A Country Without a Military? You Bet!

We can all learn from the country - Costa Rica - that has abolished its military

Posted Dec 27, 2013

On December 1, 1948 – 65 years ago – Jose Figueres, then president of Costa Rica, made a fiery and eloquent speech, after which he took a sledge-hammer and bashed a hole in a huge stone wall. The site was the Bellavista military headquarters, which loomed over the city of San Jose and whose imposing towers and massive gates were not only the country’s premier symbol of military power, but literally the home of the “Tico” military establishment.

President Figueres was not only a consummate showman, he was announcing something truly extraordinary: henceforth, Costa Rica would be the first and only country in the modern world that renounced its military. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Figueres publicly handed its keys to the Minister of Education, announcing that Fort Bellavista would be transformed into a national art museum and that the nation’s military budget would thereafter be directed toward health care, education, and environmental protection.

The political calculations that led to this dramatic event were doubtless complex and have been disputed. It seems likely, for example, that President Figueres was painfully aware that Costa Rica’s military – like that of other Central American states – had been used in the past both to suppress domestic uprisings and to undertake coups, especially against governments perceived to be left-leaning. And Figueres himself had come to power following a brief civil war. But at the same time, President Figueres was clearly aware of the “opportunity costs” associated with military spending, the simple arithmetic fact that resources expended on the military cannot be used to support domestic needs. Then as now, his decision to demilitarize created opportunities for Costa Rica to invest in butter instead of guns.

Shortly after taking power, Figueres did a clever act of political jiu-jitsu: he outlawed the Costa Rican Communist Party – thereby immunizing itself against intervention by the United States (after all, he was a proven anti-communist!) - after which his government proceeded to institute many of the policies advocated by that same Party: the banks were nationalized, a 10% tax was levied upon personal holdings in excess of approximately US$8,000, and universal health care was formalized along with free public education, minimum wage laws, workman’s compensation for on-the-job injuries, and so forth.

Costa Rica remains fully demilitarized to this day; it has no army, navy or air force, no heavy weapons of any kind. Even military-style uniforms are prohibited. When visiting dignitaries arrive at the capital, San Jose, they are never met by military bands or uniformed officials of any kind, because by law there are none; rather, by school-children wearing the visitor’s national colors. When my wife and I walk along “our” beach (all Costa Rican beaches are publicly owned and open to everyone) and watch lines of pelicans flying in perfect formation, we note with admiration that we’re seeing the Tico Air Force, out on maneuvers.

Most Americans, even among the many who travel to Costa Rica for an “eco-vacation” have no idea that this country is demilitarized, even as they enthusiastically partake of the many benefits this decision has helped generate: the democratic institutions, the remarkably healthy and happy population, and, not least, the very fact that Costa Rica has been able to invest not only in its people but also in preserving approximately 25% of its land area in either national parks or biological reserves.

It has become fashionable of late for various organizations to evaluate and rank the overall “happiness” of different countries. I am skeptical of such surveys, especially since the results vary with the questions asked, not to mention divergent national styles when it comes to self-assessment: the French, for example, seem to consider it intellectually degrading to acknowledge being “happy,” whereas there is generally much less stigma associated with “happiness” in many Latin American countries. Certain basic patterns remain consistent, however, suggesting that despite their imperfections, these national polls are getting at something genuine. Thus, the Scandinavian countries regularly appear among the top half-dozen or so happiest countries, not surprising given their high per capita GDP along with their consistently comprehensive social safety nets. What is superficially surprising, however, is that Costa Rica, a relatively poor country, whose per capita income is no higher than the international average, is consistently right up there with its wealthier counterparts.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to conclude with certainty that the Ticos punch so much above their weight because of their demilitarization, but the conclusion seems at least reasonable. It is distressingly easy to review the history of attempted demilitarization world-wide, since such efforts have been exceedingly rare, and often confused with the more widespread policy of “armed neutrality,” as in Sweden and Switzerland. This makes Costa Rica’s experience especially noteworthy.

