Gates wants Europe to beggar itself on War Expenditures the Way the US Has

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decries Europe for general anti-war sentiment, unwillingness to beggar itself with expenditures on war.

But as far as I can tell, Europe is the world’s largest economy and got there without any recent substantial wars except those the US dragged it into. Moreover, the fastest-growing economy for the past nearly 30 years has been China, which spends a fraction on their military of what the US spends on its, and, aside from a skirmish with Vietnam in the early 1980s, has been at peace. Apparently massive war expenditures are unrelated to economic growth or prosperity.

In contrast, the US has been at war for 19 of the last 47 years (not counting US-backed insurgencies such as 1980s Afghanistan, on which we spent billions) but has not grown faster than the other two economically. Moreover, the increasingly unwieldy US national debt, deriving from the US government spending more than it took in in recent decades, would not exist if the US military budget had been the same as that of the European Union since 1980. The US overspent on its military because Washington mistakenly thought the Soviet economy was twice as big as it actually was, and vastly over-estimated Soviet military capabilities. The bloated military budgets continue now, apparently because of a couple thousand al-Qaeda operatives hiding out in caves in the Hadhramawt and Waziristan.

Some statistics to ponder:

US Military Budget 2009: $711 billion
European Union Military Budget 2009: $289 billion
China Military Budget 2009: $122 billion.

US GDP 2009: $14.4 trillion
European Union GDP 2009: $16.5 trillion (PPP)
China GDP 2009: $8.8 trillion (PPP)

US economic growth 2009: 0.2%
European Union economic growth 2009: -4%
China economic growth 2009: 8.7 %

The real military-related expenditures of the US are closer to $1 trillion. If the US cut those back to the level of the European Union and spent the money on promoting solar energy and making it inexpensive, America would have a chance of remaining a great power in the 21st century. If it goes on rampaging around the world bankrupting itself by invading and occupying other countries, the Chinese will laugh at us all the way to world dominance.

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24 Responses

  1. just what is the average income in China versus the U.S.A? If you would use the multiplier effect, China just might be spending just a bit higher of its income on weaponry that it appears to be.

  2. It doesn't seem right to quote military budgets in real dollars and GDPs that support those budgets in PPP dollars.

    So, official exchange rate:
    China GDP: $4.8 trillion (CIA world fact book)
    China military budget: $122 billion

    CIA factbook gives the EU a $14.52 trillion PPP GDP and a $16 trillion official exchange rate GDP, so there the discrepancy is less significant.

  3. Further, if you want the PPP effect on defence, see the last table on the Wiki page
    link to

    "The following table exposes the effects of Purchasing Power Parity by comparing the equipment that each country can afford with its budget. The data, except for the "troops" category, shows only relatively modern and on use material each military owns, it excludes stocks and obsolete hardware."

    So, e.g., China can afford 2200 combat aircraft, the US 4600; China can afford 8000 tanks, the US 7000,
    and so on.

  4. Good, concise overview of the colossal economic folly that is war. War is foreign policy conducted by fools. For a fraction of the expenditure, the US could have achieved far better results. For example, cutting aid to Israel and treating it as any other foreign country would have both saved money and also allowed the US to be seen as independent in the ideological Middle Eastern struggles. Europe should tell Gates where to go, NATO is not a compliant vassal of the US, and has no obligation to follow it into insane and stupid wars.

  5. But, but we were attacked by 19 psychos on 9/11. Doesn't that mean we have to destroy the united States in order to save it?

    Or something…

  6. The U.S. which has proven unable to either govern itself or reform the way it governs itself [no other country has had as destructive to change institution as the U.S. Senate since the House of Lords] has zero credibility when it comes to telling others how they should govern themselves.

  7. Now, if we could only get the media and the politicians to even talk about the military budget…but, no, anything like that is instantly crushed by accusations of being 'soft on terrorism.'

  8. I often think that Europe is really a very large single federal state. We might not have a common language but past history has forced us to a common outlook on life that largely rejects war and imperialism (been there, done that and in the end it is easier and cheaper to buy what you want rather than rape another country for it). With this view and the spread of the EU, intra-mural border disputes become a thing of the past because there are no borders, so just why should we spend vast amounts of wealth on war? And note this is quite different from spending money on defense for which are expenditure need not be great.

    Oh, and this article explains why Europe and Russia and China can get along.

  9. We also have those military assistance programs in place from the Cold War. We give arms to Egypt. We arm the Israelis. (I know, they "buy" arms from us, but we loan them the money and they don't really pay us back) We arm a host of small countries all over the world. We underwrite the NATO budget.

  10. Recognizing something not likely to happen with the general US public, reading, comprehending what is read, remembering what is read; those not so afflicted should get and read:

    Paul Kennedy, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Economic Change and Military Conflict 1500 to 2000"

    This book serves up history and a warning for those still capable of rational thought.

  11. trying to get a handle on total yearly U.S. military spending

    700 billion plus ?
    Supplementals for Iraq / Afpac
    Nuclear weapons (energy dpt)
    Military foreign aid
    Interest payments on military portion of national debt
    Veterans affairs (a portion)
    Homeland Security (a portion)
    Immigration (a portion)

    David Kilcullen's book The Accidental Guerilla puts it at 70% or world military spending by citing Frida Berrigan

  12. Please note that the primary reason for the size of American military budgets is that we provide a defense umbrella for much of the world. Japan, Europe, Taiwan, etc.–their military expenditures can be low because the US is committed by treaty to come to their defense if they are attacked. As for China, like the late unlamented USSR, it hides much of its military expenditures elsewhere in its budget.

