Since the Institute for Economics and Peace began publishing its Global Peace Index (GPI) in 2008, each year has become less peaceful than the past, based on an assessment of 22 variables that measure the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic or international conflict, and the degree of militarization of each nation. According to the 2014 GPI, the past year saw a decrease in nuclear and heavy weapons capabilities and declining rates of militarization due to the draw-down in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These positive improvements were overwhelmed by increasing per capita weapons imports and exports, larger numbers of homicides, higher levels of terrorist activity, and a deterioration in a number of other variables. The declining state of peacefulness in the world might foster a sense of fatalism, but rather than proving the dark and violent nature of citizens, these statistics more accurately reflect the spending decisions of states.

At a global level, war spending far outstrips peace spending. According to the Global Policy Forum, the United Nations and all of its funds and agencies spend roughly $30 billion annually. This price tag amounts to about three percent of world military spending. United Nations missions are chronically underfunded and starved of resources. In 2011, the UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping reported that of the 137 helicopters critically required for peace keeping missions, the UN would be short 56 helicopters (a 40% shortage). In the ‘guns versus butter’ debate, where states have finite resources and can choose to allocate spending on commercial/consumer goods or military capabilities, few states seem willing to forgo guns in favor of more butter.

However, despite global spending priorities that appear to favor war spending over peace spending, there are some countries that have chosen to abandon military spending, proving that the allocation of defense spending involves choice, rather than pure necessity. There are roughly a dozen countries with no army whatsoever (Andorra, Costa Rice, Grenada, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Vatican City) and half a dozen more with very limited military forces (Haiti, Iceland, Mauritius, Monaco, Panama, and Vanuatu). Granted, many of these countries are small island nations or countries that receive protection from larger militarized states. Still, these countries have forgone the ability to mount an offensive military attack against other nations and in many cases, embraced a national ideal of peace that calls into question the assumption that peace is bought and war deterred through military spending and strength.

In a region plagued by high homicide rates, violent non-state actors, drug trafficking, and political instability, Costa Rica stands in stark contrast with strong social and economic indicators and a half-century of peaceful democratic transitions. While emerging from a brief civil war in 1948, Costa Rican President Jose Figueres abolished the military. Defense spending was redirected towards education, health care, environmental protection, and economic development. To this day Costa Rica has no army, navy, air force, or national defense force. Internal security is provided by a police force, Border Guard, and Coast Guard. Beyond the absence of a militarized state, Costa Rica has actively cultivated a national pride in non-violent resolution to conflict rather than military might and the United Nations University for Peace is housed in Costa Rica.   In the 1980s when the United States applied pressure on Costa Rica to militarize in order to assist in containing Nicaraguan militia groups, then Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez responded by initiating peace talks between the Nicaraguan government and armed groups, and convening a meeting of central American Presidents that resulted in a pact blocking state aid to guerilla forces. He was awarded a Noble Peace Prize for his efforts.

Iceland, which was ranked by the 2014 GPI as the most peaceful country in the world, has no standing army or navy, and the lowest defense spending in Europe at 0.1% of GDP according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database. Iceland is also ranked as the OECD country with the lowest homicide rate: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recorded a single homicide in Iceland for the year 2012. In stark contrast to allegations of police brutality and militarization in many other countries, including the United States, after the first and only fatal police shooting of a citizen in 2013, both the Icelandic police force and citizens of the nation responded with heartfelt regret and mourning for the loss of life. Although Iceland is a member of NATO, the nation has made clear that it believes NATO should function only as a defensive entity. Iceland has refused to house nuclear weapons on the island and repeatedly campaigned against the presence of military aircraft. Iceland’s main contribution to international security is the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit (ICRU), an international peace keeping force that is composed of equal numbers of men and women and stresses gender equality in its training.

As an upper middle-class country with strong, steady economic growth and political stability since independence, Botswana stands as one of Africa’s success stories. Botswana is ranked by Transparency International as the least corrupt country in Africa and as number thirty globally. Although Botswana’s current military spending as a percentage of GDP is relatively high at 2%, for the first eleven years of its independence, the country had no military. Prior to the discovery of diamonds and development of the diamond industry, the national budget of Botswana was modest and government leaders opted to use available funds for social sectors and development rather than maintaining an army. As Botswana’s budget grew along with diamond exports, it gradually transformed its police force into a national army. The measured pace of build-up and overall low troop numbers allowed for intensive training and a culture of professionalism within the army.

While no two countries have the same history, challenges, or resources, the examples of Costa Rica, Iceland, and Botswana demonstrate how the rejection or absence of national military forces can promote political stability and engender a culture of transparency, democracy and peace.

For those countries with militaries, even modest decreases in spending can be highly contentious. Among the arguments often put forward against cutting defense spending is loss of jobs. Although those with a vested interest in military expenditure often argue that military spending creates jobs and is vital to the health of capitalist nations, evidence in the United States suggests that defense spending, while benefiting some already wealthy areas of the nation, has failed to benefit poor areas or reduce unemployment. Past projects funded by the US DoD Office of Economic Adjustment have successfully transformed communities in Long Island and St Louis from centers of defense production to areas of more diverse and commercial production [for a fraction of the costs required to maintain those industries through government contracts]. In 1975, facing an economic crisis and layoffs, employees of the Lucas Aerospace defense company proposed 150 alternative uses to which their skills and machinery could be put that would be beneficial to society and the environment. The proposal put forward by the Lucas Aerospace company is reminiscent of modern proposals for a Green New Deal that seeks to simultaneously promote development, contribute to economic recovery, generate employment, and combat climate change.

The Institute for Economics and Peace describes a negative cycle that can develop in which severe global economic downturns contribute to increased levels of violence which is met with increases in defense spending and further loss of productive economic capabilities. In the current climate of economic crisis and fiscal austerity perhaps the United States should follow the example of Costa Rica, Iceland, and Botswana, allocating scarce resources to education, health, social services, and environmental protection rather than defense industries and promoting a less militarized national culture. It may be time to retire the Latin adage that ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’ and perhaps if the United States and other global leaders want peace, they should invest in peace rather than military industries.

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