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Dear Dr. Dollar:

How much does the U.S. government spend on NATO and on the United Nations? Can you itemize these sums?
—Dave Muller, Denver, Colorado

This article is from the January/February 2000 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2000/0100drdollar.html


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This article is from the January/February 2000 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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The U.S. government pursues its international policy through various strategies, and its budget data suggests that it far prefers a military strategy to a diplomatic one.

This may be hard to see at first glance at the U.N. and NATO figures because the U.S. budget line for NATO does not include much of the government’s actual spending on the military alliance—it ignores the cost of actual fighting under NATO auspices, most recently in Kosovo, as well as the long-term maintenance of military forces and assets. This long-term spending is not separated within the overall U.S. military budget.

What the budget does show is how much the U.S. spends on NATO’s administrative operations (both civilian and military) and its investment in infrastructure, totaling $450 million in 1999.

At $643 million, U.S. budget outlays for the U.N. in 1999 are actually larger than this figure. The spending goes not just toward the U.N., but to its affiliated agencies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Labor Organization and some smaller such operations. In addition to the $643 million, before the Kosovo War, U.N. peacekeepers got $231 million from the United States. Finally, “overseas assistance programs”—which are largely U.N. operations like the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, but also groups like the Red Cross—got $455 million.

A better guide to U.S. strategic priorities comes from comparing U.S. spending on all its military and diplomatic programs, not just NATO and the U.N. Here a great deal of information can be found in Robert L. Borosage’s recent analysis, “Money Talks: The Implications of U.S. Budget Priorities,” available on the Web through the “Foreign Policy in Focus” series.

Borosage points out that the military accounts for about 94% of all U.S. government spending on national security and international activities. What’s more, much of the nonmilitary international affairs spending goes to support military operations. “In Fiscal Year 1999,” Borosage reports, “the United States spent over $276 billion on its military. This figure includes outlays of the Pentagon and the Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs plus more than $27 billion spent on intelligence agencies.”

He goes on to note: “In sharp contrast to its military spending, the U.S. devotes comparatively few dollars to foreign diplomacy, international assistance, and support for international institutions. The total net outlays in Fiscal Year 1999 will be around $15 billion.”

Although U.S. military spending has declined since the end of the Cold War, it remains at 85% of levels in the 1976 to 1990 period. But those years span Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a period of exceptionally high military budgets. The United States still spends “more on its military than it did during the Cold War under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford,” says Borosage.

In any case, nonmilitary spending in international affairs has also fallen off substantially. After adjusting for inflation, the average U.S. expenditures on international affairs in the 1990s have been about 82% of those in the 1980s. Likewise, the U.S. government’s international aid-giving programs are in long-term decline. Today, the U.S. spends less than one-tenth of 1% of its national income on official development assistance —that’s a smaller share going to aid the world’s impoverished peoples than is provided by any other industrial nation. (Also, the U.S. government owes $1.6 billion in back dues to the U.N.)

Priorities are revealed by spending, and the military versus diplomatic priorities of the U.S. government are fairly clear. Its choice of strategy suggests that our government is far more concerned with imposing U.S. interests on the world than in pursuing a set of policies that would be more widely accepted, that would involve compromise and would be based on diplomacy more than military might.

Arthur MacEwan teaches economics at UMass Boston and was a founder of Dollars & Sense.

I am grateful to the Center for Defense Information for helping me find my way through some of the budget numbers. —A.M.
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