Myth 1: Higher military spending equals increased security

 ‘If you want peace prepare for war’.

The world spends a lot on preparing for war, $1686 billion at the last estimate by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). But does this vast spending bring peace and security?

Very often not, for many reasons:

  • As one country seeks security with increased armament and military spending, it can create insecurity in others, triggering an arms race that makes everyone less secure. China’s vast increases in military spending is at least in part driven by their sense of insecurity in the face of overwhelming US military dominance; but China’s growing military power is creating insecurity among its neighbours such as Japan and Vietnam, who in turn are rearming.
  • The world’s biggest spender on military equipment, the US, doesn’t just prepare for war, it frequently goes to war, encouraged by the overwhelming firepower its spending affords it. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the US anything but peace and security, and have torn those countries to pieces.
  • Much military spending is designed to provide security to dictatorial regimes against their own people. Saudi Arabia is the world’s third largest military spender, with a vast security apparatus devoted to maintaining the absolute power of the Saudi royal family (and now to flattening Yemen).
  • Military means can be very ineffective at solving security problems like terrorism, where police and intelligence work and negotiations are far more likely to succeed. Meanwhile, the biggest global threat today, climate change, is not one that can be solved by military means.

Is massive military spending the best way to tackle terrorism?

In many Western countries, the threat of transnational terrorism is frequently cited as a primary reason for high military spending. Indeed, the concept of a ‘war’ against terrorism reinforces the idea that military operations are the best way of tackling this threat. The logical leap is easy to see: spend more money on defense and be more secure against terrorism.

In the US, this thinking has led to the military receiving the vast majority of counterterrorism funding. Between 2001 and 2007, Congress approved a total of $609bn for counterterrorism activities, of which 90% went to the Department of Defense. By comparison, the US Department of State and USAID received a total of only $40bn over the same period.[1] Now the current administration’s draft budget proposes large increases in military spending, while spending on the Department of State and USAID is slashed.

But the idea that there is a military solution to terrorism is highly dubious. A 2008 study by the influential US-based RAND Corporation reviewed the life-cycles of 648 terrorist groups from 1968 to 2006, identifying the ways in which these groups ended.[2] It found that in 43% of cases, terrorist groups ceased to exist because they were successfully integrated into the formal political process. In 40% of cases, the groups disappeared because of successful policing efforts. A further 10% of terrorist groups stopped their military activities because they achieved their main aim. Only 7% of terrorist groups were snuffed out as a result of military campaigns.[3]

In other words, using the military to win the ‘war on terror’ is simply not going to work. Moreover, it is likely to be counter-productive, fueling resentment and undermining long term regional goals. As the RAND authors note:

‘Our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism. Military force usually has the opposite effect of what is intended: it is often over-used, alienates the local population by its heavy-handed nature, and provides a window of opportunity for terrorist-group recruitment.’[4]

Jonathan Powell, the UK government’s negotiator for the peace talks in Northern Ireland, notes that no terrorist group which draws support from a popular constituency, has been defeated by military means alone.[5] Indeed, having their own experience of domestic terrorism and the bloody end to imperial and minority rule in colonies such as Malaya, Kenya and Rhodesia, Britain’s military chiefs thought it unwise for the US to declare a ‘war’ on terrorists.

Africa’s leaders have their own particular perspective on terrorism. Many, including those in South Africa and Namibia, were themselves branded as ‘terrorists’ by their former white rulers. In recent times, the African Union has taken a lead in putting together regional military coalitions against militant extremists, notably Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. But in a 2015 meeting on the theme of ‘Terrorism, Mediation and Armed Groups’, African leaders expressed the view that military efforts should be conducted in support of a political settlement to a conflict involving terrorist groups.[6] In short: armed force should be a component of a broader political strategy, reversing the ranking too often seen in the ‘war on terror’ whereby diplomats serve as ‘wingmen’ to generals.[7]

Image: Sisyphus, Gianfranco Uber, March 9, 2017\Cartoon Movement