The United States has earned its reputation as a military powerhouse through blood and fire. American military personnel have conducted continuous combat operations the world over for the better part of two decades now, all the while maintaining a massive naval footprint that keeps shipping lanes safe and secure and bolstering the defenses of allies in places where war has not yet begun but continues to loom on the horizon. With troops on every continent and ships in every sea, many Americans have come to criticize America’s massive defense expenditures, which usually ring in at a bit over $600 billion a year, and may potentially even reach $700 billion if our lawmakers ever get around to actually establishing a budget for the fiscal year that began two weeks ago.
Some Americans look at that number dumbfounded, wondering why such an advanced nation must devote so much of the tax dollars they yank out of our paychecks to fund a war machine they see as interventionalist, rather than as a predominately stabilizing force around the world. In defense of such a position, six or seven hundred billion dollars is a lot of money – so much money, in fact, that it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around it. Numbers that big tend to get devolve into abstracts. You can probably picture three kittens, but anything above ten just starts to seem like a bunch of kittens, and the difference between million and billion in the minds of many is just a change in the size of an indiscriminate pile of kittens. Money is like that too; at a certain point, we stop grasping the figures and instead, just stare in awe at the words associated with them.
With that in mind, it seemed prudent to look at defense spending around the world in a more approachable way. There’s no question that the United States spends more than anyone else in the world, but the part that often gets left out of that discussion is that the United States is also worth more, in terms of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), than anyone else in the world (although a case could be made for China).
In the interest of approachability then, let’s think of each nation’s GDP and call that 100%. The United States, for instance, has an overall GDP of nearly $19.5 trillion per year. To give a bit of perspective into just how much that is, the U.K., another developed nation that places emphasis on defense, has an annual GDP of only around $2.5 trillion. Russia’s is just a bit over $1.5 trillion. Each of those figures represents the entirety of the nation’s economic power, or 100% of it.