STEPHANIE DOWRICK. Do we have a problem with refugees – or war?

In scrambling for solutions to the “refugee problem”, too few are contemplating the pervasively deadly “war problem” that plagues our global family. The article that follows is one of three I had published in July in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, filling in for regular columnist Elizabeth Farrelly in the Saturday editions. I find such columns more than challenging to write. How can I do justice to the subject matter? Yet I was and am also immensely grateful to have the chance to write this article in particular because Australia’s – and the world’s – indefensible spending on “defence” is something that goes too often unremarked and certainly unquestioned. 

And questions abound. Why do we spend months, years, debating trivial, self-serving tax cuts while giving so little thought as to how vast public funds are spent? Why are we willing to accept the argument that the best way to “keep the peace” is to spend more and more on readiness for war? 

The sums spent on actual peace-keeping, peace-studies, conflict resolution at all levels both domestically and internationally, and on research at the highest levels of the causes of war and how to avoid those depths of collective disturbance, are negligible. They do, though, accurately reflect the contempt with which “peace efforts” are frequently regarded. In ten years of writing my own regular column (in Good Weekend magazine), I was most attacked for my naïve idealism when I wrote about peace. No other topic came near it. Some of those attacks were overtly hostile, to me personally but even more to the very notion that as a vast, diverse global family we could learn to resolve social injustices and conflict more intelligently and successfully; that we need not slaughter one another; that we need not sufficiently forget the intrinsic dignity of other human beings to justify the horrors through generations that war brings.  

The issues around defence spending, war readiness, and a dangerously slavish acceptance of the military expenditure that I write about below are self-evidently more moral than financial. The squandering of lives far transcends in importance the squandering of funds…but the latter “allows” the former. And, increasingly, it is the dispossessed who pay the price. So, let’s talk about the “refugee problem”. And the “rights” of rich nations to participate in wars while simultaneously refusing a haven to people fleeing those wars and desperately seeking refuge. Let’s talk about all of that: but let us please also see that increasing numbers of people will flee, must flee, until what James Hillman calls humankind’s “terrible love of war” ceases. Until we are ready to question the inevitability of war; until we are ready for peace.

Less than two weeks ago, in mid-July 2018, two supreme Emperors of Cynicism, Trump and Putin, met in Helsinki to do…what? To play at being friends? Maybe even to make an accord of some kind, recognising that to each of them unconstrained power and profits will always matter far more than human life and dignity. And that democracy – never Russia’s strong point – has become in those two nations entirely subservient to making money. “That’s the nature of capitalism,” says social analyst Noam Chomsky. And it’s getting worse.

How to make the world more peaceful is said to have featured superficially on the Emperors’ agenda. As for detail on how to bring to a close the infinitely protracted wars, especially in the Middle East (including Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria) in which their nations are morally and financially implicated, there was none. As Trump tried briefly and unconvincingly to retrieve his post-Helsinki gaffes, his would/wouldn’t wooden double negative seemed the very least of it.

Who wins wars anyway? Millions certainly lose. As each fleeing refugee could attest, war costs people their homelands, families, future and, too often, their lives. But winning? That may only be arms manufacturers and traders: the “defence industries” as Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne prefers. Plus the vast “interests” profiting from them. [Many index funds, as one small example, invest in arms. And why wouldn’t they if profits matter more than enquiring how those profits are made?]

In 2017, global military spending was US$1.68 trillion ($2.2 trillion). The United States led the charge. Their spending was US$610 billion. That leaves out civilian spending on guns, the deadly use of which is promoted as an inviolable “right” by both the National Rifle Association and that savagely deformed version of Christianity known as the Christian Right. The result is 88 guns for every 100 people in the US. With less than five per cent of the world’s population, Americans possess 35-50 per cent of civilian-owned guns.

In military spending the two countries trailing the US are China ($US228 billion) and Saudi Arabia, a nation that’s unashamedly repressive of women and non-Saudi workers ($US69.4 billion). 

Whatever the rhetoric of rights and security – and there’s plenty of it – arms are the biggest of big business. And when leaders won’t or cannot, then it is up to us to question how this is making the world the slightest bit safer. An unstoppable tide of refugee dispossession is forcing new thinking. Yet in scrambling for solutions to the “refugee problem”, too few are contemplating the pervasively deadly “war problem”.

Australia invests in defence spending at the same rate as the European countries where Trump was strenuously urging more action. At two per cent of GDP, it’s twice the rate invested by Canada and New Zealand. By 2025, defence will likely cost our nation $58 billion. Half that spending could be redirected into what diminishes conflict and generates the conditions for peace. We could stand with the most peaceful nations on earth, rather than the most bellicose. Our highly trained forces could focus on skilled peacekeeping, so urgently needed. We could most honourably retreat from Pyne’s declared ambition for Australia to join the world’s top 10 weapons manufacturers. We could support the safe return of the already dispossessed through innovative, invigorating, job-generating investment in agriculture, land regeneration, education, conflict resolution, social justice leadership and health. We could be leading, not following. We would be safer.

