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Autocracy is on the rise: Should we expect military spending to follow?

Autocracy is on the rise: Should we expect military spending to follow?
Toy soldier stand on money coins, Shutterstock/Sittipong Sirichamnan

Autocracies are once again the global majority. The 2020 Democracy Report of the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-DEM), ‘Autocratization surges, resistance grows’, raises the alarm that while the world in 2019 was substantially more democratic than it was in the 1970s, an ongoing trend of autocratization may reverse this scenario. Democratic institutions in countries as diverse as Hungary and Mali are weakening, leading to consequences of as yet unknown dimensions. A likely outcome is an increase in military spending: there is a significant body of evidence showing that autocracies spend more than democracies on their militaries, all else being equal.

This SIPRI Topical Backgrounder discusses the possible consequences of growing autocratization on military spending. Understanding the interaction between political regimes and military spending is of interest to scholars as well as to policymakers, as many of these autocratizing countries—such as Brazil, India and Turkey—increasingly bear importance in the international security landscape. It also examines the case of Brazil in light of the findings of the 2020 Democracy Report and looks at how Brazil’s recent autocratization has affected its military spending.

Is the world becoming more autocratic?

The 2020 Democracy Report documents the acceleration and deepening of autocratization around the world. V-DEM defines any substantial decline on its Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) as autocratization. Simply put, it refers to the erosion of liberal democratic institutions. The LDI captures the extent to which individual and minority rights are protected against a potential ‘tyranny of the majority’ and the state. Institutional features such as civil liberties, separation of powers, a constitutionally constrained executive, and a strong and independent judiciary are of special concern to this index.

Autocracies—political regimes where civil society’s influence and control over decision making is limited and unevenly distributed—are, for the first time since 2001, the majority in the world. The number of liberal democracies has fallen from a peak of 45 countries in 2010 to 37 in 2019. Levels of democracy have fallen throughout regions: as a population-weighted average, Latin America’s 2019 democracy index receded to 1992 levels, while in the same year Eastern Europe’s reached its lowest point since the end of the Soviet Union. Hungary is a notable example. It is the first electoral authoritarian member of the European Union according to V-DEM’s methodology and the most extreme case of autocratization of the decade 2009–19, followed by Turkey, Poland, Serbia and Brazil.

Why would autocratization affect military spending?

In a nutshell, the literature puts forward two main hypotheses on the relationship between military spending and democracy. Far from being exclusionary, these hypotheses complement each other; empirical cases are likely to display features in accordance with both explanations. The first hypothesis—the democratic control hypothesis—claims that liberal democracies spend less on their militaries as a means to avoid heightening threat perceptions and leaving fewer resources available to other valued social goods. Thus, politicians seeking election or re-election may be more inclined to reduce military spending to provide more resources for health and education, for example. They would do so to please constituents and therefore maximize their chances of remaining in power. Democratic institutions provide the channels through which civil society can express its preferences, reward politicians who abide by them and sanction those who do not.

A second hypothesis—the autocrat–military hypothesis—concerns the rent-seeking behaviour of the military. According to this theoretical strand, competition for resources is fundamentally different under democratic and autocratic regimes. In democracies the military should not resort to violence as a means of securing resources; it must compete for budget allocations with other state bureaucracies on an equal footing. Conversely, autocratic regimes tend to rely on the military for internal repression. In these regimes, the military can bargain for larger budget allocations in exchange for political support.

There is evidence to support the association between military spending and democracy: countries with well-functioning democracies tend to spend less on their militaries, both as a share of gross domestic product (GDP)—military burden—and as a share of government expenditure. A study published in 2015, for instance, found that full democracies—those scoring highest in democratic quality—spend on average almost 40 per cent less than full autocracies—those scoring lowest in democratic quality—on their militaries, all else being equal. There is also some evidence suggesting that presidential democracies spend more on the military than parliamentary systems. Among autocracies, military regimes have higher military spending levels than single party and personalist regimes. The link between political regimes and military spending is well established in the literature. These findings suggest that if the current trend of autocratization continues, military spending is likely to rise. The effects are already noticeable: some countries moving towards autocracy are either increasing military spending or changing budgeting practices. The following section discusses some preliminary findings on the relationship between autocratization and military spending in Brazil.

The autocratic surge in Brazil: President Bolsonaro’s relationship with the armed forces and military spending

According to V-DEM’s 2020 Democracy Report, Brazil ranks fifth among the top 10 autocratizing countries of the decade 2009–19. Democratic levels began to decline in Brazil in 2014, after a corruption scandal involving President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party. A political crisis ensued ultimately leading to Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016. The impeachment process was highly controversial, casting serious doubt on the quality of Brazilian democratic institutions. Autocratization accelerated after far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2018. Bolsonaro has made clear on several occasions that his commitment to democratic institutions is weak, going as far as to claim that ‘the dictatorship’s mistake was to torture but not kill’ dissidents, referring to Brazil’s latest military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985.

