure rose to nearly $2 trillion in 2020, an increase of 2.6 percent, in
real terms, from 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which brought the world to a virtual
standstill for the last 14 months, apparently has had no impact on military
Ironically, four of the five biggest spenders were permanent
members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), namely the US, China, Russia and UK.
The fifth biggest spender was India, currently a non-permanent member of the
Military spending by China, which is currently in a new Cold
War with the US, grew for the 26th consecutive year.
The latest figures of rising arms expenditures by some of
the big powers makes a mockery of the UN’s longstanding pleas for cutbacks and
diversion of funds from the military into sustainable development.
William D. Hartung, Director, Arms and Security Program at
the Washington-based Center for International Policy told IPS: “At a time when
a global pandemic, climate change, and racial and economic injustice pose the
greatest risks to human lives and livelihoods, the increase in global military
expenditures in 2020 marks a dismal failure by policymakers across the world to
address the most urgent challenges we face”.
He argued that even a fraction of. the nearly $2 trillion
spent on the military last year could have gone a long way towards sustainable
investments in public health, environmental protection, and combating
“World leaders can and must do better,” said Hartung.
The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) points out
that over the past century, governments have sought ways to reach a global
agreement on reductions in military expenditures. Various proposals were
discussed in the League of Nations, and later in the UN. Early proposals in the
UN focused on reducing the expenditures of States with large militaries, and on
freeing up funds for development aid.
“But proposals for cutting
military spending did not materialize,” says UNODA. However, they
led to the development of the UN Standardized Instrument for Reporting Military
Expenditures in 1981—later renamed United Nations Report on Military
Expenditures (MilEx)—under which countries are encouraged to report on their
Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a Senior Fellow and Adjunct Full
Professor with the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of
Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS “the latest military
spending data from SIPRI are difficult to reconcile with the reality of the
world we live in today”.
In a year in which the global community was dealing with the
horrors of the Covid-19 pandemic, SIPRI’s data show that military spending
continued unabated. Military spending increased in nine of the 10 countries
with the highest military expenditures, she pointed out.
Even though the global economy as measured by global gross
domestic product (GDP) decreased by 4.4 percent, she said, global military
spending increased 2.6 percent over the year. Global military spending is going
in exactly the wrong direction.
“Unfortunately, the United States continues to lead the
world in military spending, accounting for 39 percent of the global total,”
said Dr Goldring, who is Visiting Professor of the Practice in Duke
University’s Washington DC program and also represents the Acronym Institute at
the United Nations on conventional weapons and arms trade issues.
According to SIPRI’s data, that’s more than the rest of the
top 10 military spenders combined. And It’s more than twice the total of the
countries which are most commonly perceived by US policymakers as its main
military competitors, Russia and China, she added.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations at
the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, told IPS it is indeed
ironic that four of the five permanent members of the UNSC are the largest
“The more ironic problem is the fact that all of these
countries spend a small fraction of these amounts on social programs, which
explains to a great extent the growing poverty in all of these countries”.
Needless to say, he noted, the key to reducing military
budgets is directly connected to the level of tension between the various
“I do not expect any serious discussion about world
disarmament unless many of the consuming conflicts are resolved, and in
particular the growing, rather than diminishing, tension between the United
States, Russia, and China,” Dr Ben-Meir declared.
‘The recent increases in US military spending can be
primarily attributed to heavy investment in research and development, and
several long-term projects such as modernizing the US nuclear arsenal and
large-scale arms procurement,’ said Alexandra Marksteiner, a researcher with
SIPRI’s Arms and Military Expenditure Programme.
Meanwhile, China’s military expenditure, the second highest
in the world, is estimated to have totalled $252 billion in 2020. This
represents an increase of 1.9 per cent over 2019 and 76 per cent over the
decade 2011–20. China’s spending has risen for 26 consecutive years, the
longest series of uninterrupted increases by any country in the SIPRI Military
In an open letter to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last
September, the Berlin-based International Peace Bureau called for world
disarmament and the reduction of global military spending.
“We write to you on behalf of the International Peace Bureau
and more than 11.000 signatories to express our support for your call for a
global ceasefire. We would also like to emphasize the need for (nuclear)
disarmament and the reallocation of money from the military to healthcare,
social, and environmental needs – to the fulfilment of the Social Development
This pandemic has also made clear that states need to
re-prioritize their spending. While many of the problems raised by the pandemic
could have been at least partially solved, it was the lack of funding which
hindered it, the letter declared.
Last month, the United Nations was hoping to raise soma
$3.85bn from more than 100 governments and donors at a virtual pledging
conference. The funds were meant to avert widespread famine in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen,
But the total pledges amounted to only $1.7bn – less than
half – in what the UN secretary general described as a “disappointing outcome”.
“Millions of Yemeni children, women and men desperately need aid to live.
Cutting aid is a death sentence,” António Guterres said in a statement.
In its latest study, SIPRI said even though military
spending rose globally, some countries explicitly reallocated part of their
planned military spending to pandemic response, such as Chile and South Korea.
Several others, including Brazil and Russia, spent considerably less than their
initial military budgets for 2020.
‘We can say with some certainty that the pandemic did not
have a significant impact on global military spending in 2020,’ said Dr Diego
Lopes da Silva, Researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure
Programme. ‘It remains to be seen whether countries will maintain this level of
military spending through a second year of the pandemic.’
Dr Goldring pointed out that in 2020, approximately 1.8
million people around the world died of covid. SIPRI’s military spending
figures suggest that the countries with the highest military expenditures
decided that business as usual was the correct direction to follow, despite the
“This is a time for reevaluating priorities. Countries
should be giving priority to the health and welfare of their people, rather
than continuing to fund the military-industrial complex. Cutting military
spending would free funds for human needs and sustainable development.”
“The UN has suggested diverting funds from military
expenditures to fund sustainable development. But in reality, this isn’t a
question of diverting funds – it’s devoting them to what they should have been
allocated to in the first place.”
“In the early days of his Administration, President Biden
has not shown an inclination to reverse the United States’ excessive military
spending patterns. He is proceeding with expensive new nuclear weapons and
continuing to propose bloated military budgets.
There’s still time to reevaluate this approach, restructure
US military spending, and focus on human needs. Cutting the military budget
would also free US financial resources to help deal with the urgent global
problems of the covid pandemic and the climate crisis.”
“More than a decade ago, then UN Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon said, “The world is over armed, and peace is underfunded.”
Unfortunately, this statement continues to be true.”
*UN Bureau Chief and
Regional Director IPS North America, has been covering the U.N. since the late
1970s. A former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News, he was a
senior editorial writer on the Hong Kong daily, The Standard. Thalif Deen is a
former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services (DMS);
Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle
East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group.Thalif Deen is the author of the
newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote
Me on That.” The 220-page book is peppered with scores of anecdotes– from the
serious to the hilarious– and is available on Amazon worldwide and at the
Vijitha Yapa bookshop in Sri Lanka. The links follow: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/ https://www.vijithayapa.com/