USA and War

The USA drifts from one war to the next and there is, it seems, a constant supply of new targets for future wars. Undeniably, a hegemonic power in decline, as the USA has been for several decades, is an unstable and easily provoked entity. It has global commitments that are too difficult (and too embarrassing) to discard willingly, and it has an increasing number of challengers that now feel able to stand up to a weakening power. Moreover, it is not easy for a waning hegemonic power to accept or even recognise that it is not the undisputed leader anymore. All this is straightforward and has historic precedents known to most observers. For example, Britain showed similar traits during its own period of decline. It was only in 1956 during the Suez debacle (several decades after it had ceased to be a hegemonic power) that Britain finally accepted the inevitable (see America’s Suez).

However, there are new elements that make the US case somewhat different from what happened in the past. First, there is competition over strategic minerals and recourses; especially oil, but that is a topic for another time. Second, there is the power of what President Dwight D Eisenhower referred to in 1961 as the military-industrial complex, which the New World Encyclopaedia defines as “the combination of the U.S. armed forces, its arms industry, and the associated political and commercial interests that grew rapidly in scale and influence in the wake of World War II and throughout the Cold War to the present… institutionalized collusion among private defense industry, the military services, and the United States government (especially the Department of Defense)…the collusion has become even more prevalent, putting the United States’ economy, some argue, permanently on a “war” footing… ”

Eisenhower’s words ring even more true today than they did in his time: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” (see ‘A Tragic Mistake’, New York Times, 30 November 2009)

By now preparing for war and fighting wars has become an essential element of the economy of some countries. Over 3 million people are employed in the weapons industry in the USA alone. (see SIPRI- Stockholm International Peace Research Institute- Yearbook 2009)  Manufacturing weapons has become a key industry. Continuous depletion and renewal through conflicts is seen as a practical necessity. Waging war might or might not have anything to do with security, terrorism, freedom and democracy. Not surprisingly, in 2008 “16 major armed conflicts were active in 15 locations around the world, 2 more than in 2007”, mainly in Africa, Asia and Middle East. World military spending in 2008 (considered by SIPRI to be an “underestimate”) was $1226 billion; North America alone accounted for $564 billion, and Europe for $320 billion. (see SIPRI Yearbook 2009)

The business is thriving. SIPRI reported that the “combined arms sales of the SIPRI Top 100 arms producing companies reached $347 billion [in 2007], an increase of… 5 per cent in real terms over 2006. Since 2002 the value of the Top 100 arms sales has increased by 37 per cent in real terms.” US companies accounted for 44 percent of sales. The industry is likely to emerge from the current global economic turbulence unscathed. These large figures should be put in context. “The United Nations and all its agencies and funds spend about $27 billion each year, or about $4 for each of the world’s inhabitants.” (see UN Finance, Global Policy Forum )

The weapons industry, and therefore war and conflict, is dominant and has a grip on the political apparatus of most of the advanced economies. It takes a very brave or a reckless politician to stand out against war (and some do but they are a small and easily isolated minority). The weapons industry is not only able to fund election campaigns but it could mould public opinion when thought necessary. A ban of Swiss weapons exports has been the subject of three ‘popular’ votes since 1973. In each case the industry mounted a campaign against the ban, arguing it would cost jobs. A new twist was introduced in the latest vote in November 2009. There were two items on the ballot paper, the first concerned a ban on Islamic minarets (considered to be a symbols of Islamic threat) of which there are only three throughout Switzerland. The second item was a ban on weapons exports. The subtext was obvious. The first item was approved while the vote on weapons ban was 68.2 percent against! Switzerland of course does not fight wars but it readily meets the needs of those who do!

Will this article change anything? I doubt it, but it is useful to know what else the US and its close allies are fighting for. As the man said, it is the economy, stupid. Of course those at the receiving end of war pay a hefty price to keep industrialists happy. “War has massive impacts on both sides of the conflict”; social, learning and health costs amongst others. (see The Three Trillion War, Stiglitz and Bilmes) As a director of the IMF once remarked: war can be called “development in reverse”. Looking at the impact of America’s military adventures in recent years and their negative impact on US and other advanced economies it is possible to suggest, possibly too optimistically, that the downside of war is at last becoming too significant to ignore. Let’s hope so.

The last vote (at the time of writing) was on 29 November 2009. The vote was 68.2% against!

Posted in USA