Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Why Reducing Military Spending Is Not A “Slam Dunk” For Sustainable Human Development

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On The Global Day of Action On Military Spending (4/14), Special Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas Urged a reduction in military expenditure and greater investment in sustainable development programs (Original Article):

Marking the Global Day of Action on Military Spending, the United Nations independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order called on all governments to boost transparency and cuts in military expenditures, and increase investments in nutrition, health, environmental protection and other major sustainable development challenges.

“Every democracy must involve civil society in the process of establishing budgets, and all sectors of society must be consulted to determine what the real priorities of the population are,” Special Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas said in a statement. “Lobbies, including military contractors and other representatives of the military-industrial complex, must not be allowed to hijack these priorities to the detriment of the population’s real needs.”

“Tax revenue must be reoriented toward the promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, for research into sustainable sources of energy and for the promotion of sustainable development,” Mr. de Zayas stressed.

“In a world where millions of human beings live in extreme poverty, die of malnutrition and lack medical care, where pandemics continue to kill, it is imperative to pursue good faith disarmament negotiations and to shift budgets away from weapons production, war-mongering, and surveillance of private persons, and devote available resources to address global challenges including humanitarian relief, environmental protection, climate change mitigation and adaptation, prevention of pandemics, and the development of a green economy,” he said.

Mr. de Zayas highlighted that such a shift in States’ spending habits is key to achieving the UN post-2015 development agenda.

“I am surprised that in the current context of global socio-economic crisis, few have voiced indignation regarding the disproportionate levels of military spending. The place to exercise austerity is in wasteful military expenditures, not in social protection,” he insisted.

In theory, I wholeheartedly support Mr. de Zayas’ position. Every dollar of military expenditure is one dollar that cannot go towards public goods and services which are essential for sustainable human development. However, I would question Mr. de Zaya’s assertion that “…in the current context of global socio-economic crisis, few have voiced indignation regarding the disproportionate levels of military spending.” In America, at least, military spending is a very contentious issues.

Mr. de Zayas’ call for global demilitarization also glosses over two major issues that make slashing military spending much more difficult in reality than in theory:

1) Peace and Security Are Prerequisites For Sustainable Human Development:

If a government cannot defend it’s people from extremists and outside threats, how can people be expected to have the foresight to make investments in their future? Armed conflict can reverse decades of economic development, and results in human rights violations of its own. Insecurity cannot be a shield for military impunity (as it is in places like Egypt), but threats cannot simply be wished away either. Furthermore, the balance between security and freedom is not only a quantitative one, it also depends on the balance of power between peoples rights and the armed forces, which are generally enshrined in a country’s constitution.

The global economy runs on peace and stability; all countries have an obligation to contribute to the global security commons. Based on their current contributions, some countries (such as the U.S.) should reduce their military expenditures, while others (such as Germany and Japan) should increase their contributions. Furthermore, member states fund U.N. peacekeeping operations, which are, if anything, stretched too thin.

2) Not Everybody Believes in Human Rights:

Lets take stock of countries that generally support U.N. concepts of human rights, sustainable human development, and democratic governance, and those that do not. If “outlier countries” (notably Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Egypt) are increasing their military investments, is it at all responsible for countries that champion U.N. concepts to reduce their military expenditure? (again, this is a country by country question, based partially on current levels of military expenditure)

Non-democratic states are naturally more insulated from public pressure, as their leaders do not rely on reelection to remain in power. While standards of living and are almost assuredly higher in effective democracies, undemocratic governments have greater discretion over military spending, as they can more freely disregard the needs of their citizens when a geopolitical opportunity presents itself.

Specifically, democratic revolutions could become even more vulnerable. “Outlier nations” would likely come to the aid of their autocratic allies, while “Western” countries would have less resources to offer (think Russia and Syria, or UAE / Saudi Arabia and Egypt). If a country’s civil society considering a democratic revolution knows that it will not receive much outside support, while the regime in power (which probably already has a military advantage) is poised to receive significant outside support, this may deter said revolution from taking place. Since democratic revolutions result from civil society initiatives, just this knowledge could slow the global democratization movement.

If every nation that cooperates with the U.N. cut military expenditures, and none of that outlier states did (which they wouldn’t, and would likely do the opposite), we could very well end up with a deterioration in the global democratic / human rights landscape.

I am by no means a “war hawk”. I dream of a utopian world where no military spending is necessary; this is not the world we currently live in. While social spending to fulfill domestic human rights obligations must not be compromised (and in many places should be increased), this cannot come at the cost of abandoning extraterritorial human rights concerns. Achieving these two goals may indeed require greater levels of taxation and public spending–sorry small government people.

Some re-balancing of global military expenditure certainly is in order; however, this cannot be a shift in spending from pro-human rights to anti-human rights countries (those are oversimplifications of countries human rights records–the world is not black and white–but certain countries openly oppose human rights rhetoric while others tend to support them).

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2 thoughts on “Conflict Watch: Why Reducing Military Spending Is Not A “Slam Dunk” For Sustainable Human Development

  1. Pingback: Conflict Watch: Hard Power, Soft Power, and Sustainable Human Development | Normative Narratives

  2. Pingback: Conflict Watch: The End of Team America World Police Pt. 6; Towards A Global D.I.M.E. Framework | Normative Narratives

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