  13. Professor,

    Please explain two things here:

    1. "the US has been at war for 19 of the last 47 years"

    Huh? The last time Congress declared war was WWII – and if you think Iraq and Afghanistan are wars, you are sadly mistaken. Both governments that we targeted were gone long ago.

    2. Your acceptance at face value what the Chinese say they spend on their military.

  14. Brilliantly stated. The comments by Secretary Gates which obviously reflect the views of Secretary Clinton and President Obama are beyond saddening.

  15. Thank you Juan. This is such an obvious means of preventing the precipitous collapse of the US – and perhaps its slide into some version of facism – that one has to wonder why the political leadership of the country cannot do this. Apparently they or those who put them in power are benefiting from the current state of affairs – and either think the US can go on behaving in this fashion without consequences, or expect that they themselves will escape those consequences. The Supreme Court's decision to further open the political system to corporate influence will make it that much harder to change this disastrous course.

  16. There is little political will on either side of the aisle because defense means jobs. Recently, the trend was reversed and the senate voted 58-40 to kill the F-22 program and it's 1.75 billion price tage. Notably, senators Feinstein and Boxer from California voted to keep the F-22 program alive. Why? Jobs for their home state.

  17. The criticism is well-founded. Another interesting number is the estimated amount of the cost of the US nuclear weapons programs since 1940; according to the Brookings Institution in its analysis published in "Automic Audit" (ISBN 0-8157-7773-6), that amount was in 1998, over 6 trillion 1994 dollars. A substantial percentage of these costs were for the development and testing of weapons and delivery systems never put into production, and on the face were fairly ludicrous.
    I must disagree with Juan over the comment regarding putting such possible savings into wind energy: wind energy shows very little likelihood of being a substantial contributor of normal- or peak-load power to the existing grid or any foreseeable distribution grid in the near- or medium future.

  18. Of course Europe has had their, say, only 50 years of peace in more than 500 years thanks to such things as the US taking up the brunt of ensuring that the Soviet Union didn't overrun Western Europe as they'd done Eastern Europe. And to mention one other thing, the Marshall Plan

    Many of the comments here seem short-sighted and self-righteous.

    Yes empires waste themselves in war. Personally I wouldn't have supported the US's becoming an empire (I wasn't yet alive at any of the crucial points). What kind of world would the fascist Japanese and Germans have wrought.

    Your sense of history is disappointing Prof. Coles.

  19. I probably make the comment too often, but I think it all too likely that the U.S. will eventually use its current military preponderance to maintain its hegemony just as Spain, France, and Germany opted to use theirs when they recognized that they were losing out in the economic and cultural competition. Judging from general principles, America is an extremely dangerous country. Boy do I hope I'm wrong.

  20. Well put Professor Cole.

    Spain was the first empire that looted & plundered other countries so thoroughly and lost everything in the wars. Spain even missed the industrial revolution.

    I see USA is going in the same direction by going to unnecessary wars. US have to keep its interest first in its foreign policy. It appears neocons do not care much for US interests.

  21. To all the flag-wavers attacking Prof. Cole here, I would like to reiterate his key comment:

    "The US overspent on its military because Washington mistakenly thought the Soviet economy was twice as big as it actually was, and vastly over-estimated Soviet military capabilities."

    I am less tactful than Prof. Cole and would change the words "mistakenly thought…" to "lied to the citizens that…"

    General Smedley Butler said from experience that war is a racket, but empire is a bigger racket because it can last for centuries. It always starts with a good excuse for military domination, but over time that excuse must be propped up or replaced with fake excuses to protect the entrenched interests that have grown with that domination. This was the tragedy of Athens, which created the Delian League as a defensive alliance against Persia but turned it into a profitable tool of aggression, leading to the Pelopponesian War which ruined Athens and its democracy. The ordinary Athenian, like the ordinary American patriot of our time, simply fell in love with power and porkbarrel.

    If you won't take it from me, take it from Dwight Eisenhower.

  22. Unfortunately, the USA seems neither to be a republic, and is certainly not an empire, or at least not a competent empire. Empires have actual legions, successfully conquer and subdue enemies, create client states, subsume the local military units into the command structure of the legions, replace the local political structures with those subservient to the empire, extract tribute and income from these client states to the empire, etc. This list could go on for quite a while…
    needless to say, the US is doing and has done few of these things, and — when attempted — none of them competently. Accordingly, my opinion is that this new worldwide hegemonic model is not at all described as either 'republic' or 'empire'; it might be best described by a new word or phrase, but I'm at a lack in combining the adjectives of "thoughtlessness', 'expediency', 'ignorance', 'intellectual dishonesty','incompetence', etc. all into one new noun. Perhaps readers agreeing might contribute.

  23. I could not have imagined previously a stupider scenario than spending roughly $1 trillion/year to subdue smoke and fog, which is what I equate the AfPak, Iraq, Yemen, Somalian, etc (who have I left out?) Wars to be.

    In today's world, it is no longer possible to practice a full-spectrum dominance strategy for long because it will soon deteriorate into big power confrontation and resulting direct hostilities, which would quickly lead into the nuclear realm, what with worldwide "launch on warning" for ICBM missile systems being the norm.

    My case-in-point offering: Iran sanctions, the next step. That's on the verge of stepping hard on China's strategic toes.

  24. US military spending has consistently be half the worlds total combined.

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