Beneath the Surface of the Kosovo War: Arms Trade and the Peace of Nations

Fourth Quarter 1999

by Alan Storkey

It is time to reflect. NATO's bombing of Kosovo and Serbia was probably justified. But we need to reflect on what the war meant at another level. There are different kinds of war. Previously wars were conflicts between nations, between colonial powers, or the superpower Cold War. Today, wars are more likely to be internal, involving ethnic, religious, or economic strife. They are also much more linked to official or unofficial terrorism. Kosovo, Angola, Kurdish wars, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Nicaragua, and, further back, Korea and Vietnam, had this form. In relation to them, the West takes on a peacekeeping or peacemaking role. But there is something odd here, for in order to make peace, we have had to wage war.

Wars do not come from nowhere, and the most powerful theory of war says that they are generated by weapons. The weapons are generated by an arms trade which has been especially significant in the last few decades, and these weapons are generating the new patterns of war, conflict, and artificial terrorism. The evidence is overwhelming. Britain was busy arming the Argentines even as they were invading the Falklands. The United States armed the Shah of Persia, then, under the later regime of Khomeini, suffered the embassy hostage crisis. It then transferred its allegiance from Iran to Iraq, only for Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait. You cannot say to countries, "Buy some weapons and play with them, but don't use them." Weapons do not decompose like tomatoes, and western arms have been used in hundreds of conflicts throughout the world.

In the past, Communist countries were major weapons suppliers within a Cold War context, but about ten years ago Communist arms production and sales took a dive as domestic production was slashed. Most of the Serbian weapons came from the USSR, though the Serbs had some powerful American artillery as well. Now the West contributes well over 80 percent of the world's exports of major conventional weapons, and the United States' exports are four times the amount of any other country's arms exports and more than half the total (SIPRI 1997 268). This is our problem. We sit in the driver's seat. We shape the world agenda.

The existing strategy of the Pentagon and the British Department of Defense is clear. They are happy with the arms trade, because the revenue allows arms-producing companies to invest in research and development, cutting the cost to the government. The reasoning has the following structure: Arms Sales—Revenue and Profits—Lower Defense Costs. However, it does not fully work out that way, because defense costs—$260 billion—are still a massive part of the U.S. budget. There is actually another dynamic at work, which goes like this: Arms Industry Income/Jobs—Political Gravy Train—Higher Defense Budget.

As a result of these two processes, despite the end of the Cold War, the United States has not reduced by much either its defense budget or the scale of its arms sales. What we witness, then, is another dynamic, which looks like this: Sales of Weapons—Wars/Conflicts/Terrorism—Higher Defense/Peacekeeping Costs. This is the process we are ignoring. The worldwide scale of conflicts is largely a result of the arms sales which have taken place over the previous two decades or so. Because arms production and sales were so high during the seventies and eighties, the recent flood of wars has occurred and the costs return to us daily.

This brings us to the last underlying economic argument. The process of arms trading, wars, and high defense costs has been undertaken because of the shortsighted economic policies of defense departments and arms manufacturing companies. Thus: Arms Sales—Waste/Wars/Destruction —Economic Poverty.

There is no more efficient way of wasting energy than with a bomb, no quicker way of wasting a power station than blowing it up, no less productive a person than Sergeant Bilko. A quarter of the world's best-qualified scientists and engineers are engaged in military work; they could do more valuable work. It is easy to show this economic effect. The two most successful post-WW II economies have been Japan and Germany, not because they had a magic touch, but because they were required at the end of the War not to spend 2-5 percent of their national annual budgets on defense.

The United States has too much invested in its present course. Saddest of all, a hundred million or so United States citizens who are Christians embrace this national policy without questioning it. Christians may disagree about just war and pacifism, but the morality of the arms trade is indefensible.

[Dr. Storkey is Chairman of the Movement for Christian Democracy (MCD) in England. An extended Discussion Paper on this topic is available from MCD at the Mayflower Center, Vincent Street, London E16 1LZ.]