Can a heavily militarised Australia learn from Costa Rica?

Jan 30, 2023
An Australian flag flies on the flight deck of HMAS Adelaide, docked at Garden Island, Sydney Harbour.

A break away from Australia can do much to restore one’s hope that growing militarism and the militarisation of society does not have to be the way of things.

Writing from Costa Rica, I’ve enjoyed the absence of news featuring blatant China-bashing, grandiose but ill-suited plans for nuclear-powered submarines, proud announcements about new military hardware (to replace the failing and unwise defence procurements of the past, but with no accountability for the massive waste of taxpayers’ money), and of course our ever-closer military union with the US, with which we now aspire to be not just ‘interoperable’ but ‘integrated’.

Not so long ago, the then Prime Minister pushed for Australia to become one of the world’s top ten weapons exporters. Even the new Labor Government is keen to increase the militarisation of Australia, encouraging increasing numbers of US troops to be based here and for American military hardware to find a place in our country. IPAN, the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network, has stated in a recent press release, that the Australian government has effectively committed us to ‘being used as a US base in the Indo-Pacific region at a time of rising tensions, with no consultation with the public’.

I don’t think I’m alone in observing that Australia has become excessively militaristic in the past two decades. Security and defence decisions are made by an elite few (white males) who seem to me to be intoxicated on grand strategy. Major defence plans are taken with no meaningful public consultation. Where there has been consultation, public concerns seem often to be disregarded. The issue of nuclear subs is a case in point: less than a week was given for the public to comment on this issue. Nonetheless, 106 submissions were made, the vast majority of them overwhelmingly against the idea.

I’m not averse to military policy or the need for ensuring national security, as long as this is done in a sensible and rational way. My doctoral studies at Oxford focused on international security and strategic studies. But prudence and common sense haven’t prevailed in many recent decisions in Australia, and we increasingly join the US posture of never-ending wars, coupled with an apparent aversion to diplomatic negotiations and sound strategies for peace. I don’t think this is how ordinary Australians see themselves, but militarism has crept into our society today in a way that I’ve never seen before.

By contrast, the state of Costa Rica made a deliberate decision in 1948 to do away with its military forces. It is not the only state to have decided that there is no need for armed forces, but it is the one which most strongly publicises this position. December 1st, Army Abolition Day, is a national public holiday here. Its President calls Costa Rica’s demilitarisation ‘one of the most politically relevant decisions’ made by the country, and ‘an essential part of our national identity.’

Costa Rica does have local law enforcement, but it is strongly against having military forces. Instead, the state has invested heavily in education, health, and infrastructure, making it the most prosperous and stable country in Central America. This was a decision deliberately taken to improve the lives of Costa Ricans, to divert resources to enhance the natural environment, and to support local culture, and it is enshrined in the Constitution. A mostly healthy democracy, Costa Rica is the envy of its neighbours, many of which have endured civil wars and ongoing political instability.

You may think that that’s all very well because Costa Rica probably relies on the United States to keep it safe. Technically that is true, as Costa Rica is party to the 1948 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance. But it has never called on the US for such help and is generally averse to doing so, especially given the US’s military adventurism. When faced with incursions by Nicaragua during territorial disputes, for instance, it has preferred to use negotiation and international law to resolve these conflicts. Former President Oscar Arias has stated, ‘Military solutions to conflicts should be the last, last resort… here, conflicts are resolved at a negotiating table.’

The country also ranks high internationally on the happiness scale. It houses the UN-mandated University for Peace, and its Supreme Court has acknowledged peace as a basic human right. Peace education is required in schools and children are socialised into peaceful values and non-violent ways of resolving conflict. In other words, the anti-military stance is seen as an ongoing process, and not just the whim of a leader in 1948.

It is not perfect, of course. And perhaps it cannot be compared with Australia. But I cannot help but look at the positive impact of a very self-conscious decision taken almost 75 years ago to sustain democracy, human rights and a peaceful environment. It required new thinking and a leap of faith.

Australia may not wish to abolish its military entirely, but surely we can acknowledge and change our rather blunt approach to international politics and our obsessive ties to the United States, a country in danger of self-implosion. How far we have moved from being a sensible state in the region: my view is that things like peace, security, and even enemies are what we make of them. China is not going to invade us, no matter how much we may dislike its authoritarian politics and its quest for regional influence (a quest less bloodthirsty than we have seen from other great powers in the past).

Perhaps we can admit our geographic reality and work more with our Southeast and Pacific neighbours instead of reverting to the Anglosphere of a suspiciously imperial platform like AUKUS? Perhaps the ‘national defence’ wizz-kids in Canberra – almost all white males – can be augmented by some new faces, fresh thinking, and recalculation of what is really best for Australia? Think of the money we might save and how that could be re-directed. How far would $170 billion (the amount estimated for the new submarines) go towards making Australia more resilient against climate change?

It’s quite possible for a state to assess its position and change its policies, as Costa Rica did almost 75 years ago. Australia does not have to be a heavily-armed, weapons exporting, furiously anti-China deputy sheriff.

Change is possible.

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