Last week the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released its latest figures on world military expenditure, confirming that global defence spending is once again on the rise. Although a real terms increase of 1 per cent appears modest, underneath the headline figure lies a more striking trend: alongside dynamic economic growth in many emerging powers has come a massive expansion in military expenditure over the past decade.

The Brics have led the pack. China’s military spending increased by 169 per cent in the past decade, Russia’s by 112 per cent, India’s by 44 per cent, and Brazil’s by 43 per cent. But others in the G20 are investing at a similarly rapid pace. Saudi Arabia has increased its defence budget by an astonishing 125 per cent over the past decade, and now ranks third on the table of top spenders, despite resorting to international money markets to plug a growing budget deficit.

But it is not just the size of emerging defence budgets that matters. The big question is, how will all this new power be governed, and in whose interest? Early indications are not encouraging. A quick cross check against Transparency International’s defence index – which scores countries on a scale from A to F according to their levels of defence transparency and accountability – suggests the most rapid growth in military might is often characterised by high levels of secrecy and low levels of accountability, oversight and transparency. Over a third of global military expenditure is now by countries with zero meaningful budget transparency; no Bric scored higher than a D.

The fact is that an ever greater proportion of the globe’s military spending is now governed really badly. At the most basic level this unchecked military power undermines democracy, with those in power using the security institutions of government not to serve the interests of their people but to retain power and control over the population. In many cases, this is coupled with tight connections between government, military, and private sector elites. All too often contracts go to patronage networks, and the military is repurposed towards wealth extraction – removing economic opportunity for the majority of the population.

The theft of national budgets that this represents has a significant impact in terms of the missed opportunities to invest in health, education and infrastructure. And it happens disproportionately in countries where development is most needed, or inequality is most acute. Nearly half of African states spend over 5 per cent of their budgets on defence, with seven countries spending over 10 per cent.

More importantly, this misappropriation of the state security apparatus creates risks to internal stability. A state may end up with a highly-equipped defence ministry, but the biggest security threat the country faces may be internal. Disillusionment and distrust in government institutions bolster the ranks of non-state actors, while a lack of legitimacy is most devastating in countries where there has been sustained build-up of military capability, as we’re now seeing in Syria and Libya.

But this gulf between growing military spending and adequate checks and balances on military elites also poses a threat to global stability that goes beyond state stability. When the growth of hard power is characterised by high levels of secrecy and low levels of accountability, the intention underlying an expansion of military capability is not always clear to a country’s own people, never mind their neighbours and the outside world. Excessive secrecy over capability and intent has obvious implications for fuelling state competition and arms races, including in the Middle East and North Africa and South and Southeast Asia.

And then there’s proliferation. Shifts in the global arms trade are mirroring trends in defence spending, with increasing exports from countries that lack the basic factors that might serve to constrain irresponsible export practices, such as openness, public debate and clear decision-making structures.

Defence sales from France and Germany decreased 9.8 per cent and 51 per cent, respectively, in 2011-2015 compared with 2006-2010. Meanwhile, defence exports from China and Russia – where oversight is non-existent and public debate is silenced – have grown rapidly by 28 per cent and 88 per cent during the same period. How new players entering the defence market – like India, Brazil, South Africa and South Korea – approach the domestic governance of their defence sectors will have a big impact on the international arms trade.

The rules-based international order, founded on common agreements on behaviour, has increased security cooperation, encouraged predictable behaviour by states and the non-violent management of disputes. In this ever more militarised and multi-polar world, global security will continue to depend on the most powerful nations establishing acceptable ways of managing hard power – but what the SIPRI stats make clear, is that the number of military powers is expanding and the challenge of forging common agreement on standards of behaviour is ever more complex.

Katherine Dixon is director, Transparency International Defence & Security.

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