What it is: The portion of a nation’s spending money which is expected to become available for non-military purposes when military budgets are cut back to peacetime levels. In particular, ‘peace dividend’ was the term used after the Cold War when talking about money which had been earmarked for future military use in that conflict.

What it means: Here is a case history. When the Cold War ended in 1990, many Americans had high hopes that there would now be funds for practical projects that would benefit the people in everyday life. They were pleased to hear that money was allocated to cleaning up the environmental contamination caused by the nuclear arms race. They were even more pleased that more was allocated to conversion, dealing with the changes needed when military production and activities wind down. For example, people caught up in working for war, such as those who worked in munitions, needed retraining for peacetime jobs. There was also new money for technological research projects. At first these projects were connected to the USA’s ventures in space (see Militarisation of space) but after public complaints the administration thought better of it. They turned instead to problems such as finding sustainable sources of electricity and other power supplies. All the same, the redirection of military funds to deal with the needs of civilians was still disappointingly small. (Some military leaders said that much of the peace dividend must have gone to paying off some of America’s overdraft.) What was also disappointing (and worrying) was that so little money had actually been saved. During the Cold War, the average expenditure on the military was over $310 billion a year. Yet 5 years after the war ended, only $81 billion had been saved. What was worse, military spending was growing again. In 2003 the biggest defence budget since the Cold War – over $400 billion – was agreed by Congress. That huge sum didn’t even include the cost of occupying Iraq. $25 billion was to go to new technology, including unmanned aircraft. $10 billion was for work on a controversial missile defence system in space. The remaining $365+ billion, remarkably, was scheduled for traditional weapons, jet fighter aircraft and submarines, none of them much use in the current war against terrorism. Military spending was actually taking money away from schools and hospitals nationwide. It looked as though the ‘defence’ industry had the administration in an arm-lock. This experience was not unique to the USA: Britain and other countries involved in the Cold War also failed to redistribute their peace dividends satisfactorily. An opportunity to put money into peacebuilding was sadly wasted.

Think about it: When countries emerge from a period of war, people quickly call for sensible redirection of what had been military money, the ‘war chest’. It’s urgently needed to rebuild, repair, restore and recover, after the hardship and destruction caused by war. Think first about the way in which countries are affected by war: what might be differences in the damage to (a) countries torn by civil war, (b) neighbouring countries at war with each other, and (c) countries attacking other countries many miles away. If you were living in any of these, what would your priorities be for your country’s hoped-for peace dividend? If your country’s government seemed to be spending more on rebuilding the military system than on helping the people, what would you think? Would you set about making a protest? What might be the best (and most peace-oriented) ways to do it?