Japan’s journey between militarism and demilitarization has been particularly complex. It gave birth to one of the world’s great warrior traditions, the code of bushido and the highly aggressive samurai. Moreover, within several decades after European firearms reached Japan via Portuguese traders in 1542, Japanese musketry was the most advanced in the world. But a century later, guns were virtually gone from all of Japan, so that when Matthew Perry “opened” Japan in 1853, Japanese warfare was back to being technologically medieval. The process of Japanese military devolution had been remarkable: the victorious 16th century shogun Tokugawa had centralized the country’s firearms manufacture and then dictated that all gunpowder weapons were to be destroyed. His decision, however, was not based on a devotion to peace or an enlightened effort to maximize the well being of the Japanese people as a whole; rather, it reflected the samurais’ distaste for muskets and cannons, which threatened to ruin the cult of the warrior/nobleman. After all, anyone – even a relatively untrained, unskilled commoner – could use a gun to dispatch a great samurai. Although its motives may seem ignoble, the Japanese example is nonetheless inspiring, since it shows that military excess can be curtailed and whole societies reorganized along more peaceful lines, once the authorities (in democracies, perhaps, the people) consider such changes to be in their interest.

It must also be noted that the specialized demilitarization of Japan was itself reversed: during the latter decades of the 19th century, Japan “modernized” at an extraordinary pace, culminating in its defeat during the Second World War, after which its new constitution – mandated by the United States – required that the country foreswear military forces beyond that strictly needed for self-defense. (Of course, all countries maintain that their military exists for self-defense; to my knowledge, none assert that their armed forces exist to aggress upon their neighbors, oppress their own citizens, or to keep their military-industrial complexes, not to mention their own military officers, happy.)

One might argue that Costa Rica has been able to abolish its military because it shelters behind the armed forces of the United States. The reality, however, is that U. S. foreign policy has long been discomfited by Tico demilitarization, notably twisting the arms of its leaders in the 1980s, attempting to get Costa Rica to join the contra war in neighboring Nicaragua. That effort failed, greatly annoying the Reagan Administration. In 1987, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias spoke before the U.S. Congress, noting that “I belong to a small country that was not afraid to abolish its army in order to increase its strength. In my homeland you will not find a single tank, a single artillery piece, a single warship, or a single military helicopter. … Today we threaten no one, neither our own people nor our neighbors. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks, but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate, or unemployed.”

Two months later, President Arias was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the contra war. There is no doubt that this success was achieved in part because Arias was able to deploy his country’s neutrality as well as the moral authority generated by its commitment to demilitarization.

Actually, Costa Rica is not quite alone in having abandoned militarism, although it remains unique in that other demilitarized countries either benefit by protective military relationships with larger states, are barely “countries” at all (being closer to city-states or tiny, isolated islands), or have only recently proceeded down the path of demilitarization. Here are the world’s 26 demilitarized political entities as of 2013, sorted by location. In the Indian Ocean: Mauritius; in Central America and the Caribbean: Costa Rica, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Panama, St-Kitts and Nevis, St-Lucia, St-Vincent and the Grenadines; in Europe: Andorra, Iceland (a NATO member), Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City; in the Pacific Ocean: Cook Islands, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niu, Palau, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

It may be significant that with the exception of the Vatican, all these demilitarized entities are democratic. In addition, none have been subjected to foreign attack or coercive military threats, except for Panama, which, when it did have an army, was invaded by the United States in 1989, and Haiti, where a military strongman was deposed by the threat of U.S. military force. The demilitarization of Panama and Haiti is probably too recent to be considered fully successful, although both countries warrant more attention in this regard than they have received. Unfortunately, in no cases are data available comparing civilian populations’ happiness or subjective well-being before and after being demilitarized.

It is unrealistic to expect that the United States will ever abolish its armed forces. Indeed, war can become a national habit and militarism, a way of life. But so can peace and demilitarization, as the case of Costa Rica shows, and as Dr. Seuss has affirmed: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” The Ticos have chosen, and for them at least, it works.

(This column, slightly modified, recently appeared as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times; I am grateful to the Tribune Company for permission to reprint it here.)

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington; his most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science.