Costa Rica and a Future When Nations Will Not ‘Learn War Any More’

What could happen in a world where zero percent of gross domestic product went toward soldiers’ salaries and pensions, research and development of weapons systems, and upkeep of bases and military academies?

On this day in history in 1949, government officials of the small Central American country of Costa Rica took a revolutionary and unprecedented step: They officially abolished their nation’s military.

After President José Figueres lifted a sledgehammer over his shoulder and smashed a hole in a stone wall at the nation’s military headquarters, he said the act symbolized “the elimination of the remnants of the military spirit of Costa Rica of another era.”

This page of history remains noteworthy more than 70 years on because of how sharply it contrasts with most chapters in mankind’s violent history. Over the last 5,000 years, according to calculations by the Henry Dunant Institute, humanity has fought more than 14,000 wars. And these conflicts have caused the deaths of some 3.5 billion people.

Those are dumbfounding numbers, and the steepest cost of all that war is the incalculable value of all those human lives that were violently, prematurely ended. But even in sheer mathematical terms, the cost of war—and of maintaining national militaries—is staggering.

The United States spends some $734 billion each year on its military, which is 3.3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. That adds up to $2,200 spent every year for each American man, woman and child.

Some other countries devote even greater percentages of gdp to military matters. In the Russian Federation, the reported defense expenditure comes to 4.1 percent of gdp. In Israel, 5.2 percent goes to this category, and in Saudi Arabia it’s 6.6 percent. In North Korea—a cauldron of poverty, starvation and suffering—the government spends a stunning 24 percent of its gdp on the armed forces.

These numbers are sobering, But the reality is that in this violent world, it is not at all unwise for nations to devote money and other resources to the military. To have any hope of maintaining sovereignty and territorial integrity, it is usually necessary to maintain formidable armed forces.

But Costa Rica found a way to spend zero dollars each year on its armed forces. Zero percent of its gdp goes toward soldiers’ salaries, to research and development of weapons systems, or to upkeep of bases and operation of military academies.

One detail to note is that President Figueres did have some selfish motivations for demilitarizing his nation. Costa Rica had just come through a bloody civil war, and in its aftermath, he feared that a military coup could overthrow his regime. So he banned the military partly as a preemptive step to safeguard against such an outcome. But even though the move initially happened with selfish motivations and with some myopic reasoning, over the decades Costa Rica stuck to its guns, or its absence of guns, in this demilitarization experiment. To this day, exactly 73 years later, Costa Rica has no army, no air force, and no navy . The nation has no heavy armaments. Costa Rica does have local police forces, but there is no national defense force.

This means that when vips from other countries visit Costa Rica, they are not met by uniformed military bands or any other uniformed authorities. That is the custom in many other countries. But no such bands, troops or uniforms exist in Costa Rica. When foreign dignitaries visit, they are instead greeted by young Costa Rican students dressed in the national colors of the visitor’s country.

University of Washington professor David P. Barash wrote in 2013 about the nation’s unusual voluntary demilitarization, stating: “If you walk along a beach in Costa Rica and see lines of pelicans flying in perfect formation, consider it the [Costa Rican] air force, out on maneuvers.”

As a result of this unusual move, Costa Rica has been able to channel considerable resources into other sectors. After Figueres clobbered that hole in the military headquarters, he said that from then on, millions of dollars that the government had been allocating to military matters would be redirected to education, health care and environmental protection.

The follow-through on those promises has exceeded all expectations.

Today, Costa Rica’s literacy rate is 97 percent—14 percentage points higher than the global average. And its educational system, according to the World Economic Forum, ranks as the highest in all of Latin America.

The focus on health care has brought the average life expectancy for Costa Rica’s 5 million people up to the longest in Latin America and among the longest on the globe—even surpassing the United States.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s commitment to the environment and nature is astounding. During a visit there in 2014, it seemed to me that half the country were a giant wildlife refuge, clamoring with flora and fauna. In reality, only 25 percent of its total land is protected as natural habitat. But that is a larger percentage than in any other country, and it keeps Costa Rica resplendent with pristine beauty and bustling with nature-loving tourists.

The area where Costa Rica shines more than any other is in renewable energy. More than 98 percent of its electricity comes from a mix of hydroelectric, geothermal, wind and solar power. This makes it the greenest country on Earth.

A big part of the reason Costa Rica has been so innovative and successful in all these areas is because it has been able to rechannel money and resources that otherwise would have gone to the military into these other sectors. On a national level, the Costa Ricans have “beat their swords into plowshares,” as the famous Bible passage in Isaiah 2:4 says. As a result, the people have reaped some astounding benefits.

None of this is to paint Costa Rica as a Shangri-La. Despite the resources freed up from demilitarization, the country still grapples with crime, corruption, poverty and an array of other tragically human problems. And since the U.S. is increasingly unreliable as a guarantor of security for other nations, we should expect Costa Rica’s decision to rely on it for protection to have catastrophic consequences for its people.

Nevertheless, in the short term, Costa Rica’s demilitarization project gives us an obscure glimpse, as through a glass darkly, into that future era that Isaiah described when the nations of the world will stop spending on military and armaments. It gives us an imperfect look at what will be possible in that coming world that the prophet described so beautifully, when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The Bible makes plain that our Creator wishes for people to help and love each other as much as we love ourselves. This is stated clearly in Luke 10:25-37, 1 John 4 and 1 Corinthians 13. In Matthew 7:12, Jesus Christ explains that teaching people to love each other is the Bible’s foundational lesson.

Instead, humankind spends unthinkable amounts of money to build weapons and maintain armies designed to do the opposite. And the Scriptures say that in the near future, the world’s vast armies and weapons caches—including weapons of mass destruction—will be used. Matthew 24:21-22 quote Christ saying the world will soon experience an age of “greater anguish than at any time since the world began,” and so great that unless it is shortened, “not a single person will survive” (New Living Translation).

This could only be talking about a global nuclear war with enough detonations to usher in a nuclear winter. It will threaten to wipe out all human life.

But the future that the Bible describes does not conclude with the militaries of the world extinguishing human life. Continuing the passage in Matthew 24, immediately after Christ explained that the future war will be so destructive that it could render man extinct, He gave a key detail: “But it will be shortened” (nlt).

Nuclear World War iii is going to be interrupted. Before the countries use their armies and armaments to snuff out mankind, Jesus Christ will come back to Earth and bring a forceful end to the bloodshed. And He won’t stop just by ending the mayhem. He will go on to construct a world of true peace. The late writer Herbert W. Armstrong labeled this future halcyon age “the World Tomorrow.”

In his booklet The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like, Mr. Armstrong showed that during this future epoch, Christ will use God’s law, government and Holy Spirit to fundamentally change the hearts of the peoples of the world—from war-mongering to peace-loving. Mr. Armstrong wrote: “People will start living God’s way—the way of outgoing concern for others—the way of the true values—the way of peace, of happiness, of well-being, of joy. … What a fabulous picture!”

This is when Isaiah’s prophecy will be fulfilled: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Under God’s righteous rule, there won’t just be one small nation that abolishes its military in a myopic and imperfect way. Instead all nations will undergo this fundamental mind change as a result of God’s Holy Spirit, and they will all dissolve their armed forces and convert their weapons of death into life-giving agricultural tools. To understand more about this radiant future, when the peoples of the world will not learn war anymore but will instead learn to live God’s way of give, order your free copy of The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like.