Militarisation is a difficult term with many interpretations and definitions. From a more qualitative perspective, militarisation means to gear a state or a society toward the needs of a military environment or to subject a community to military requirements. In quantitative terms, militarisation means that a state or an area is furnished with military personnel or military equipment and the necessary funds for this.
The Global Militarisation Index (GMI) of the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC) defines militarisation in quantitative terms as those means and capacities provided to the state armed forces. In including further data sets, the Index depicts the relative weight and significance of the military apparatus of a state in relation to its society as a whole.
In total, six indicators are considered when calculating the GMI:
- Military expenditures compared to a country’s gross domestic product (GDP),
- Military expenditures compared to its health expenditures,
- Contrast between the total number of (para)military personnel and the overall population,
- Ratio of the number of reservist to the overall population,
- Ratio of (para)military forces to the number of doctors,
- Ratio of heavy weaponry to the overall population.
It is important to note that the GMI does not mirror a tendency of a state (or any other actors) to manage political and social conflicts by violent means. The militarisation of a country as represented in the GMI solely refers to the ‘naked figures’, namely the distribution of resources, and only indirectly to warmongering and the preparedness to resort to violence. In short, whoever pays for a large military apparatus does not necessarily have to want to pursue their interest by force, using their military apparatus against others.
The GMI also takes into account military resources that are made available to state entities. It does not record the degree of civil militarisation as is, for example, expressed by the wide distribution of small arms and light weapons in the population. It also does not record the share of non-state military groups, such as private military companies or rebel armies.
The GMI purposely focuses on state funds. It does so, because on the one hand a purely subjective attitude (willingness to use violence) is difficult to measure and to depict in an index. On the other, there are hardly any reliable data on non-state military capacities that would be suitable for any evaluation.
The advantage of such a narrow approach to militarisation shows itself when the GMI ranks are compared with other factors. A low degree of state militarisation, for instance, is often accompanied by a high degree of militarisation of the total population or internal power struggles. In 2010, Nigeria held a relatively low rank in the GMI (137 of 149) but in its country an armed conflict was raging between Christian and Muslim parts of the population that led to pogroms and fighting between organised militias and to regional and local political power struggles. This case shows that a low degree of militarisation does not necessarily mean that the situation for the population is peaceful and secure as an insufficiently furnished security apparatus finds it difficult to enforce its monopoly of violence.
Vice versa, a very high degree of militarisation does not necessarily mean more security and stability. Amongst the ten most militarised countries in the world, seven are from the Middle East—a region characterised by decades of numerous violent conflicts. The situation of the Korean peninsula is similar, where tensions between South and North Korea threaten to escalate at any moment. In 2009, South Korea was in sixth position of the GMI. There are no reliable data on the military sector for North Korea and this is why the country is not listed on the Index. Yet, when taking into account many factors, one can assume that it is possibly the most militarised country in the world.
There are highly problematic cases where poor states that are unable to feed their own population invest a disproportional amount of money in their military. An example of this is Eritrea, which spends 20 percent of its GDP on its armed forces and which was ranked first in the GMI in 2006 (the last year for which reliable data was available). In comparison to this, Eritrea merely spent 3.7 percent for its public health scheme. In view of the extreme poverty in the country, documented by its last place position on the UN Human Development Index, a reallocation of military funds to civilian purposes would be urgently required.
To put it differently: neither a low nor a high degree of militarisation is automatically ‘good’. In fact, one has to judge each case for its own whether the respective resources that are allocated to the state armed forces are adequate or not. The real question therefore is whether the position of a country in the GMI could possibly point to a problem. In some, well-founded cases it may be advisable to increase funding for the military. In most cases, however, the conversion of military capacities to civilian use is the way forward. The rule therefore applies: Extreme positions, be they at the top or the bottom of the GMI, are often signs of a disproportion of resource allocation within a state.
Finally, the question arises whether military solutions are really the adequate means to approach many current threat perceptions. There is some evidence that dangers such as climate change but also international terrorism cannot (or not only) be fought by investing more into the military. Here, too, the GMI offers new perspectives.