current affairs human rights

Can a country survive without any armed forces?

In an age of austerity and troubled government spending, one of the great opportunities for cost savings is on military expenditure. Britain has already trimmed its forces budgets and signed some new defense treaties to share resources. Five of our warships are to be decommissioned, and our aircraft carriers will fly US jets or French helicopters. But how far can we cut? Could we go the whole way, and scrap our armed forces altogether? What would happen to a country that did such a thing?

First, let’s put those questions in perspective and see why they are worth asking. In 2010, the world spent 2.6% of its GDP on the military – and you could do a lot with that. According to the Stern Report, preventing climate change would cost 1% of global GDP. The Millennium Development Goals are based on using 0.7% of the developed countries’ income. So you could end poverty and halt climate change and still have plenty left over.

Those are pretty serious competing priorities, but military spending is of course a product of international events. It ran high through the cold war, and then fell for a decade when the Iron Curtain fell. Margaret Thatcher predicted a ‘peace dividend’ as that money went towards more useful things. But then 9/11 changed the scenario entirely, and spending shot back up again as the US and its allies went to war in the Middle East. 2011 looks like the peak of that spending, and it may now begin to decline again as even the US has started cutting its defense budgets.

What’s interesting is that the amount we spend on defense doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with how dangerous the world actually is.

Throughout that decade, military spending rose by 50%, but the number of armed conflicts fell. Much of that spend increase was on the ‘war on terror’, but more US citizens are killed by lightning strikes than by terrorists.

Military spending is political, guided by economic priorities as well as security risks, and often responding to fear in an uncertain world. When you stop to think about it, an all-out conventional war against terrorists is impossible, but it made people feel much better to see something being done, and presumably there were plenty of secondary goals that made the ‘war on terror’ worthwhile.

So that’s the first reason to think that we could cut our military budgets considerably: we’re already spending far too much for the risks we face. In fact, the very existence of big military budgets may well make the world less safe. The Cold War and its arms race is the obvious example, but it’s a general principle. There are of course rogue states, but generally speaking peace-making begets peace-making, and aggression pisses people off. Global armament or disarmament runs on an I-will-if-you-will basis. Nine times out of ten, diplomacy and reconciliation are better approaches than ramping up the rhetoric, or worse, striking out in vengeance.

Fortunately, there are the forums for this kind of thing where there weren’t before. The UN, the international criminal courts, regional intermediaries such as the Arab League, the EU or the African Union, all of these can be places where differences can be settled and solutions found. In the past, if you had a beef with your neighbour you would have to deal with it between the two of you. There are many other options now: UN resolutions, economic sanctions, inspections, the granting or withholding of aid or trade. In such a interconnected and interdependent world, you can count the number of genuinely rogue states on the fingers of one hand.

With those mechanisms in place, there is scope for more alternative military arrangements, and plenty of other countries are demonstrating every day that you can get by without a massive army. As a percentage of GDP, Germany spends half as much as Britain does, and is still the major power in Europe. The UK spends 2.7% of its GDP on defense, despite being an island nation with no obvious enemies. We have less than 1% of the world’s population, but 3.7% of its military spending, enough to give us the fourth largest military budget after the US, China and France. Presumably that’s a historic inheritance, from the days of empire and the Second World War. (It’s notable that the winners of WWII, the members of the UN Security Council, are still the top five biggest military spenders today.)

But could we do without armed forces altogether? Maybe – there’s precedent for it. There are 14 countries with no armed forces at all, most of them small island states. Most of these have a patron of some kind for emergencies. Samoa, for example, has a treaty with New Zealand if they get into trouble.

The most progressive country on the list is Costa Rica, who permanently dissolved their armed forces in 1949 to protect the country’s democracy. The constitution forbids the forming of a standing army, making them pretty much unique. Their role as international peacemakers has been well recognised: they host the UN’s University for Peace, and former President Oscar Arias won the Nobel Prize. “Without a doubt,” Arias said in 1999, “military spending represents the single most significant perversion of worldwide priorities known today.”

Other countries have paramilitaries or a home guard of some kind, but no armed forces as conventionally defined. Panama has survived with no armed forces for 20 years, and its been 140 years since Iceland had an army. Haiti has a police force with limited military capabilities instead of an army, as does Mauritius.

Japan is also an interesting case, and is certainly the largest country with alternative military arrangements. Under the peace terms of the Second World War, the US banned Japan from military operations outside their own borders. That defense-only policy has continued ever since (with a couple of notable exceptions, see North Korea). To this day Japan refuses to invest in offensive weaponry, although the rise of China is prompting a re-think in some political circles.

Japan’s defense-oriented policy was apparently partly inspired by Switzerland, who are famously politically neutral and refuse to get involved in other countries’ wars. The Swiss haven’t been to war for 500 years, but they still take defense seriously: every male citizen has to do military service and they contribute to UN peace-keeping missions.

