Opinion

How the US is like North Korea

Much of North Korea’s population is starving, yet its government pours money into missile and nuclear programs. Such behavior seems to be the height of irrationality. But North Korea is only following the international community’s – especially America’s – example.

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The international community is rightly aghast at North Korea for spending a fortune on its military when its populace is suffering. Nearly one quarter of North Korea’s population is either starving or at risk of starvation, according to a recent UN report, yet its government pours money into missile and nuclear programs. Such behavior seems to be the height of irrationality.

But North Korea is only following the international community’s – especially America’s – example.

Last year, the financial crisis continued to paralyze the world economy, the mercury in the biosphere’s thermometer inched up, and the gap between rich and poor continued to widen. And yet, global military spending increased for the 13th year in a row.

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According to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the world is now spending $1.63 trillion on fighting and preparing to fight war. This is part of an increase in global military spending that has doubled since 2000, even according to conservative estimates.

Military spending over human needs

Not all countries have behaved irrationally during the economic crisis. European governments have finally begun to cut back on their war budgets, reducing expenditures last year for the first time since 1998. But Europe was the exception.

In 2010, military spending climbed more than 5 percent last year in both Africa and South America, regions that can, like North Korea, ill afford to divert funds away from human needs.

Most irrational country of all? US

But the most irrational country of all has been the United States, which was responsible for more than one-third of all military spending and 95 percent of the global increase in military expenditures last year. This remarkable news comes at a time of unprecedented budget deficits and a veritable fever of budget cutting on Capitol Hill.

The Pentagon has promised to play well with others. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has pledged $100 billion in cuts. But these turn out, on closer inspection, to be a mere shift in funds from overhead to acquisitions and ongoing operations. The Obama administration has asked the Pentagon to cough up another $78 billion in cuts over the next five years.

But $15 billion a year, in an annual outlay of nearly $700 billion, amounts to little more than two percent – chump change for the Pentagon. Most of the reduction will come from the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the fine print of the proposed 2012 budget, the Pentagon will actually see a 15 percent increase in its base budget, the budget not devoted to ongoing wars, by 2016.

In a speech yesterday, President Obama proposed additional cuts in national security spending of $400 billion over the next 12 years. The Pentagon and the Republican leadership are already pushing back, even though the numbers remain small. These proposed cuts would come from an overall national security budget of approximately $1 trillion a year – which includes portions of the budgets of Homeland Security, the State Department, intelligence services, and others. So in effect, the president is proposing only around a three percent cut, which still lets the Pentagon off easy.

Cut real fat, not community assistance

At a time of fiscal austerity, the US government should pause in its attacks on community services and low-income energy assistance to consider where the real fat can be cut. A recent Government Accountability Office audit reports as much as $70 billion in waste alone in the Pentagon budget.

The Sustainable Defense Task Force, convened by Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, recommended cuts totaling $1.1 trillion over the next decade. The task force achieved these savings by cutting unnecessary weapons systems (such as the V-22 Osprey), reducing the nuclear weapons program, and shrinking the overseas footprint of US military personnel in Europe and Asia.

We are all North Koreans now

North Korea justifies its military spending as a necessary precaution to deter the kind of military intervention that ousted Saddam Hussein and now threatens to unseat Muammar Qaddafi. For the North Korean regime, spending money on the military ensures its survival and protects the ruling elite.

The international community, on the other hand, faces overwhelming threats such as climate change, health pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. You can’t attack climate change with a fighter jet or stop the AIDS crisis with a submarine. These threats have become all the more dangerous during this last decade of massive increases in global military spending.

So, in the end, who is behaving irrationally? By lavishing precious funds on the military, we are all North Koreans now.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He helped organize the Global Day of Action on Military Spending (demilitarize.org) on April 12.

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