Despite threats to human existence from climate change, loss of biodiversity, and pandemics that have crippled economies and societies, countries still spend recklessly on destructive weapons for wars they will never fight.
As an academic who advises the United Nations on arms control and the military use of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, I have long argued that nations should put ‘human security for the common good’ at military expense. should be given priority. This means ensuring that people can live to their full potential – financially complete, politically suffrage, in a healthy environment and free from fear of violence and free from mortal threats such as climate change or pandemics.
Such calls are not new. For example, the idea was to spend the security budget on pandemic preparedness following the outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Zika virus. Now, the sheer scale of the pandemic against a backdrop of escalating violence – both of which have long been predicted – makes the case for action all the more urgent.
The old world order, in which governments build arsenals to defend the state, is clearly not providing what the people need. According to Global Peace Index 4, peace levels have declined by 2.5% since 2008. The index measures 23 indicators – including military spending and ease of access to small arms – across 163 independent states and territories, ranking them by level of peace. The decline in peace levels is at a record US$1.9 trillion in 2019, despite an increase in military spending globally.
Cross-border aggression and civil war are decreasing, but political instability and unrest is increasing in many regions, including North and South America, Africa and Asia. In the past decade, the number of riots and anti-government demonstrations has more than doubled globally.
More than 96 countries in the world recorded violent demonstrations in 2019, as citizens protested against racial injustice, police brutality, corruption and economic fallout. Weapons are not found even to the root causes of instability – poor governance, lack of food, few jobs, poor education provision and threats to security. The might of the military doesn’t make the world any more peaceful.
Change is possible. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sees “a massive movement of solidarity” around the world in the face of the pandemic. Amid rising nationalism, coalitions are building to distribute vaccines in low- and middle-income countries. For example, the European Commission, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom are among those that contribute money to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness (CEPI), which works to develop vaccines to prevent future pandemics. is.
The coalition was established in 2017 by the governments of Norway and India, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, UK biomedical charity Wellcome and the World Economic Forum in the aftermath of the 2014–16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
The Ebola outbreak killed more than 11,000 people and caused economic and social costs of more than $53 billion. CEPI is part of an $18 billion program with the World Health Organization and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, that aims to deliver 2 billion doses of vaccines by the end of next year.
This year should represent a turning point for the national security budget. Governments need to acknowledge that their concept of national security maintained by a military-industrial complex is chronological and irrelevant.
To recover from the pandemic costing an estimated $82 trillion over the next 5 years (see go.nature.com/2q5jtyf), they should instead focus their spending on stimulus packages for decarbonisation, health, education and the environment .
National security budgets must be earmarked for realizing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2015 Paris Agreement to prevent dangerous climate change. The ratification of the arms trade treaty – whose member parties are meeting virtually this week – should be the first step.
The arms trade is lucrative: sales of the world’s major arms producing companies reached $420 billion in 2018. These weapons have been around for decades. Everything from small arms, tanks and aircraft to military goods and services is sold in both legal and illegal markets.
They end up on the streets and in the hands of terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda. result? Some 464,000 people died through homicides in 2017, and 89,000 people died in armed conflicts globally (2017 is the latest year for which data is available)7
These losses accounted for about 11% of global economic activity in 2019, or about $2,000 per capita, totaling $14.5 trillion (see ‘The cost of conflict’).