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.
That means America’s huge dollar value associated with its massive military footprint accounts for around 3.3% of the Nation’s overall spending power. It turns out, when you think of defense spending in relation to overall economic power, the U.S. is actually nowhere near the top of the “Big Spenders” list. In fact, in terms of GDP, the United States barely makes it into the top twenty military spenders.
Among the nations that devote a larger percentage of their overall economic power to defense are nations like Saudi Arabia, who devotes a whopping 9.8% of the nation’s entire GDP to its military, or Russia, with 5.4%. Oman, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia and Yemen puts up a whopping 13.7% of its economy to maintain its military. Some bigger spenders by percentage may not surprise you, like Iraq or Israel, others may come as a bit of a shock to some, like Algeria or Singapore.
All told, 17 nations devote more of their economy to defense than the United States does, despite the active wars America is involved with and the defensive presence it maintains in allied nations intended to deter future wars. When you look at it that way, devoting 3.3% of our economic power to war seems downright frugal.
This isn’t to say that the defense budget isn’t bloated in places, and there is certainly an argument that could be made about finding ways to incentivize spending less within the military (rather than allowing politicians to simply slash as they see fit), but the common misconception that the United States is funneling all of its cash into the military simply isn’t true. America boasts the most powerful economy on the planet, and as such, it’s logical that it would also maintain the largest military. In terms of percentages, we place the same economic emphasis on our military as the nation of Morocco, and only slightly more than the Kyrgyz Republic.
So, as Congress and the Senate work to deconflict their two defense budget proposals and hopefully begin funding the military rather than continue to force it to operate under a continuing resolution, you can be sure you’ll see inflammatory headlines about how much money our lawmakers are now willing to throw toward our military (that’s in desperate need of the influx of funding). People who oppose defense spending will almost certainly decry the United States as a warmonger that spends much more than other nations on its military – just remember that it’s a trick of perspective, not good economics. America’s military budget should be commensurate to its economic power and defensive needs, not a misleading pie chart.