A life for a gun: can Cameron and Obama’s engagement in the global arms trade ever be justified?
World Finance speaks to Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, to discuss whether governments are putting business before lives as they continue to engage in trading weapons
Conflict in Israel and recent high school shootings across America have led many to condemn the global arms trade, and governments for facilitating it. While trade in arms is a multi-billion dollar industry, many argue that the deaths caused by armed violence can never justify its existence. Is governments’ engagement in the global arms trade ethical? World Finance speaks to Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, to hear his views.
World Finance: Andrew, let’s start with the scale of the global arms trade; what numbers are we looking at?
Andrew Feinstein: Well looking back to 2013, about $1.75trn was spent on national defence, national security, what’s sometimes called homeland security. So, business that the arms companies could get into.
That’s about $250 for every person on the planet.
The trade in what we know as conventional weapons is usually somewhere between $70bn and $120bn a year.
World Finance: And is it structured like other industries?
Andrew Feinstein: The trade is really dominated by the big players: the Lockheed Martins, the Northrop Grumanns, the BAE Systems.
I think what makes this a unique industry is that its relations with government are incredibly close
But I think what makes this a unique industry is that its relations with government are incredibly close. And there is what we call a revolving door, a movement of people, between the industry, the military, and the government.
So that creates quite a unique structure, and quite unique arrangements.
World Finance: Well to coin a phrase from Star Trek, the Ferengi said “War is good for business, and peace is good for business.” Would you say this sums up the global arms trade? And in economic slump times, how is the industry affected?
Andrew Feinstein: In times of greater peace, there does tend to be less spending on conventional weapons.
And there certainly have been accusations that the trade in some ways is involved in attempting to ensure that the world doesn’t have periods of long peace or stability, because it is bad for their business model.
World Finance: Well how political is it when a country chooses where to buy from? Or even where to sell from? Or is it always best price?
Andrew Feinstein: No, it’s not always best price. There are a number of dimensions.
One is definitely political: they tend to purchase to cement political and military alliances. Saudi Arabia, for instance, purchases an extreme amount of military equipment – far more than it has the personnel or expertise to ever use! – in order to cement political alliances.
Unfortunately, what is crucial to decisions about what is bought, and where it is bought from, is corruption.
The trade in weapons is widely regarded as the most corrupt of all trades in the world. So one estimate by a researcher at Transparency International a few years ago, puts the figure at 40 percent of all corruption in all world trade.
[T]he company that pays the biggest bribe, to the most key decision makers, is the company that often gets the business
And unfortunately, from my own experience in South Africa, the company that pays the biggest bribe, to the most key decision makers, is the company that often gets the business.
World Finance: How significant is the black market in creating inconsistencies?
Andrew Feinstein: The distinction between a legal arms and an illegal, or black market, arms trade, is extremely fuzzy.
So you would find some of the biggest defence manufacturers would also use key dealers that operate in the black market – or what’s often called the grey market, where there are aspects of legality and illegality – in transactions.
And this creates huge additional costs on purchase price, because often the costs of corruption, of what are known as ‘economic offsets’ or ‘economic incentives’, are built into the purchase price.
World Finance: So how much does business come before humanitarian principles in this industry? Because obviously we’ve seen in the UK they’ve been criticised for selling arms to Israel, despite their condemnation of what’s happening in Palestine.
Andrew Feinstein: There is often the claim that the trade intensifies and extends the life of conflicts.
This isn’t to say that the trade in arms causes those conflicts; but that once those conflicts are underway, the easy availability of weapons to all players in those conflicts is something that keeps them going for far longer than they would ordinarily do.
So I think that there is some validity to the argument that this is business ahead of concerns for peace, ahead of human safety and security.
World Finance: We often hear phrases such as ‘arms control by embarrassment’, where it takes a humanitarian catastrophe such as Palestine to stop the selling of arms to a particular country. But at the end of the day – sorry to be blunt, but – the arms are designed to kill people. So wherever they’re sold, there’ll be the same result. So surely the problem is the trade itself, not where they’re sold to?
Andrew Feinstein: There are elements of what these companies produce that can be used legitimately for self-defence, for homeland security.
However, the vast majority of what they produce is used for what is called ‘offensive warfare’.
You refer to the situation in Palestine; we have the ironic reality that someone like President Barack Obama or Prime Minister David Cameron are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, but are still supplying Israel with enormous quantities of the weaponry that they’re using in Gaza.
[W]e have the ironic reality that someone like President Barack Obama or Prime Minister David Cameron are calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, but are still supplying Israel
And we even had a situation where during one of the ceasefires, Israel was able to replenish its weaponry from its US sources during the ceasefire.
Now clearly that is not going to lead to any sort of lasting peace in that situation. So yes, there is absolutely no doubt that a part of this warfare, and these conflicts, are being driven by the industry.
They also, crucially, influence government policy. So that we have a situation in the US today where the default position is warfare to resolve differences. And that’s reflected best by the reality that it takes more people to staff and maintain one aircraft carrier than the US has diplomats throughout the world.
And today the US has 10 aircraft carriers.
World Finance: Well institutions such as the NRA believe that gun ownership is a necessity, and if the trade is supporting economies, surely there’s an argument for it?
Andrew Feinstein: One could argue that the trade in hard drugs aids the economy. There are probably in the US hundreds and thousands, if not more, people who actually earn a living out of the trade in hard drugs.
That doesn’t mean we should regard that trade as a trade we want to encourage.
Similarly, the trade in weapons is not a trade that we should be encouraging, because it facilitates and intensifies conflict.
Where it needs to exist – and unfortunately in the world that we live in, it’s probably not the most practical solution to say that the manufacture of armaments should be brought to an end. But I think what we can say, given that we regulate the trade in alcohol, the trade in pharmaceuticals, and various other trades that have an impact on our lives; surely the most highly regulated trade on the planet should be the trade whose products result in death.
World Finance: Well finally, purely economically speaking now: such is the scale of the arms trade, would you suggest wars are beneficial for economies?
Andrew Feinstein: I think as an economic industry its importance is overstated.
I think as a job creator, it’s an incredibly bad industry.
As a generator of new technology, there could be more productive technologies generated with the R&D expense that is incurred – usually by the state.
And I do believe that the industry undermines governance by the extent of corruption in the industry. It undermines the rule of law in both buying and selling countries. And it does contribute to greater warfare and conflict than would otherwise be the case in the world we live in.
World Finance: Andrew, thank you.
Andrew Feinstein: Thank you very much.