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Defy the consensus on military spending

03 May 2024

Churches should be asking political parties how they will invest to achieve peace rather than fund wars, argues John Cooper

YOU can smell it in the air: the slight smell of cordite and the sound of promises whizzing past your ears and exploding all around. We are in the period before the General Election officially begins, and not a day goes by without some grand promise from one party or another.

Military spending is one of the main areas of political debate that seem to be hitting a point of political consensus. Research by Richard Reeves, of the network Rethinking Security, examined different parties’ commitments to UK military spending. He found that Labour and the Conservatives have similar aims to reach 2.5 per cent of GDP. The Conservatives set a date, while Labour use the more nimble phrase “as soon as resources allow”.

This spending level was surpassed by Reform UK, which wishes to reach three per cent of GDP by 2030. The Liberal Democrats will meet the NATO target of two per cent of GDP; the SNP are likely to be between 1.7 per cent and two per cent; and the Green Party does not name a figure in its current policy documents, but it does support an end to “fixed minimum level of military spending” among NATO members.

These UK military spending promises from parties match a growing trend of responding to current changes in geopolitics with significant increases in military spending. On 22 April, Stockholm International Peace Research released its annual global analysis on military spending levels. It discovered that global spending in 2023 was $2443 billion. This was an increase of 6.8 per cent, in real terms, from 2022, and the steepest year-on-year increase since 2009. More than half of the total figure comes from from 31 NATO member nations, which spend $1341 billion between them.

THIS global expenditure is not simply numbers on a spreadsheet. It turns into real bombs, bullets, drones, and more. We see the results of it daily through conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen, Sudan, and many other places. The end result? Increased insecurity. The doomsday clock continues to hover at 90 seconds to midnight; polling in 2022 found that 34 per cent of citizens in a global sample felt less safe than five years ago.

So, how do we respond? Christians are very good good at lamenting the presence of war and conflict in the world. Yet, all of us, myself included, are not very good at remembering that our task is not simply to lament the presence of war and conflict: it is also to bring to birth a new world in which war and conflict do not exist.

Both sacred and secular thinkers have spent decades imagining what this world could look like. I recently read Scilla Elworthy’s The Business Plan for Peace: Making a world without war possible, which examines the many different ways in which peace can be built in the world.

While eradicating weapons of war is one element, she also studies ideas such as increasing democracy, meeting basic social needs, and empowering the voices of the marginalised within civic and political societies. I was swept up in the book, because it made clear that peace is not built by a straightforward action; instead, it is a jigsaw of options that all need to unite to enable peace to flourish.

This need to invest in a jigsaw of security is much more challenging to portray in a politically pithy headline than announcing a multi-billion-pound warship. Yet, investing in meeting everyone’s basic needs delivers longer-term peace.

Contrast, for a moment, the global military-spending level of $2443 billion with the UNICEF figure that $114 billion per year is needed to ensure that everyone in low- and middle-income nations has access to clean water; or the estimate that $340 billion per year is required to ensure that everyone in low- and middle-income countries receives free primary education. This is before we get on to climate change: a major threat to humanity’s existence that we should be pooling our resources to tackle. But annual reports from the UN Environment Program report regularly on significant gaps in income against spending needs.

WITH contrasts such as these making global political focus clear, can we really keep quiet? It has been inspiring to see the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Lords Spiritual use their seats in the House of Lords to bring continued and public moral pressure against the Rwanda Bill. Will bishops, archbishops, and lay people consider doing the same on increasing levels of military spending?

Many of us will likely use hustings and doorstep conversations to discuss with candidates the undeniable scandal that 3.2 million children in the UK live in poverty. Yet who will we dare join the dots between cuts to welfare spending and increases in military spending?

When we sit in church halls across the land, listening to political hustings, will we ensure that God’s house (in the public square) does not resound to the sound of greater investment in war, but that politicians are challenged to talk more about peace and investing in the long-term social goods that build a world of peace?

Politics, security, government expenditure, and peace are all about decisions. Over the coming months, I pray that we use our space and voice to amplify a voice of peace in a world that is increasingly obsessed with war.

John Cooper is director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

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