So could a country exist without armed forces? Absolutely. It’s not for everyone – I wouldn’t recommend it to Israel or Taiwan. And it goes without saying that it depends entirely on context. Raise this question and within seconds someone will have said ‘what about the Nazis?’. And they’re right that it would have been daft to disband the army in the 1930s, after a long legacy of European wars and a rising tide of aggressive nationalism. But that’s a very different context to today. Who are Britain’s enemies today? And how many of them are a genuine threat?

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  1. I agree with your general thesis, but so far as UK is concerned at present we must not forget the ever-present threat to the Falklands by Argentina. The people of the Falklands apparently wish to remain British, and therefore have a right to do so. Argentina is simply a would-be colonial power wanting to take over against the will of the inhabitants, but only British military will prevent them. We therefore need at least one aircraft carrier (properly equipped) and sufficient forces on the ground to prevent a takeover of the present airport there.

    1. True, that’s something we need to keep an eye on. In the longer term, that ought to be settled in international law and both sides held to the agreement by the wider community.

  2. Very thought provoking.

    That many countries, ours included, spend far far too much on defense is a given, and the question of how far would it be reasonable to go in reducing military capacity is certainly something we should give some thought to.

    Ultimately it comes down to having enough capability to meet our objectives, but I’m not entirely certain in my own mind what those should be ?

    Counter-terrorism, some internal security, coastguard, port and border security functions, and some form of self-defense force seems necessary (both for the UK, and overseas dependences).

    In addition I’d favour the maintenance of some form of rapid deployment force – not for war fighting/peace ‘building’, but for humanitarian and genuine peace keeping functions. I’d argue there have been a number of instances when such forces have performed important beneficial functions around the world, and I wouldn’t want the world to loose that capacity.

    Interestingly I read that Costa Rica is in an increasingly bitter border dispute with Nicaragua –


  3. In the long term the answer has to be a resounding no. Our defence spending is an insurance policy against the dangers of the rest of the world. Without our independent armed forces we would be reliant on America or Europe to stand up to our enemies. Hopefully Steven Pinker is correct in his thesis that the human race is getting more and more reasonable in our affairs with each other. But it is painfully obvious that there would have been no change in Libya without western intervention. Who knows when the violence in Syria will end. Who will stand up to nuclear armed North Korea or Iran.

    The Stern report, in my opinion is a deluded document, I could not believe section in the book when he talked about solidifying CO2. The 1% of GDP assumes we have a growing economy, so if you don’t have a growing economy you need more GDP to solve the climate change. If the optimistic stuff Stern believes in don’t pan out you need even more.

  4. I agree that in the long term there has to be military capacity to protect us and to intervene when necessary, but I don’t think it needs to be independent. In the longer term, I’d be in favour of an international force, whether that was under the auspices of the UN, NATO, or something entirely new.

    Unlike the UN and its often ineffectual peacekeeping missions, it would be contractually obliged to intervene with force in certain circumstances – in the case of a coup, for example. If a country had signed up to it, and somebody attempted to steal an election or overthrow a government, an international force would step in. With that as a threat, nobody would ever dare, and the coups that have blighted countries like Madagascar would be over. You’d be able to essentially insure your country’s democracy.

    If a country’s borders were breached by another power, then again, an international force would intervene. A war of aggression would pretty much guarantee your destruction, so the deterrent factor would be enormous.

    The details of agreements could vary, and some countries might wish to contribute in different ways, providing troops or funds, offering bases on their territories, etc. You could potentially pursue nuclear disarmament across the board with one last set of nukes held internationally.

    Individual countries could maintain separate counter-terrorism agencies or border police focused mainly on internal issues, but it seems like a waste for everyone to be maintaining their own strike forces. If we accept high levels of economic and even political integration, then why not military too?

    I never actually answered my own question in the post, but my general thoughts are that no, most countries couldn’t expect to function with no military capacity at all, but there are huge opportunities for new alliances and creative security solutions that would save billions of dollars and actually make the world far safer than it is now.

  5. Wouldn’t it be a better solution to create a EU army? It would make Europe much more powerful internationally against dictatorships and rough nations, and it would reduce the total military spendings. Both peace seekers and war mongerers would like the idea…
    I must however say that I am afraid that if too many enlightened democratic powers started to disarm themselves in an admirable, yet naive, pursuit of world peace, it wouldn’t take long for Iran and North Korea to seize the opportunity.

    1. Yes, I think the EU would be a great place to move forward with an international military force of some kind. Few European countries are prepared to act unilaterally as it is, so the groundwork is already laid for more formal security arrangements.

      And you’re right, there is no room for naivete in pursuing an idealist view of world peace. Any international force has to be a very credible threat.

  6. I think most counties have a massive military budget (~3% GDP) for one or more of the following reasons:

    1] My neighbour scares me and I need to be able to stand up to him if attacked
    2] More well trained men can help out in a big way during natural disasters
    3] Need to protect commercial interests (mostly shipping lanes + offshore asserts and the like)
    4] National Pride: See how big my ……err….Army is 😉

    As long as one of the above is applicable we will continue to spend more on killing each other :(. Perhaps we can have a united world if aliens attack us and start colonizing earth.

    1. They’d just make us slaves or do away with us, no zones, unless they have not learned from history.

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