Will 2024 be the year to rein in the military-industrial complex, the biggest threat to global peace?

Jan 9, 2024
Toy soldiers on money showing USA President Lincoln's face.Image: iStock/keepphotos

The complex, a key part of US political economy, fuels geopolitical tensions and enables countries and private actors to push for and capitalise on conflict. It’s time for societies to make concerted efforts to rein it in and build a movement to educate the world about the grave threat it poses to civilisation.

The headline of a Financial Times article on December 28, 2023 seemed to be a wild celebration that global defence order books were bulging as budgets were on a war footing. It outlined that US$760 billion of hardware was in the pipeline, with rising tensions feeding demand, and that investors were piling into stocks.

The analysis painted an upbeat and positive outlook, rather than argue that this is a cause for grave concern. Nowhere in the report was there an examination of the travesty underpinning these developments. It is clearly business as usual despite growing tensions in the world and thus normal to talk about rising military stocks as if these are sanitisers in demand during an epidemic.

How did this normalisation of the business of war and the accompanying economic perversions come about?

One can go back to January 1961 when US President Dwight D. Eisenhower popularised the term “military-industrial complex” (MIC) during his farewell address. Eisenhower, a five-star general during World War II, was intimately familiar with the military.

Eisenhower’s MIC warning was not just about the arms race or military spending; it was about the potential for a small group to exert extreme influence over national policy, undermining democratic processes and priorities. This is where we are now but it has expanded around the world and co-opted unlikely suspects including much of the global media.

And this is because his warning was hardly taken seriously. Instead, the MIC was termed the stuff of conspiracy theories and the deluded narrative of lefties and peaceniks.

Until now, over 50 years later, when discussion on the MIC has – at last – moved into the mainstream.

First in Ukraine and now in Gaza, the events of 2023 have ripped the mask off the MIC and made the world truly understand the nature of the beast: that it is the greatest threat to global peace. The FT headline, however, disingenuously seeks to affirm the fallacy that the spending is to improve defence capabilities and security. This is a lie.

The world needs to wake up to the fact that the global MIC poses a grave threat to civilisation.

What headlines like these make clear is that the growth of the MIC is the outcome of the excesses of our capitalist system. It is thus even morally acceptable to celebrate it as an opportunity for investors. We have failed to keep in check an industry that needs wars, death, and destruction to grow. How else can investors obtain their return on investment?

The fact is that it poses an existential threat to world peace because it has captured – at least partially – the political economy of the most powerful country on the planet: the United States, the modern-day military state.

Five of the nation’s biggest defence contractors spent a combined US$60 million to lobby the US government in 2020. It is similarly well known that almost half of the Pentagon’s budget goes to private contractors each year. Many politicians have stakes in the MIC, and the tech and finance industries are deeply embedded in it.

The American MIC (AMIC) has become so large that it does not care about winnable wars. It simply needs wars, period. Send billions of dollars of weapons to Afghanistan and then just leave it all there. Mission accomplished.

Indeed, it is an oxymoron to talk about peace and security guarantees from a nation that has been at war for 93 per cent of the time since its independence and has the world’s largest defence spend – more than the next nine countries combined. With so much capital, the door is wide open for vested interests, and the defence industry has dangerously become a significant player in the US economy.

For these reasons, the US is believed to be one of the biggest threats to world peace.

Europe has learned this the hard way, given how the AMIC has seen an opportunity to capitalise on the Ukraine conflict. These are the consequences of Europeans outsourcing security to the American industry of war. The FT piece cited that “military expenditure in Europe has its strongest year-on-year increase in at least three decades”.

It has also affected Gaza, influencing American politicians to ignore the sentiment of the global majority and stall the United Nations in its call for a ceasefire. In the last month alone, US President Joe Biden’s administration has bypassed Congress to send over US$200 million’s worth of arms to Israel.

The world needs to wake up to the fact that the global MIC poses a grave threat to civilisation, given the very real possibility of conflict contagion, the nuclear threat, and even bioweaponry.

It possesses two unique features that make it especially dangerous.

First, the MIC is a mutant creation of the capitalist economy: it is the state, with private actors embedded, a multiheaded hydra. It has tentacles in all segments of the economy, public policy, media, academia and even think tanks.

Second, it is primarily a government/business to government – GB2G – network with many intermediaries and thus prone to large-scale capture of state funding and, inevitably, corruption.

As a result, the so-called defence industry has been manoeuvred outside public scrutiny. It is a business with special privileges that hides behind the shield of “classified information” such that citizens are unaware of its dealings. It has also cleverly associated with national security and the need for more “deterrents” to further its business interests.

It is also no coincidence that the world’s most capitalist society has the largest, most powerful MIC. In fact, the AMIC’s main stakeholders are some of the largest companies in the economy – Lockhead Martin is a US$113 billion company, with several others in excess of US$30 billion. The same is true of Britain – such as BAE – and it is no coincidence that Britain always follows the AMIC into wars.

In the US, the most glaringly obvious conflict of interests involving leading politicians with stakes in the AMIC are simply ignored. Politicians profit from wars they incite, vote for, and fund every inch of the way. Very few if any speak out against it (for example, Bernie Sanders) but that, too, rarely.

The public is kept patriotic and silent by mass media-aided propaganda that helps the state invent enemies as fear is sown relentlessly.

In other countries, the military is powerful too and is the source of much corruption – but nothing compared to the scale of the US and the global destructive impact it has.

But make no mistake, there are many Western companies and governments involved, ultimately contributing to the diversion of sorely needed resources away from important development work to meet basic needs. Some of the largest corruption cases in developing countries often involve the purchase of military hardware and software from the West.

This corrupt system has reached global levels because the elites of the MIC are all connected, having been to the same military training schools or sharing close relationships with defence contractors. Countries that have suffered from this include the likes of Pakistan, Thailand, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and so on.

But the MIC can be kept in check if societies begin to understand they can rein them in. Citizens need to act as it diverts large amounts of national budgets from essential services. It is telling that there is no nationwide movement in the US to fight this scourge, which diverts funds away from crumbling basic infrastructure and poverty alleviation. Its so-called free press is almost silent on this issue.

Concerted efforts globally will be required to expose the MIC, which masquerades as providing national and regional security. But in reality, it is in the business of creating fear and destabilising entire nations to create great insecurity, thus forcing the conditions to sell its weapons of destruction, not security.

It is time that independent media, civil society organisations and academia around the world come together and build a global movement to educate the world about this most nefarious of industries.

Imagine a global summit every year seeking to hold this industry to account, educating governments and stakeholders about the responsibilities they have to stymie its growth. This is how climate change conferences like the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC started, and we need the UN to be part of initiating this global movement against the MIC. Let us call it Global Conference On Peace – Global COP.

Every nation, regardless of its size or power, must step up to the plate and share the burden of deconstructing the MIC. If warmongers and those with a stake in the business of war continue to undermine international peace efforts, they should not be surprised when others take charge of the all-important task of keeping global stability afloat.


Original article published in SCMP -A week in Asia on 6 January, 2024.

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