New Internationalist

Less Arms More Wars

Issue 97

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THE NUCLEAR ARMS RACE[image, unknown] The contentious flip side

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Less arms more wars
This article, deliberately at odds with the rest of the magazine, suggests reducing nuclear weapons could upset the international equilibrium and increase the risks of war. `We live in an old house,' writes Lawrence Freedman. `Those who wish to put it on stronger foundations may, in the process, bring it all down around them.'

THE `development lobby' and the `disarmament lobby' tend to assume a coincidence of interests. Their views reflect a sense of a common humanity: that in an interdependent world we should pull together rather than be mesmerized by arbitrary national divisions and that the creation of thriving communities is better than their destruction. Moreover, what the disarmers can save on military expenditure the developmentalists are ready to spend on a multitude of worthy projects.

In the propaganda of both lobbies few comparisons seem more potent than that between international expenditures on armaments and on development. The Brandt Report provided some choice examples: `Total military expenditures are approaching $450 billion a year ... while annual spending on official development aid is only $20 billion.' One thousandth of the annual arms bill would allow the World Health Organisation to abolish malaria: half of this bill would meet the cost of a ten-year programme to provide for essential food and health needs in developing countries.

This all seems so evidently disgraceful that there is a danger in getting.carried away in a spirit of righteous indignation, without ever coming to terms with the actual relation between military power and development. Perhaps this is why the relevant chapter is one of the weakest sections of the Brandt Report.

We do not have to stay with aid and arms to find statistical comparisons illustrating the perversity of our priorities. The paucity of funds devoted to a variety of good causes can be contrasted with the wealth squandered in the industrialized world on cosmetics or pet foods or the simple waste of unfinished meals. Now these comparisons may tell us something about ourselves and our societies and provide reason for deep reflection, but they do not offer policy guidance. A case for more aid would not get far if it consisted of a diatribe against cosmetics: even if the diatribe was effective the money saved would not necessarily be put into Oxfam boxes. There is always great competition for any spare funds and developmentalists cannot assume that resources released by dramatic cuts in military spending will go their way.


Arms Races and War
However, the case against arms spending is not only that it is wasteful but also that it is dangerous. If we could abolish all arms then the world would ipso facto be a more peaceful place. Unfortunately that option is not available. We are talking only about less - perhaps substantially less - arms, which is quite a different thing and certainly not synonymous with more peace. There is simply no direct correlation between arms spending and incidence of war.

Let us look at some uncomfortable facts. The millions of people killed in wars since 1945 have, with notable exceptions, not been victims of the world's larger military powers; they have not been killed byhyper-expensive and super-sophisticated weapons but rather by mundane, small arms of the sort that could have been used in previous generations and even centuries; and they have resided in the poorer regions of the world. Where the arms race has been at its most intense and where there is the greatest concentration of advanced weaponry - Central Europe - there has been relative peace, stability and prosperity. Along the Sino-Soviet border deep antagonism and large military deployments have co-existed. One can detect enthusiasm for war declining (unfortunately not to zero) in the Middle East with the accumulation of those weapons that would ensure that a future war would be even more deadly than those of the past.

Thus relationships of mutual deterrence can develop, in which aggressive motives are suppressed because of the fearful costs that would probably be incurred in war. These relationships can often be fragile and they are not a particularly sensible way to manage human affairs. But we are not designing a new world - only attempting to survive in the one that exists. So if we can identify relationships of mutual deterrence we should approach them with care and dismantle them only if we can be sure this will not trigger off the very process we wish to avoid.


Stand-off in Europe
This may be particularly true in Europe, where many would blame East-West tension and the concomitant arms race both for placing mankind in danger of extinction and for the neglect of the problems of the Third World. Fundamental to European security is the stand-off between the two great alliances that dominate the continent. This stand-off has been achieved, and is maintained, at human and financial cost and substantial risk. Yet it has resulted in a period of peace which has contributed to prosperity which has in turn generated funds, albeit insufficient, for development aid. The alliances and the consequent peace are not wholly the responsibility of judicious deployments of military power. But nuclear weapons have instilled caution and circumspection into the leaders of the major powers which has prevented crises, such as those over Berlin or Cuba, turning into war.

There is much to be said for reducingthe role of nuclear weapons in international affairs, but in the short-term at least this could involve an increased dependence on conventional forces which happen to be much more expensive. Most important of all, if the alliance structure within Europe collapsed, the result would probably be the resurgence of old conflicts - in the Balkans, over Germany - rather than an all-pervading amity.


The Avoidance of War
I am not trying to assert the opposite of the conventional view: that somehow arms races have inevitably peaceful consequences and that we interrupt them at our peril. Rapid rearmament is as worrying as rapid disarmament. Any dramatic shift in military balances, one way or the other, can be profoundly unsettling. Thus the attempt by both super-powers to establish new military positions in Africa and Asia makes local politics more turbulent and dangerous.

Obviously there are many instances where military build-ups have been responsible for those evils attributed to them - international distrust and war, as well as being a gross waste of resources. But our focus should be on the avoidance of war rather than military spending per se. Where international stability benefits from a balance of military power then disarmament for its own sake can be positively harmful.

Take, for example, the Iran-Iraq war. The effective disarmament undertaken by the post-Shah regime, perhaps because it was combined with a rearmament in rhetoric, was not seen by Iraq. as good reason for scaling down its own military forces but rather as an opportunity to attack, to seek redress for long-standing grievances.

As long as such grievances exist - and it is true that in the midst of poverty, despair and injustice they are likely to multiply rather than diminish - then wars will be regular occurrences. With the withdrawal of the colonial powers from the Third World, the character of war is changing from those of national liberation to those of the sort that established independent states have always indulged in. No common history of anti-colonialism or even a shared Marxist ideology serves to smooth over the differences - as can be seen in the Sino-Vietnamese conflict, the Ethiopian/Somali war as well as with Iran and Iraq. And it is precisely because they result from genuine conflicts of interests and grievances that one cannot assume that regulating the levels or supplies of arms will make a great difference. In fact, as already suggested, by making the risks and dangers of actually fighting appear tolerable, it is arguable that at times fewer arms can mean more wars.

A starting point for disarmament advocates to recognize is that those who cling to the status quo are not morally blind, political cowards or accomplices in the war game. We live in an old house. Those who wish to put it on stronger foundations may, in the process, bring it all down around them.

The fundamental problem, and therefore the solution, is political rather than military. We cannot make the world safe until we address the sources of conflict between the nuclear powers. Arms control and disarmament endeavours that ignore this political context are counterproductive. They increase tensions and suspicions rather than decreasing them.

Lawrence Freedman is head of policy studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. His latest book `Britain and Nuclear Weapons' is published by Macmillans.

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