The odds of course are against this. Views like mine are routinely disparaged. Even the facts are held against us. The arms industries are strenuously protected most obviously in the US where “special interest” groups openly fund Republican candidates, keeping them beholden to vast, concentrated corporate power. There’s also the terrifying effectiveness of propaganda trading in metaphors of glory, sacrifice and nationalism. This is supported also by sections of the entertainment and media industries where violence is continuously normalised. Packaged as “entertainment”, viewers learn that exploitation and devastation are inevitable. Young children play games that make them feel powerful as characters kill one another. Adults soak up media that repeatedly, gruesomely portray humanity at its mind-numbing worst. We are entitled to ask why. We are in a unique position to envision and support a fairer, finer world. We have the resources, imagination and drive. Through our exceptional diversity, we also have a chance to know the world’s people as our own.

This is not, though, just about billions of our tax dollars being lavished on frigates from Britain, drones from the US, or French-inspired submarines – on top of already massive war-ready spending. There’s also ubiquitous, lavishly resourced climate science silencing on a global scale. If gluttonous militarism doesn’t end life as we know it, then Pope Francis has warned of “an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems”, threatening an unprecedented loss of life. Climate science silencing is also funded by big business. And adhered to obsessively by the emperors.

Perhaps these issues have become so tribally divisive that politicians need to call on far better informed and far less partisan advice in deciding them. It is possible, after all, to calculate with some accuracy the social as well as the economic costs of unceasing wars and increasing weather catastrophes. It’s also possible to face the moral costs of people sacrificed to profits. Solving problems rather than creating more of them, we need examples of co-operation and not destruction. 

Maybe it’s the beautiful cave-rescue boys in Chiang Rai – poor, stateless (some of them), heroic (all of them) – plus their courageous, resourceful saviours, who provide those models. Their positivity, faith, gratitude, good humour, unflagging support to one another, as well as the unconditional kindness, courage and skill of strangers, saved them. Forget Helsinki. Forget the clothes-less Emperors. It’s the Wild Boars and their rescuers we can look to – and take new heart.

Reverend Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a writer, an Interfaith minister and a long-time social commentator. A previous article on the financial and moral costs of war-readiness is available here:  Of her many books, Seeking the Sacred is most explicit in its call for peace, not least through its examination of the “Golden Rule”, common to all religions, yet so readily set aside. She can be followed on Twitter and her public Facebook page: 


Rev Dr Stephanie Dowrick is a New Zealand-born writer, social activist and interfaith minister. She has written many influential books, was co-founder and first MD of The Women's Press, London; has been a contributor to Australian media in many forms, including as "Inner Life" columnist for Good Weekend; she has led "Interfaith in Sydney", a global spiritually inclusive congregation, since 2006; she teaches widely both on writing and spiritual/ethical living; she is a mother and grandmother.

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3 Responses to STEPHANIE DOWRICK. Do we have a problem with refugees – or war?

  1. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    We could commit to constituting ourselves as a Government of Laws, not Men. That would be a start – one we seem to have lost sight- of in the past 100 years.

  2. Avatar David Brown says:

    thank you for an excellent article

    I always tweet that the solution to terrorism and refugees is to stop bombing and killing people

  3. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    Hi, I agree with the sentiments expressed. Rather than impose a 2% pa floor on defence spending, I would impose a (say) 1% pa cap on defence spending. Otherwise, the world just ends up with wasteful arms race. It’s such a elementary point; I wonder why there has been so little reflection among Western commentators about the wisdom of the 2% pa floor on defence spending.

    I would allocate the money saved (from reducing defence spending) to helping countries train their civilian police and armed force. I often think that a lot of police/military brutality (e.g., in Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and even the US) could easily have been avoided if the police/armed personnel were better trained to deal with (say) peaceful demonstrations, crowd control and insurgencies.

    Suppose Yemen had better trained police/military; it may not have fallen into civil war, and we could have avoided Saudi involvement in Yemen’s civil war. Just speculating (admittedly).

    And if Syria had more professional police/security personnel with the capacity to maintain control without being brutal, we might have avoided the rebellion in Syria. Freedom and democracy in Syria could have been won through peaceful means (given time).

    We ought not be discouraged by the seemingly long time it takes for democracy and freedom to take hold peacefully across the world. We are better off in the long run if nations become democratic peacefully.

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