Bolsonaro is a former army captain and has appointed a retired army general as vice president. He has populated the state bureaucracy with military personnel and relies heavily on the military to govern. When Bolsonaro took office in 2018, fewer than 3000 military personnel occupied civilian positions in the state bureaucracy; by 2020 that number had risen to over 6000. Many key positions in the government are or were occupied by retired army officers, such as the minister of health, the minister of mines and energy, the minister of defence and the national security adviser. The military has backed Bolsonaro against political opponents as well as against other government branches. In May 2020, Bolsonaro’s national security adviser, Augusto Heleno, a retired army general, warned that the Supreme Court’s ongoing inquiries into the president’s supporters may lead to ‘unpredictable consequences for national stability’. Following Heleno’s statement, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro—President Bolsonaro’s son—said that an institutional break, in other words a democratic rupture, in Brazil is only a matter of time.

The relationship between Bolsonaro and the military has had consequences on the allocation of government resources. The presidency presented a budget proposal to Congress in August 2020 calling for a 4.83 per cent increase in the defence budget for 2021. The Ministry of Defence was successful in lobbying for 8.17 billion reais (US$1.5 billion) for investments in arms acquisition programmes, much higher than in previous years. The Ministry of Defence has even more ambitious plans in mind to enlarge the military budget: the latest version of the National Defence Strategy, submitted to Congress in July 2020, proposes raising Brazil’s military spending from the 1.4 per cent of GDP average of the past decade to 2 per cent of GDP.

Although the proposition is based on that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—since 2002 NATO member states have agreed to spend at least 2 per cent of their GDP on their military—Brazil’s proposed approach is fundamentally distinct from the one taken by NATO. The NATO 2 per cent military burden is a political guideline, not a legal obligation. The Brazilian proposal, however, appears to aim at setting national defence expenditure at 2 per cent of GDP in the Annual Budget Law. While the means to do so are not yet clear, the language in the document implies, or at least creates potential for, the establishment of a legal mechanism securing a minimum allocation per year (2 per cent of GDP) to the military irrespectively of approval by Congress. If that is indeed the case, it would severely weaken democratic control over the budgetary process.

Discussions about raising military spending in Brazil are taking place during exceptionally challenging times. Firstly, since 2017 Brazil has been under a new fiscal regime that limits government spending for the following 20 years. The expenditure ceiling links any increase in federal primary expenditure to the previous year’s inflation, ensuring that spending does not grow in real terms. The fiscal regime heightens the zero-sum game of resource allocation, as government branches must now compete for shares of a substantially smaller pot of money. If the proposal for a 2 per cent military burden is approved, it would automatically decrease the resources available to other ministries.

Secondly, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has hit Brazil particularly hard. In the six months following the first registered case, Brazil reached 4.3 million cases and over 133 000 deaths. In June 2020 COVID-19-related fatalities averaged 1000 deaths per day. The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed Brazil’s health system and put a strain on public resources. Raising military spending amid the most severe health and economic crises Brazil has ever experienced will considerably limit the country’s ability to respond effectively to COVID-19. Had the 2 per cent military burden proposition been approved in 2019, military spending would have grown from $28 billion to $40 billion annually. The difference, $12 billion, is more than a tenth of the 2020 budget allocated by the Brazilian Government to address the COVID-19 pandemic. This simple comparison provides a tangible example of the opportunity costs involved in raising military spending amidst such a severe health crisis.

The quid pro quo between Bolsonaro and the military supports to some extent the hypothesis that autocracies rely on the military. Brazil is not a full autocracy; it is still a democracy with functioning institutions. Nevertheless, it is clear that Bolsonaro relies heavily on the support of the military to govern and thus Brazil does display some of the features of the autocrat–military hypothesis. Moreover, Brazil also fits the democratic control hypothesis. The proposal to fix the military burden at 2 per cent—if carried out without the approval of Congress—would be a significant setback to Brazilian civil society’s ability to influence public expenditure. In that sense, it represents a weakening of democratic control.

Military spending in autocratizing countries

If the current trend of autocratization leads to higher military spending, the consequences would certainly be damaging for international security and economic development. Higher military spending could lead to heightened threat perceptions, and thus ultimately increase the likelihood of conflict. Likewise, larger military budgets might mean that fewer resources would be available for spending on health and education or to effectively aid a post-pandemic economic recovery. While some may argue that military spending could benefit economic growth, extant evidence suggests otherwise.

The effects of growing autocratization on military spending are becoming increasingly clear in Brazil, where Bolsonaro intends to raise military spending to 2 per cent of GDP. The government presented this proposal amidst a pandemic that has hit the country particularly hard and under an austere expenditure ceiling. The Brazilian case may forebode a trend: if other autocratizing states, such as India and Turkey, follow suit, we can expect rising levels of military spending. Studying the relationship between military spending and political regimes is of utmost importance to anticipate the shifts autocratization may bring to international security. This Topical Backgrounder has only scratched the surface of this relationship. A more in-depth analysis of the Brazilian case, alongside cross-country comparisons, might provide a clearer picture of the issue.


Dr Diego Lopes da Silva is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme.