Arms and the merchants of death

Destructive spirals spun by the international weapons trade intensify war and bloodshed. Who are the kingpins of the arms-exporting business and why have they not been brought to book for endangering international peace and security? In a radical new book, The Economics of Killing:

How the West Fuels War and Poverty in the Developing World, Vijay Mehta, veteran anti-war activist and Chair of the London-based Uniting for Peace organisation, uncovers the shady web of alliances among merchants of death and their devastating impact on both advanced and developing countries. He reveals how the military-industrial complexes of major world powers, the transnational financial sector and the extraction of minerals from misgoverned developing countries are all tied in a conflict-perpetuating pattern.
The fulcrum of the book is the collusion between autocratic regimes in the Global South (nations of Africa, Central and Latin America, and most of Asia) and wealthy Western democracies that supply them with arms. In Mehta’s words, “Hirelings of the Western military-industrial complex control (poor) nations and transfer raw materials to the West at the minimum expense to the latter.” Western arming of despotic allies with lethal weaponry exacerbates weapons races and wars, and prevents least developed countries (LDCs) from outgrowing their fates as caterers of primary commodities.
Mehta asks readers to envisage a scenario where developing nations suddenly decide against buying the deadly output of Western defence complexes. The wanton killing that goes on in numerous conflicts would sharply decline. Further, “the balance of world trade would be overturned,” he predicts, because export of hi-tech military hardware is fundamental to Western countries’ ability to import minerals from the Global South at unfair terms of exchange. Raw materials shipped out of developing countries are priced abysmally low, while weapons systems that they import are so costly as to drain their near-empty coffers.
Opposition to this unjust bargain must originate within advanced economies, where the dominance of the defence industrial base in politics has to be broken. The American government’s outsized defence spending, which stood at more than $700 billion in 2012 (conservative accounting standards), is a giant corporate welfare scheme designed for major weapons-manufacturing companies. The US military industrial complex has done roaring business in the last five years despite most other sectors of the American economy tanking due to the financial crisis. The taxes that sustain subsidies and orders for super-expensive weapons systems come from ordinary Americans, whose own security does not require such colossal investments in the military arsenal.
Mehta’s book contains intelligent counter-arguments against advocates of sustaining or even increasing the American defence budget. On the point that military spending supports local communities dependent for livelihood on the US defence industry, he rebuts that “it would be less harmful if the millions whose jobs rely on defence were paid by the government not to work.” On the assertion that defence expenditure must remain sky high so that the US military remains a colossus to “stabilise” all corners of the planet, Mehta wryly notes that such regions have already been destabilised far too much by American interventions.
For example, fighter jets sold by the US to countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan only fuel regional arms races, divert meagre government resources from provision of public goods and stoke local insurgencies. It is arguable that many militant or terrorist movements are responses to despotic darlings of the West, like the Saudi royal family or Pakistan’s former dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. (Al Qaeda’s foundational grievance was against the Saudi monarchy for depending on the Americans for weaponry and regime security, and Musharraf’s reign witnessed the rise of the Pakistani Taliban who hated his military cooperation with the West.)
The other ill effect of importing heavy weapons is that it exacerbates governmental corruption in developing countries, where opaque defence deals are the favourite refuges of scoundrels. Mehta mentions that this corruption of developing country rulers is abetted by Western banks, which offer kleptocrats
specialised “wealth management” services to launder and stash away mindboggling sums of illegal money. The role of Wall Street, the City of London, Swiss banks and their affiliated offshore havens in oiling the global military trade needs to be brought to mainstream attention if what Mehta terms as “an international cycle of war and poverty” has to be closed.
One structural obstacle to rationalising reckless defence spending is the media-promoted glorification of martial values and militaristic culture in several societies. Mehta hails the rise of alternative media outlets, like WikiLeaks, that are piercing the pro-war narrative constructed by compromised traditional press corps.
Though this book focuses on the American military-industrial complex, which is the biggest, it also touches upon European weapons sales to authoritarian regimes. British and French companies, egged on by their governments in London and Paris, have beefed up the arsenals of abusive dictatorships in North Africa and West Asia. Mehta hits the nail on the head with illustrations of how arms-for-resources arrangements of European powers with their former colonies have a hand in “the creation of today’s failed and failing states”.
The spirit of the Arab Spring is a major challenge to tyrannical regimes associated with Western military-industrial complexes. Hence the desperation with which the US, Britain and France have tried to manipulate regime change in Libya and Syria, and to block revolution from toppling their monarchical client regimes, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Another terrible side effect of so-called “humanitarian interventions” of the Western military bandwagon under the aegis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) has been to raise the value of acquiring and preserving nuclear weapons as a deterrent in wary regimes of North Korea, Pakistan and, possibly, Iran.
Mehta’s book sketches fascinating connections between Western military-industrial complexes and elite sections of societies in the Global South. As most of the resource exploitation and separatist or ideological insurgencies against Central government rule occur in rural hinterlands, it is primarily local urban elites who seek Western arms. Global militarism thus redefines political geography and divides spaces by dint of their relative safety and security.
The author cites the classic case of the oil-abundant Niger Delta, where British heavy weapons are deployed by the Central government of Nigeria to crush local militants seeking fairer distribution of nature’s bounties.
On the troublesome ascent of China’s own military-industrial complex (Beijing has climbed up to sixth spot in the list of the world’s largest arms exporters), Mehta contends that it is intrinsic to Beijing’s “neo-colonial model” of resource plunder in Central Asia and Southeast Asia. China props up its own bevy of puppet regimes through military exports and mineral supply chains. Chinese state-owned military corporations are working full steam to match the West in unmanned drones, cyberwar and outer space war. The world is less safe today, says Mehta, because “in warfare, the unconventional has become the conventional.” This book has enough bad news to help debunk the cranky theory of Harvard professor Steven Pinker that violence is falling around the world and that we live in the most peaceful era in human history.
Looking ahead, Mehta sounds hopeful that the ongoing shift from fossil fuels to green energy can dismantle military-industrial complexes, as it removes incentives for extractive warfare. A “green collar” economy could absorb millions of workers in the West who currently rely on military-sector jobs. But nothing will change unless ordinary Americans and Europeans intensify anti-war movements in their home countries and unmask the criminality of weapons exports.
If one overlooks some dubious liberal depictions of humanitarian aid and NGOs as forces for good, The Economics of Killing deserves praise for articulating how global finance, munitions and underdevelopment are intermeshed. It is a handy intellectual guide for peace lovers.

Dr Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs

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