Latin America as the next Europe: Defense Spending

Back in August I wrote the first post in a series on Latin America that will look at conditions inside the region and why they support the idea that Latin America is ready for a new reputation and increased attention. In that post I focused on democracy and how it has transformed the region into a potential ideological compatriot of the United States. Today, I am going to focus on the growth in defense spending and the evolving capabilities of the armed forces in several key Latin American countries. What these data prove is that Latin America is not only an ideologically capable partner for the United States, but increasingly a materially capable one as well.

The past decade has been good to Latin America.  Strong GDP growth, plummeting poverty levels, and an expanding middle class have granted governments across the continent the freedom to invest more in their militaries. Even still, the explosion in defense spending has been surprising.

Defense Spending in Eight LA Countries, 2006-2012 (current US dollars)
Defense Spending in Eight LA Countries, 2006-2012 (current US dollars)

From 2006 to 2012, defense spending in the region increased by 95%. For comparison, during this same time period, defense spending in the United States increased a mere 29% (this includes spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the European Union spent only 7% more on defense. While Latin America is starting from a low level of spending, for some countries this massive increase has translated into truly sizable defense budgets. Brazil, for example, saw its military expenditures surge from $16 billion in 2006 to $33 billion in 2012, placing it near the ten largest defense budgets in the world.

Most importantly, this growth in spending has been sustainable.  The region as a whole spent only 1.45% of its GDP on defense in 2012, up from 1.38% in 2006.  This leaves Latin American governments plenty of room to increase the percentage of national resources going to the armed forces without breaking the bank.  In other words, future growth potential in the region is strong.

We can expect growth to continue because while tensions between countries are low in Latin America, the region still faces transnational criminal networks that threaten security and require a military response.  Additionally, certain states such as Brazil, Chile, and Colombia increasingly believe they have a leadership role to play in international affairs and want the ability to do so.  For example, Brazil has led the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti since 2004, while Colombia has provided counter-narcotics officers with decades of experience fighting the FARC to train units in Afghanistan.

Equally important is where Latin American militaries have been investing their new resources.  Over the past decade, governments in the region have purchased new tanksfighter jetshelicopters, and submarines, with more big-ticket purchases looming in the near future.  Not only do these new assets provide indigenous capabilities, but because they are modern systems, they are significantly more interoperable with military equipment in the U.S. and other advanced states.

All of this leads to the conclusion that slowly but surely, Latin America is becoming more important in terms of military power.  In fact, the region is steadily gaining ground on Europe with regard to overall spending levels.

Defense Spending in the EU and Latin American, 2006 and 2012
Defense Spending in the EU and Latin American, 2006 and 2012

This shrinking gap is measurable not only in dollar amounts but also in ambition; earlier this year Colombia declared its intentions to seek closer ties with NATO, with an eye toward future membership (Colombian membership was later rejected because the country lies outside the geographic scope of the alliance, a problem I covered in an earlier post).  The result is that the region increasingly looks like a strong future partner for the U.S., assuming Washington can get its act together.  If it can, the payoff could be huge.

Source Note: All data on military spending comes from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

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