For the first time in decades, Americans are evenly divided when asked if the U.S. has the No. 1 military in the world.
A recent Gallup poll found that only 49% of Americans believe the U.S. has the best military — that’s the lowest percent recorded in the 23 years Gallup has been asking this question, and significantly lower than the 59% who said the U.S. is No. 1 one year ago, in February 2015.
And this is important to people: The Gallup poll found about two-thirds of Americans say the U.S. should be the No. 1 military in the world.
That only half of the population believes the U.S. is No. 1 might seem crazy given the size and scope of America’s military.
Take military spending, the most obvious indicator of a nation’s power. The U.S. spent over $600 billion on its military in 2014, outspending its closest rival, China, by nearly $400 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The next seven countries on the list — China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the U.K., India and Germany — spent about $600 billion combined in 2014.
But does that make the U.S. military No. 1 in the world?
This is where skeptics will point out — and rightfully so — that you can’t compare one country’s military spending to that of another without accounting for the country’s size and economic capacity — not to mention differences in labor, materials and production costs.
Put another way, $1 million in the U.S. will pay fewer soldiers and buy less supplies and materiel than $1 million in China or Russia — so the U.S. must spend more just to keep pace.
This may matter especially when it comes to manpower: Personnel costs account for over half of the Department of Defense budget (and that doesn’t include the billions of dollars outside the defense budget that go toward benefits and services for veterans, among other outlays).
Breaking military spending down by GDP and per capita, the U.S. is not No. 1.
U.S. military spending is 3.5% of GDP, which puts it in 22nd place — mostly behind a crop of Middle Eastern and African countries. Russia’s at No. 12 with a military allocation of 4.5% of GDP, and China, at 2% of GDP, ranks No. 43.
And if you look at military spending as a share of overall government spending, the U.S. ranks 26th. Our defense spending is mighty — but so is all of our spending.
On a per capita basis, the U.S. ranks fifth — far outpacing rival geopolitical powerhouses Russia and China.
If you adjust for these variables, America’s military pre-eminence does appear smaller than the stark picture painted by comparing $600 billion in spending to, well, anything else.
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