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Increasing Turkey's Military Expenditure At What Cost

17 Sep 2020
By Maya Heighway Sekine
Soldiers marching holding rifles. Source: Orlock,

Turkey’s military expenditure is amongst the world’s highest, yet it continues to grow. Strengthening the military’s grip over the country’s political and social life comes at the expense of sustainable economic and social development. 

Globalisation has resulted in a perpetually evolving international and regional security environment. Governments have had to face a plethora of new national and transnational threats such as terrorism, ideological conflicts, energy-related disputes, and cyber-attacks. This increase in potential security threats has put pressure on governments to build the institutional and infrastructural capacity required to respond to or prevent such threats, contributing to the rise in military expenditure.

Defence has long been considered a public good, financed either through public debt or taxes. Increases in military spending have meant shifting public resources and capital away from productive sectors such as education and health. This has led to concern surrounding the social, economic, and human development of countries which prioritise defence spending. In the Republic of Turkey, military expenditure has impeded long-term, sustainable economic and social development. Economic and social costs have been generated by military expenditure, and there are a number of factors Turkey would have had to consider when implementing changes to its military budget, such as regional instability and internal security. Opportunities for conflict prevention present a viable alternative to Turkey’s perpetually increasing military budget.

Economic costs

Military expenditure can generate negative economic costs, hindering the ability of countries to pursue sustainable economic development. Turkey presents such an example, in which its perpetually increasing military expenditure is having adverse effects on its economy, decreasing economic growth and exacerbating social disparity. Turkish military expenditure has increased by 8.6% since 2010 to reach an estimated $20.4 billion in 2019, representing 2.7 percent of GDP, surpassing the NATO-European average of 1.8 percent. The military in Turkey occupies a central place in Turkish politics. It has perceived itself as the guardian of the state since the republic’s foundation in 1923.

Turkey is characterised by praetorian militarism, in which the military holds excessive political influence over society and plays multiple roles. In addition to providing security and protection from external threats, it also has political, commercial, cultural and ideological roles, whilst simultaneously enjoying legal and practical autonomy from civilian oversight. The Turkish military is a product of ‘nationalist-militarist’ national security ideologies and discourses that construct the concept of security on the ‘basis of securing the state militarily and maintaining law and order’, rather than investing in the human and social security of the population. Such rhetoric, coupled with the military’s near absolute control and influence over its finances, has contributed to the country’s growing military expenditure.

Turkey has been struggling with chronic macroeconomic instability since implementing financial liberalisation policies in 1980, which were aimed at reducing the role of the public sector in the Turkish economy. These neoliberal reforms led to several internal and external economic crises. As a result, Turkey became one of the most indebted countries in the world, perpetuating macroeconomic instability and underdevelopment. Given the continuing economic impacts this has on Turkish society, the high level of military expenditure further exacerbates this structural fragility and impedes economic development.

Conservative thought postulates that military expenditure has a positive impact on economic growth by generating employment in military-related operations, or in associated service or supporting roles. However, numerous studies have found that the opposite of this statement is true. Military expenditure has a significant negative eect on employment in the long run. This is reflective of Turkey’s shift away from a large active army, towards labour saving, high technology weapons systems. Expenditure on such capital-intensive systems has generated fewer employment opportunities, as well as increased Turkey’s external debt burden. Turkey’s domestic generation of capital through direct taxes is insufficient to repay these external debts, resulting in extremely high indirect taxes. This puts financial burden primarily on low to middle income groups, perpetuating poverty, and macroeconomic instability, thus impeding the achievement of sustainable economic and social development.

Social costs

Increased military expenditure can negatively impact the human development trajectory of a country, leading to widening social inequalities and income disparities. In Turkey, government budget allocation has historically prioritised the needs of the military over any other sector. This unequal distribution of resources implies foregoing allocation to sectors imperative to sustainable human development such as health and education. This represents an opportunity cost in terms of social expenditure and quality of living, a trade-off that is greater for developing countries.

Increases in military expenditure lead to significantly negative eects on publicly financed health expenditures, which threaten the population health and individual wellbeing of the population. The financial burden placed on the public health sector poses serious consequences for those most vulnerable and in need of healthcare services, poverty levels are exacerbated, and societal inequality increases, as those who have money are better able to access healthcare services when needed.

Increases in military expenditure also contribute to widening income inequalities, by consolidating the position of the military as a privileged community that reproduces itself, strengthening the praetorian arm model in society. The military benefits from a wide variety of privileges, including tax exemptions, and the ability to act as a collective capitalist organisation through owning and operating OYAK (the Armed Forces Trust and Pension Fund). The permanent members of OYAK are all active military personnel who benefit from financial gains earned through the organisation. OYAK invests in production, trade, services, and financial sectors, and is exempt from certain rules placed on other institutions, giving it economic advantages. As a result, military officials have been able to adopt upper-middle income lifestyles, whilst social services for the poor and vulnerable have suffered from competition for funding with the military.

Regional and Internal Threats

Defence spending varies across different states, regimes and regions, influenced by both external and internal variables. In developing countries, internal security concerns usually outweigh external security considerations.

Turkey is located in a volatile region, at the crossroads between Asia and Europe. Its neighbouring countries have experienced severe economic and political turmoil, culminating in outbreaks of conflict that directly impact Turkish society. The Syrian refugee crisis has led to continual influxes of refugees into Turkey, historical animosity with Greece continues in the form of political disagreements, and fears of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism have grown. Further, Turkey has been struggling with separatist activities in its Kurdish- majority regions since the 1970’s, contending with numerous terrorist attacks and violent incidents that are increasing in brutality.

Turkey has imminent and tangible security threats arising from Syria in the form of Islamic fundamentalism. The spread of violence into Turkey would have serious consequences for the human security and wellbeing of its population, and will generate significant rebuilding costs that would burden its already fragile macroeconomic structure. Although perceptions of threat, whether domestic or international, influence decisions regarding military budgets, the changing nature of relationships between countries carries more weight in finalising such decisions.

Domestic factors also play a significant role in determining military expenditure. Internal security is of particular importance to Turkey due to the ongoing conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in its far Eastern regions. The suppression of Kurdish militarism has been coordinated with the military, paramilitary and police forces. The longstanding presence of the PKK and perpetual threat of terrorism has continued to be a crucial factor in decisions related to military expenditures.

Opportunities for peaceful resolutions

Another factor to consider in decisions regarding military budgets is the possibility of pursuing peaceful conflict prevention and resolution efforts., Preventing conflict can entail two pathways – directly addressing the source of any grievances in communities, and/or focusing on the process by which such grievances are mobilised to violence. In the case of Turkey, clashes with the PKK are sporadic and becoming more violent, thus preventing escalation is paramount. Diverting funds from military expenditure to social expenditure to ameliorate the immediate consequences of conflict, and to address the deep-rooted causes of grievances such as socioeconomic inequality and regional underdevelopment, could lead to the prevention of further outbreaks of conflict. Inclusive economic reforms that increase opportunity and redistribute resources are a fundamental and sustainable way to reduce incidents of conflict.

In conclusion, increased military expenditure exacerbates Turkey’s macroeconomic instability and creates an opportunity cost. Thus, perpetually limited public resources have contributed to growing poverty levels and wider societal inequality, hindering sustainable development. Both regional and domestic security threats influence expenditure, rendering avenues for conflict prevention and resolution of paramount importance.

Maya Heighway Sekine is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne studying a Masters of Developmental Studies. Maya is interning at AIIA as part of the Silk Road Study Tour.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.