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A Phantom Decline in Militaries?

- September 3, 2013

This is a guest post by Steven Childs.


In his earlier post at The Monkey Cage, James Fearon noted a general decline in militarization across the globe using regional averages of military spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product (see below in black) as well as the number of soldiers per 1,000 individuals (red). Dr. Fearon hypothesizes that these declines from 1945-2007 are due to the advent of nuclear weapons in reducing great power conflict as well as pacification due to the spread of democracy.

Although these explanations seem intuitive, there are potential validity issues when using spending and force size measures to proxy for arms levels or the health of the industry. In the case of the former, a nation’s defense spending can be wrought with politically induced inefficiencies (on this count it is worth noting that democracies are no more immune to such pork than autocracies).  In the latter instance, as technologies mature and weaponry becomes more capital-intensive, there is less demand for outright military “labor” but rather fewer and better-trained troops. An illustrative analogue would be assuming that the decline in computer prices today are indicative of a “de-digitalization” of society. Consequently, although the numbers in uniform decline, the military capability of the state can remain static or even increase. For instance, the People’s Republic of China has cut numerous divisions over the last decade, but few would make the claim that it is less capable militarily. An analysis worth considering would be one that supplements budgeting and manpower measures with one that accounts for hardware.

To flesh out these ideas, I replicated Dr. Fearon’s regional graphs while adding two more measures. The green line is the regional average of the Polity score—a generally accepted academic measurement for the degree of a nation’s electoral competition (green). For each of interpretation with the lines for expenditure (black) and personnel (red), the range has been rescaled such that 0 reflects a complete autocracy and 20 indicates a full democracy. Additionally, I include a measure of the number of arms imports from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfer Database. The unit is their proprietary Trend Indicator Value (TIV). The number of imported TIVs for a country is divided by each 1,000 of its military personnel, and is then averaged for each region (purple, scaled for the right Y-axis). There are limits with this measure, namely that arms imports do not fully address the military capability of  states that purchase their own weapons domestically. Nevertheless, the measure is a reasonable approximation of military capability for the majority of the globe given that the greatest conventional arms producers and exporters are concentrated in the West and the former Soviet Union.

childsFrom these graphs, two observations are apparent. First, at this generalized level, democracy does not seem to have the uniform pacifying result that is expected. That is not to say that democratization fosters militarization, but the relationship between the two seems weak. For instance, Latin America and the Caribbean saw noted democratization in the 1980s “Third Wave,” but the militarization measures were relatively static. Sub-Saharan Africa also did not see much change, despite the region’s movement away from autocracy in the 1990s. Again, this is cautionary in that we are looking at aggregates and not country-specific relationships.

Second, and critically, the measure of arms imports does not suggest demilitarization. For all regions except the Middle East and North Africa, arms levels have remained fairly static since 1960. Moreover, the regional arms import data does not necessarily validate the nuclear revolution, which would anticipate clear reductions in conventional arms imports.

What might account for this difference between declining spending and personnel and static imports?  One explanation is the application of Moore’s law to the defense sector. Moore famously argued in 1965 that microprocessing power would double every 18 months; an economic side-effect is that prices drop for the previous hardware. Similarly, as defense technologies improve and states develop economically, they are able to sustain or increase their militarily capabilities with less expenditure and personnel. The anecdote of Singapore is telling, where military spending as a share of GDP fell from 5.1% in 2002 to 4.2% in 2007. During this time period, the state added 6 frigates, 20 fighter jets, 20 attack helicopters, 96 main battle tanks, and scores of precision-guided munitions into its arsenal.

This analysis suggests that the cross-national declines in military expenditures and force sizes have less to do with political demilitarization, and more to do with the increasing technological efficiencies of defense markets. It is worth noting this distinction before making pacifistic inferences about the international security climate, particularly given turmoil in the Middle East and Asia.