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Obama at the UN: Responsibility for Our Common Future

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What a nice speech!

President Barack Obama mounted the General Assembly dais, and -- amid flash bulbs and applause -- called on the world to "embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect."

There is alot to comment on in the speech, which ranged in topic from nuclear disarmament, to reaching peace in the Middle East, and other pressing priorities, organized around his "four pillars" of "non-proliferation and disarmament, the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people." Like I said, there is a lot!

But, for the purpose of this blog post, I wanted to highlight the last pillar because it reminded me of the United Nations/ Department of Public Information conference I attended in Mexico City a few weeks ago: For Peace and Development: Disarm Now!

In his speech today, President Obama talked about the need to build a "global economy that advances opportunity for all people" and highlighted that the United States is supporting the Millennium Development Goals and "we will set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time."

In Mexico City, during the International Peace Bureau's "Warfare or Welfare: Which Priorities?" workshop, I compared the costs of meeting the Millennium Development Goals with the money that the United States and other nations devote to their military budgets.

"Today, the nations of the world devote an estimated $1.464 trillion dollars to their military budgets.

The United States of America alone accounts for about half of global military spending.

All by ourselves, the U.S. spends more on the military than the combined total GDP of the 47 nations of Sub-Saharan Africa. We spend twenty seven times the aid that the World Bank gave out in 2007.

This years' military budget is $534 billion dollars, a 4% increase over President George W. Bush's last military budget. On top of the mega-military budget, we must add the ongoing costs of military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere--costs that so far total more than $900 billion and will cross the trillion dollars threshold with next year's appropriation.

The United States is the largest spender on the military, but all over the world we can see a wide gulf between the resources controlled by the military and those allocated to the people.

Even as once powerful economies teeter on the brink of collapse, and the impacts of financial meltdown ripple into every community, precious resources continue to be diverted from human need to fund war and preparations for war. Presidents, prime ministers and kings all say that these millions and billions are needed to safeguard "national security;" but how can the nations of the world be secure when their people are hungry, thirsty, illiterate, unemployed and living in fear?

A huge military budget, a large standing army, an aggressive foreign policy, a well stocked nuclear and conventional arsenal, secures borders; this is one way to understand national security: a very expensive-- an ultimately incomplete-- way to understand national security. But, there is another way to understand national security... and that is through prioritizing human development and human security.

The United Nation's Millennium Development Goals are a good tool for building human security. The goals of halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, reducing infant mortality, ensuring access to clean water and providing universal primary education throughout the world are urgent, necessary and achievable.

It is striking to look at the costs of meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals within the context of a discussion of the resources devoted to military budgets throughout the world. They are all achievable if one-tenth of what is currently spent on the military is invested in human development. The total cost of achieving the MDGs over the next decade is roughly equal to what the militaries of the world spend in any one year of that decade.

For example, the UN Millennium Project calculated that the costs of reaching the Millennium Development Goals in all countries would be $121 billion for the year 2006. That same year, the United States alone spent $605 billion on its military (between the military budget, nuclear weapons spending and the costs of the Global War on Terror)."

I want the United States to work on all of the priorities that President Obama highlighted today. Of course, I want all of that work to bear fruit today (tomorrow would be okay, too). But it is striking to me that it is not just about working together with other nations, we need to be changing priorities right here at home too -- and that starts with tackling a half trillion dollar military budget.