No military force = happiness?

That’s Nicholas Kristof’s argument today over at the New York Times. He thinks it is no coincidence that Costa Rica has the top ranking in the World Database of Happiness and is also one of very few countries to get by without a military force. Instead of spending money on bombs, the country wisely invests in education.

What Kristof fails to mention is that Costa Rica is at least partially able to do without a military force because it depends on someone else to provide one.

I know a little bit about this because my husband and I spent our 25th wedding anniversary in the fabulous Central

One of the beaches we visted in Costa Rica
One of the beaches we visted in Costa Rica

American country a few years ago. During one of our many rides with our guide, we listened as he complained about the “rot” of illegal immigration from Nicaragua and Honduras, mentioning that those countries (particularly the former) at times seemed ready to invade Costa Rica militarily. My beloved, who does number crunching for a U.S. defense contractor, asked him who would provide protection for Costa Rica if that happened.

“The U.S., of course,” was the guide’s answer, with a chuckle.

I agree that the U.S. would do far better as a country if we spent more on education than on military might, but I’m not sure it is a fair comparison to say, “Hey, this gorgeous country with high literacy rates and no military is happier because they don’t fund their own military.”

One of the many species of flora in the jungle below Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano.
One of the many species of flora in the jungle below Costa Rica's famed Arenal Volcano. So lucky to have seen it.

Perhaps it is more likely that this gorgeous country of beautiful sunsets, beaches, jungles and people (which is racing to top economically in large part b/c of U.S. tourism and luring U.S. companies down there to develop land) has the luxury of not funding their own defense force because another country has its back that way. Just sayin’

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31 comments

  1. The first thing to note is that the claim is true. The Rio Treaty of 1947 was signed by the United States and a bunch of other American nations (including Costa Rica) to provide mutual defense assistance in case of attack. (Costa Rica eliminated its army shortly after signing the treaty, and another signatory, Haiti, did so in the 1990s.)
    The second thing to note is that this charge, while rarely applied to Costa Rica, comes up all the time in regards to other countries, who have militaries which are much smaller than they would be if it were not for the US. (It’s a charge levied against rich nations, such as Japan and some Western European countries, who some view as not holding up their share of responsibility in world security. You could even include Canada, which saves the money it would spend otherwise on health and welfare. (To the shock of many, the tax rates in Canada and the US are more or less equal now.))
    It should also be noted that the decision to not have an army and rely on the US makes a lot of sense in the context of the Monroe Doctrine. Quite early on the US made it clear that the Americas was its jurisdiction and, in effect, responsibility. Putting it crudely, if the US is always going to be pushing you around, then why don’t you let them protect you while they’re at it?
    And in that regard, the elimination of the army happened in 1948, right at the beginning of the America’s post WW2 superpower status. It was widely acknowledged that, with the power that came with being a superpower, also came a responsibility to the nations under its jurisdiction, particularly those in the Americas.
    I think when you look at it that context, the decision to eliminate the army and “rely on the Americans” seems quite sensible and not at all like the country was outsourcing its security needs without paying for them.
    I think beyond all of that there was a leap of faith as well. WW2 had just ended and no one was interested in more bloodshed. The United Nations seemed like a potentially useful tool in controlling world security. Much like a small kid on the playground, Costa Rica thought if it kept its head down and minded its own business (easy to do without a military) it would be left alone.

  2. costa rica is a charming and beautiful country, as well as the people. in my opinion, the most successful democracy in latin america.

    that said, the elimination of the military and long lasting tranquility are greatly due to the umbrella of the united states. there are military ops run in costa rica with the U.S. military on a regular basis and have been for decades.

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