Arms To Order

United States

new internationalist
issue 221 - July 1991

[image, unknown]
Richard Cooke / CAMERA PRESS
Arms to order
What role will arms play in the new world order?
Two leading activists give their views.

[image, unknown]
Richard Cooke / CAMERA PRESS


Professor of linguistics and intellectual gadfly
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

'If you are selling textiles you can hire a big auditorium and display your wares. The US is not selling textiles. It hires the Sinai and the Iraqi desert to show off in; that's basically our showroom. Every Israeli war and every US war in the region is part of an export promotion device.

'In my view, the new world order is mostly fraud. President Bush's main objective in outlining the concept is to tell the rest of the world that what the US says goes: in this new world order the US will use the sale of arms aggressively to bolster the sagging economy and solidify political alliances.

'Arms trade is just one aspect of military production and military production is just one aspect of what is sometimes called military Keynesianism. This is the technique of industrial management whereby the state ensures the viability of high technology industries by creating a military market for its products and by underwriting research and development.

'In the early 1940s it was understood that the only way to keep capitalist industrial societies going was to have very substantial state intervention. The United States did it by getting the taxpayer to subsidize high-technology industries - of which weapons are a part. The arms trade cannot be understood outside this whole system. One of the few sectors of the American economy that is competitive in the world market is military hi-tech, and it has to be sold. It's no coincidence that President Bush announced $18 billion worth of arms sales to Middle East nations just after the fighting stopped in the Gulf.

'Bush's main concern is not peace in the Middle East. It is his own constituency back home: the wealthy and the privileged. It is in the interests of this constituency - both in the US and in Britain - that Arab oil profits are spent on US or British products. The huge flow of capital that comes out of oil production mostly finds its way back to the US and Britain. That's why the Kuwaiti Investment Corporation is based in London. It's explicit. If you look back at the declassified documents of the late 1950s, both the British and the Americans stress that Kuwaiti profits must be used to prop up sterling.

'What's more, the United States considers itself entitled to some payback for providing the market that creates such vast profits for oil-producing nations. We want the flow of petrodollars to come back here. That's very important. There are lots of ways to do this - and one of them is arms sales. And one way to sell them is to ensure military confrontation.

'But with the end of the Cold War we need new pretexts for old actions. And so before taking military action in Kuwait the US had to cast Saddam Hussein as a madman - even though we had been selling arms to this madman within months of his invasion.

'One of the main thrusts of the Reagan-Bush policy from the beginning has been to try and establish in principle that the world should be ruled by force. The US is saying repeatedly that it rejects diplomacy, rejects peaceful means. That was true right through central America and it has been true in the Middle East. Others have been expected to adapt to that - no matter what they feel.

'But the best way to control a Third World country is to control its security forces. If you control its military and its police, you don't really care what kind of political system it has. And how do you control the military? Arms sales and training. That's the best way of getting developing nations firmly within the US camp.

'There is some hope for those who want to change all this. The possibilities of US foreign intervention have narrowed over the past few years. No longer does the US Government have the same freedom to pursue drawn-out, policy-based military interventions. Many in the US would not have supported a long war in the Gulf, for example. This means there are lots of opportunities for people who are trying to do something. But it requires massive education. People have to learn to understand the realities of the world around them. And the key reality is that the sale of arms abroad will not abate until political incentives become bigger than the short-term economic ones.'


Founder-member of the German Green
Party, and tireless activist despite having
recently lost her seat in parliament.

'I think this must be the worst time to try and reduce the arms trade. The European Community has already decided that it is going to make arms sales to the Third World an economic priority. It wants to overtake the US in this area. At an internal meeting of European defence ministers at Gleneagles, Scotland, they discussed how the peace dividend (arising from the ending of the Cold War) could be used to produce new, cheaper, harmonized weapons systems for export to the Third World. This got very little coverage in the news.

'So the new Europe is not going to stand in solidarity with the Third World. It is only concerned with its economic strength. Even countries like Switzerland and Sweden are going against their traditional neutrality and becoming heavily involved in arms exports. The freeing up of the European Market after 1992 will make it even easier for the arms trade.

'There will be more arms sales in the Third World - and more regional wars there too. Europe and the US will be the superpowers - with the USSR playing a reduced role because of its own internal problems. We are going to see a kind of global NATO with two heads - one the US and one Europe - and with the Third World on the other side.

'Things looked so hopeful after the end of the Cold War. There were big conferences in Moscow and in New York on converting the arms industry to civilian use. The companies understood the problem and were prepared to discuss it. The Green budget seemed feasible. There were good initiatives and the chance of a really strong arms control.

'We thought the 1990s would be the decade when the world worked out alternative security arrangements, when the idea of ecological security as opposed to military security would get off the ground. Lots of grassroots groups were involved in looking into non-military forms of defence. People in Eastern Europe seemed to want the same thing. Then the Gulf war tipped the balance - and all that seems to have gone.

'Now Bush and Co are arguing that selling more arms in the Middle East will stabilize the region - which, of course, is nonsense. There is no talk about the peace dividend' any more. Even the Greens in Germany approved the sale of arms to Israel. They saw it as some sort of compensation for the past - as though contributing to the arms build-up in that area could be anything other than a very bad form of compensation.

'It is frightening how brainwashed the public have been by the media. People said it was a very good war, it showed that the machinery made sense. It was like twenty years of consciousness-raising disappeared overnight. The most important thing now is military might, more important than economic power.

'Meanwhile the full extent of the damage to the environment cannot yet be estimated. Scientists are saying this damage goes deep into the soil and that it may not possible to grow food in the region for many years to come. The amount of TNT (explosive) dropped is unimaginable. Virtually every United Nations convention was broken - including not damaging food supplies, chemical and nuclear facilities. It was an out-and-out war against nature on both sides. Neither side gave a damn. The Gulf region was the cradle of civilization, Ancient Mesopotamia. And we have destroyed it. To me that seems very symbolic.'

Noam Chomsky was interviewed by Steve Simurda; Petra Kelly by Vanessa Baird. We wanted to interview Henry Kissinger too, but learned that he would require a fee of around $30,000. Unfortunately our budget does not stretch to this.

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