US Military Spending:
An International Comparison
On August 2, 2011, (which was quite a while ago now, but I’ve been busy) Rachel Maddow discussed how the debt ceiling deal affects military spending. She also brought up the liberal talking point that the US spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. [This quote appears at the 3:15 mark in the video below.]
There are two defining features of money and government in this lifetime. It’s the fact that our effective tax rates have come down to a 50 year low and that defense spending in this country dwarfs what the whole rest of the world spends on defense. And that spending cannot be challenged politically here. Those are the defining economic features of American government in this lifetime. America spending what the rest of the world spends on defense combined and not debating it at home.
I decided to check whether this widely-used claim about US military spending was accurate.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is a think tank that studies conflict, arms control, and other military issues. They maintain a list that shows how much each of 172 of the world’s countries spends on military expenditures each year. I downloaded their Military Expenditures Database and at their website (SIPRI).
After doing serious quantitative analysis (a.k.a. fiddling around in Excel), I came up with these totals.
Yearly Military Spending (2010)
United States Rest of the World Combined
The rest of the world spends 1.3 times the amount the US spends on the military. This widely used liberal talking point is false.
However, Rachel’s larger point, that the US spends a lot on the military compared to other countries, is undoubtedly true. Based on the SIPRI data, the US spends more on the military than the next 17 countries combined. The US spends 5.8 times more on the military than the second highest spender, China. The bar graph at Wikipedia (again, using SIPRI data) shows that US military spending dwarfs the next few countries in terms of military spending.
So why does America spend so much on its military? It’s because we’re a superpower. We have hundreds of military bases overseas. We are fighting 3 wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) and three CIA shadow wars (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia). Before that there was Korea and Vietnam. If the US wants to maintain its role as global superpower and the foreign interventions that accompany that status, than it will have to keep spending large amounts of money on the military. If we were to give up our pattern of embarking on long and expensive foreign wars, we could cut the Pentagon budget dramatically.
Battles over the budget are ultimately battles over our priorities as a country. And with the debt ceiling super-committee on the horizon, it appears that we will be having that national battle for a very long time to come.
Originally Written August 12, 2011