The Growth of Democratic Armed Forces Since WWII

Michael Kocsis

March, 2018



For most of its history, the United States refused to maintain a substantial army in periods of peace. Its historical resistance changed after World War II. For We might have expected military power in the United States to decline since the end of the cataclysm, but it has reached ever greater heights in the decades since 1945. 

The worldwide growth of military strength in the world’s top powers—the U.S., Russia, China, India, France, the U.K., and Germany—has hardly diminished since the end of World War II. But in terms of the size of armed forces the western democracies play in a league of their own. With somewhere near 761 foreign military bases, the U.S. military is equipped with the largest extraterritorial garrison of any nation in history. Added to several thousand facilities spread across the 50 contiguous states, these installations make the American military remarkable for its size and reach. Armed forces in France, Britain, and Germany experience growth nearly every year.

Public expenditure may be a useful tool for measuring military power. Since the Truman Presidency, the United States has established a new record for military spending with every incoming administration. While Truman spent roughly $376B per year during his five years in the White House, President Obama spent $663B.

According to the “Military Expenditure Database” published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), global spending on armed forces increased by 0.4% in 2016 to a total of $1686 billion (USD), corresponding to 2.2% of global GDP. That represents the second consecutive year of growth and it extends an upward curve that began in the early 1990s with the end of communism.

If we define excessive military spending as a kind of disease, the democratic countries are among the hardest hit. By SIPRI’s data, growth in military spending by the U.S. and European democracies drove 2016’s worldwide growth. African, Central American and South American countries modestly decreased allocations for armed forces in the past year.

The growth trajectory, especially but not only in the United States, is clear as day. There has been an expansion and certainly no prolonged decline in worldwide military power since the end of World War II. Researchers anticipate continuing growth through 2045.

Statistical measurements of military size and spending point us in the right direction. However, they fail to reveal the underlying military impulse that shapes the democratic world. On balance, the size of a state’s military strength fluctuates in proportion to shifts in public opinion and mobilization of rival states. Military spending responds to a state’s short-term economic conditions with growth or contraction year after year.

To get a true sense of the dynamic behind the western world’s military preoccupation, imagine democratic societies without excessive weaponry or its trappings. It seems unlikely that actual states will ever be liberated of the necessity of military preparedness. But what would democracy be like if military power had never taken hold?

To begin, democracies free of the burden by military power would contain no permanent arms industry, no establishment of lobbyists, and no power brokers working on their behalf. Elected leaders would not receive contributions from war profiteers, and resources presently dedicated to war would be directed to other social priorities. Armed services would be “held to the minimum required to protect a country against armed attack” and would be rarely deployed for the promotion of wider national interests. Indeed, the principle that armed force is justified only to defend the state and its people against foreign attack is a distinguishing feature of un-militarized democratic society.

It would be expected far fewer “wars of intervention” would occur. Researchers believe the size of the U.S. military has increased the frequency of military intervention. In other words, military power tends to become its own temptation despite the fact that military action short of war has provided constant tension and agitation for U.S. Presidents. Between 1945 and the year 2000, the United States carried out interventions in more than 70 foreign nations.

Most importantly, cultural dimensions of militarism would contain their current social appeal. Culture penetrates our private and collective lives. It involves seen and unseen factors concerning how individuals view themselves and their place in the social system. In the western democracies, military power permeates virtually all areas of culture; from the games young children play to the cultural representations we celebrate to the common language of political life. As they exist today, these spheres of culture valorize military power and glorify the experience of war.

Looking critically at the culture of militarism helps to explain why armed services long ago became the most respected governmental institution in American society, and why military spending absorbs roughly 95% of the massive U.S. foreign affairs budget. According to a 2017 report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the U.S. Congress rarely even asks whether military action can be more effectively planned or more cost efficient.   

It is always difficult to draw clear correlations between military culture and society as a whole. To my eyes, the crafty ways that the military’s ranks, rituals and virtues make their way into wider culture, tells us that a military ethos has entered the private lives of democratic citizens. The culture of military power is bound to have consequences. It is clear that in non-Western societies fractured by a war, exposure to violence is a technique used to recruit young people, predominantly young men, into fighting formations.

It is also known that the suffering and damage caused by military power are unequally distributed. They are experienced mostly by those who live outside democratic zones of safety. Data collected by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) indicates that the damage of war measured in “battle deaths” has declined significantly since 1946 but armed conflict continues to produce by far the most fatalities in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, respectively.

It may be not be possible actually to build a democracy beyond the influence of military power. The model sketched above allows us to visualize what it might be like to live as free and equal citizens without the burden of excessive military power.

Militarism in the democratic west is not as much a factor of the size of a nation’s military as it is a cultural phenomenon. By imagining democracy with features of militarism subtracted from the picture, we begin to appreciate the social forces gripping today’s democratic world.