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date: 13 June 2024

Interests, Institutions, and Defense Spendinglocked

Interests, Institutions, and Defense Spendinglocked

  • Justin ConradJustin ConradCenter for International Trade and Security, University of Georgia
  •  and Mark SouvaMark SouvaDepartment of Political Science, Florida State University


Why do some governments spend more on their military than others? Leaders make spending decisions based in part on their desire to stay in office, and they may lose office through internal or external processes. Research traditionally focused on external threats as the main determinant of military spending, but internal dynamics are the primary cause of leadership turnover. Coups are the most common reason for autocrats losing power and elections are the most common way democratic leaders, or their parties, lose power. The two processes are often linked. For example, external threat, even absent an attack, can lead to a change in domestic political power. As such, domestic interests, channeled through domestic institutions, are central to understanding military spending. Political science research often emphasizes domestic public opinion and the narrow interests of specific groups as explanations for military spending patterns. Such research finds that changes in public opinion lead to changes in defense spending and that more left-oriented interests favor lower defense spending. Research comparing spending across countries instead focuses on institutions and external threats. Much of this research focuses on the defense burden, which is the ratio of defense spending to gross domestic product. Among the few consistent findings is the fact that democracies maintain a lower defense burden than non-democracies. Higher levels of external threat are also associated with higher defense burdens and smaller countries tend to free-ride in alliances. Additional research examines variations in military spending among autocracies. As with democracies, specific institutions appear to be more important than regime type. Institutions such as legislatures that incentivize leaders to provide public goods are associated with less military spending.


  • Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy

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