• The Invisible Hand

Which Country Has the Best... Defence?

Military spending is a large part of most government's spending and it is one of the most contentious parts.

Best is obviously subjective so this essay looks at which country has the most powerful but also the cheapest system. We will also look at one of the few countries which has actually abolished its military.

Generally, military spending is a bad idea. It has the sole purpose to destroy economic capacity of countries. War is one of the most economically destructive things a country can engage in. This spending also means there is less money to spend on public services which can actually improve lives, rather than destroy them. Furthermore, military spending increases only create a cycle where military spending continually increases because countries must feel they need to match other countries. This cycle should not begin in the first place.

Most Powerful- United States

Undisputedly, the US has the most powerful military in the world. They spend a gargantuan $706bn a year on their military (3.1% of GDP) which is 40% of global defence spending. Their spending is equal to the value of the next seven largest spenders. They spend as much as the entire GDP of Turkey or Switzerland. This allows the army to have 1.36m active personnel and 811,000 reserve personnel.

The US’s military presence is felt throughout the world because they have 800 military bases outside the US. It also have international fame for it powerful and world’s largest Air Force and navy. While this does carry a lot of weight on the international stage, it is morally questionable whether such as large military is right. It can be seen as provocative and may simply encourage other countries to build up their militaries and create a cycle where nobody is better off. It is also questionable how powerful America can be when the Indian and Chinese armies massively outnumber them.

In the US, the military features much more prominently in society than in the UK, for example. This poses a problem for policy makers who rightfully want to scale back military projects and it gives strength to politicians such as Trump who want to increase defence spending. However, for politicians looking for easy ways to fund healthcare and university programmes, military spending cuts are like an untapped gold mine.

Cheapest- Japan

Of any major economy, it is Japan which has persistently kept military spending low despite being in a volatile region. In spite of missile tests by North Korea, they have done well to keep their spending below 1% of GDP at $45.4bn in 2017. Japan recognised in 1976 that building up their military would only give their rival an excuse to rebuild their military, therefore they implemented a 1% cap. Despite this Japan’s military remains the fourth most powerful in terms of conventional capabilities.

It is important for Japan in the future to keep up this impressive record. However, recently this seems to be under threat as President Abe is consider increasing spending in response to threats from China and North Korea. This would only escalate military plans on both sides and increase the likelihood of conflict. In the 21st century, we should dismiss the prospect of a war around the corner. With the international organisations that exist today, wars seem to be a more prominent feature in medieval times than in our modern world.

Smallest- Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world to have completely abolished their military. Other countries to have done this are mainly small city states; Costa Rica is the only major country. This happened over 70 years in 1948 as the government faced budget pressures. Despite what you might expect Costa Rica has experienced unprecedented peace and has not been involved in conflict for 64 years. The last conflict was an invasion by Nicaragua in 1955. However, this was quickly repulsed because they have a defence agreement with the United States. Instead of the military they rely on a new civil police force to defend the nation.

Whether it is related to these reforms or not, Costa Rica has become an outlier in Central American as a nation of political stability and economic prosperity. Other American nations suffer from violence and chronic poverty. Costa Rica is ranked 12th in the world for happiness and 1st in Latin America. They have also achieved a 98% literacy rate due to high levels of investment in education. Luis Guillermos Solis has said abolishing the military allows Costa Rica to invest up to 8% more in education and health. They also have one of the most sophisticated social safety nets on the American continent.

What this article has previously mentioned about a more peaceful climate being created by reducing the size of the military holds true for Costa Rica. They centre their international policy on negotiation as a method to avoid confrontation in the first place, rather than relying on a strong military. Citizens of Costa Rica are grateful for this change and they believe a military creates a greater atmosphere of fear as citizens experience in Venezuela and Mexico. In Central America, the military is often seen as mechanism for corruption.

While this change has worked very effectively for Costa Rica, it is arguable whether it could work for larger countries. Costa Rica is not a particularly attractive country to invade because it lacks abundant natural resources. For a country with plentiful natural resources abolishing the military may not be a good idea. However, reducing a military presence can ease international relations and there is huge opportunity cost to this spending.


Out of these three systems it is a matter of opinion which you believe is the ‘best’. However, the US system should be rejected because it is bloated and makes the world more dangerous. Japan is a good model for how a large developed country should build their military, while Costa Rica is a better model for a smaller less vulnerable country. Nevertheless we need to invest in bettering the world rather than destroying it.

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