UNODA Launches Occasional Papers On Rethinking Unconstrained Military Spending

April 30th, 2020

The United Nations Charter reflects an explicit understanding of the link between disarmament and development. Article 26 recognizes the need to ensure “the maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s economic and human resources”. Despite this clear, global commitment, military spending has seen its largest annual increase in a decade, reaching $1917 billion in 2019—a level not seen since the height of the cold war.

Rethinking unconstrained military spending constitutes an important component of the Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament, Securing Our Common Future. In a deteriorating international security environment, reducing military budgets becomes ever-more essential.

By creating opportunities to redirect funds from the military to economic and social development, a reduction in military expenditure can also make a key contribution to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In support of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda for Disarmament, the Office for Disarmament Affairs is publishing a two-part series of Occasional Papers on rethinking unconstrained military spending intended to promote renewed research on the relationship between military expenditure and economic and social development.

Released in October 2019, the first volume, UNODA Occasional Papers No. 33 by Michael Spies from the Office for Disarmament Affairs, provides a historical overview of United Nations efforts to reduce military expenditures.

Coinciding with  the ongoing Global Days of Action on Military Spending and complementary to the recent release of the annual military spending data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Office for Disarmament Affairs is pleased to publish the second volume, UNODA Occasional Papers 35, on rethinking unconstrained military spending. The papers address the issue of military spending from various angles by examining the impact of military expenditures on international security; the relationship between military spending and the Sustainable Development Goals; the importance of gender perspectives in rethinking military spending; and lessons learned from economic conversion movements.

Occasional Paper No. 35 on Rethinking Unconstrained Military Spending


In “How unconstrained military spending harms international security”, Samuel Perlo-Freeman from the Campaign Against Arms Trade, argues that continuous growth in military spending negatively impacts international security in four ways. First, it promotes self-reinforcing “cycles of insecurity”. Secondly, it can contribute to technological advancements in weapons systems with highly unpredictable consequences. Thirdly, it is often associated with high levels of corruption and state predation. Finally, continuous growth in military spending absorbs political attention and material resources that could otherwise be devoted to more pressing security challenges, in particular the devastating effects of the climate crisis. Prioritizing military power reflects a fundamentally distorted view of security that ignores or minimizes many key, non-military security threats, Perlo-Freeman argues. The author concludes that an alternative approach, with a focus on human security, is necessary to halt the arms race and redirect resources to non-military security priorities.

In  “Military spending and the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, Nan Tian, Diego Lopes da Silva and Alexandra Kuimova from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute argue that a reduction in military spending could contribute to economic and social development and suggest possible paths to achieving such a reduction. The authors examine the negative effects of excessive military spending on economic growth and development and discuss how a reduction in military spending can make resources available to finance and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The paper explains how improving transparency, accountability and civilian control over the budgeting process can ensure that resources once dedicated to the military are reallocated to promote social and economic development.

In “A feminist approach for addressing excessive military spending” Ray Acheson and Madeleine Rees from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom  highlight the important link between gender, militarism and unconstrained military spending. Calling into question the notion that weapons provide security, the authors advocate for a feminist approach to peace and security that defines human security not by stockpiling weapons or issuing threats, but by promoting the merits of negotiation, cooperation, and redistribution of resources. Long-term solutions, the authors propose, include disarmament, demilitarization, investments in economic and social rights, and environmental protection.

In “From swords to ploughshares: lessons learned from conversion movements”, Miriam Pemberton from the Institute for Policy Studies and William D. Hartung from the Center for International Policy discuss the need to meaningfully explore ways in which to effectively transition militarized economies into industrialized economies. Examining the post-cold war period the authors present lessons learned from economic conversion movements, arguing that four key conditions are necessary for success. Firstly, reductions in military spending must be accompanied by a reinvestment of the resulting savings to spur new economic growth. Secondly, States should develop programmes offering technical and financial assistance for firms, workers and communities to support adaptation processes. Thirdly, there must be support from civil society on the issue through research, education, advocacy, legislation, and outreach. Finally, States should develop robust industrial policies to support the transition to a less militarized economy.