The military budget is often presented as the main indicator of a country’s national security effort. This perception of a country’s defence has become less acute for a range of reasons.

Firstly, while the North Atlantic Treaty Association and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute provide interesting financial information on the basis of a relatively clear classification, their statistics do not highlight the heterogeneity of the content of national military budgets financed by states.

Secondly, the intensity of military spending is influenced by the immediate circumstances of peace or conflict, the power relations between states aiming at global leadership, perceived threats by a country, the strength of military-industrial complexes or the development of internal security. In this context, in the face of potential multifaceted attacks, it is particularly difficult to assess the usefulness and intensity of the reaction of each constituent element of national defence, especially since the military strategies of potential belligerents also have a considerable influence on the success or failure of the operations conducted. Moreover, military agreements between partners make it possible, on the one hand, to reduce potential threats, and on the other, to add the strength of its allies to that which the state has put in place. Many countries benefit from a nuclear umbrella, with a low national financial commitment, while at the same time having security comparable to that of a major power engaged in a common defence (stowaway syndrome).

Thirdly, national security is not only a military matter; it also includes the quality of health, education, industrial risks or the protection of natural resources. The public authorities have forgotten that the products and services essential to human survival, such as food, medicines, civil protection, must always be available within the country, either in stock or in immediate production capacity. The same applies to the mastery of vital technologies, especially digital ones. On the one hand, companies offering goods and services on an international market may respond to concerns other than those of the country’s citizens, which considerably weaken a population’s efforts to build resilience and resistance. On the other hand, states have the declared objective of increasing their gross domestic product without measuring its content of pollution, violence at work, social inequalities and by underestimating the social contribution of public services, voluntary work, domestic work and the need to store goods and services essential to the social life of a nation in a situation of societal disaster. If there is a threat of cyber attacks, how can the European Union protect itself from the power of the GAFAM in the service of the United States or malware from Russia or China?

The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the new inadequacies of states’ preparedness in protecting their population, for example masks, vaccines, medicines, information. A few private operators more interested in their profit than in the general interest manage the interconnected networks. With the rise of telework, the world’s dependence on them is becoming particularly worrying. The triumph of private interests, which use public infrastructures and services while avoiding as far as possible to contribute to their financing, undermines democratic values, eroded by those of a powerful plutocratic system. A pandemic requires disinterested collective action, a solidarity that states, dominated by private interests, find it difficult to promote.

In addition, friendship between peoples often vanishes in conflicts of economic interests and power relations. International organisations are powerless to reduce the violence of inter-state relations and to harmonise collective action in favour of public health, education or poverty. China deploys capitalism at the behest of the state, without respect for human rights, and the doctrine of the United States responds (again?) to the slogan “America First”. The governments of the member countries of the European Union still do not have a common benevolent solidarity. Selfish national interests remain the rule.

Ecological disaster is underway, close to the tipping point. The liberal economic system is unable to take the radical measures that are needed, due to the almost mystical belief in scientific progress, the private interests or the inability of citizens to act in a supposedly democratic system. In addition, military expenditure is providing increasingly powerful weapons that are less and less usable, unless they are ultimately to jeopardise the very future of mankind.

Finally, social conflicts, already strong before the pandemic, will come back even stronger if precariousness becomes the social norm. Then, military budget is no longer a good indicator of national security. National security must first of all, face the dangers of unbridled selfishness, pandemics, and the ecological upheavals of global warming.


Jacques Fontanel

Economist on Peace

Economists on Peace

Economists on Peace is an editorial collaboration between the Institute for Economics and Peace and Economists for Peace and Security that aims to stimulate global discussion and shared learning on economic aspects of peace and conflict leading to appropriate action for peace, security and the world economy. Economists for Peace and Security is an international network of economists, set up to establish economics of peace and security as a fundamental part of the academic discipline of economics.