By Ray Acheson

$1,917,000,000,000. Or $1.9 trillion. Any way you write it, that’s a lot of money. All of which has been spent on militarism: on weapons production and development, on soldiers, on wars, on bases, on command and support systems, on repression. This number, released this week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, constitutes a 3.6 per cent increase from 2018, which is the largest annual growth in spending since 2010.

We are spending more on militarism and weapons and pretending it brings security when we know people are fleeing from relentless bombing of their towns and cities, when we know the devastating radioactive violence of nuclear weapons lasts for generations, when we know that domestic violence victims are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner if there is a gun in the home, when we know that armed drones have killed thousands of civilians indiscriminately, when we know that the so-called threats that all this militarism is supposed to prevent just leads to more and more violence.

“Violence makes violence, makes nothing much at all.” – Jesse Custer, Preacher

Myths and material reality

Yet the culture of militarism runs deep and holds fast. 105 years ago, WILPF’s founders saw that those who manufactured weapons were at the heart of a grave, deeply gendered racket, in which myths such as “security through violence” and “peace through war” are peddled in order to justify ever-increasing extravagant military budgets and profits.

Its embeddedness in our culture is why, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the military-industrial complex has done so well for itself. In many countries, arms producers have been deemed essential services. Boeing, a major military contractor, successfully pushed for billions in aid to the arms industry in the $2 trillion US stimulus bill. Part of the triumph of the military industry in the United States is due to the revolving door between arms contractors and the government. The industry also portrays itself as a great employer, from soldiering to weapons manufacturing to base building—even though as veterans and economists have pointed out, this is not the case.

The jobs argument just does not hold water. But the profits for these companies certainly does. About 90 per cent of Lockheed Martin’s budget, for example, comes from the US government—or rather, from US taxpayers. Its CEO earns between $21 and 34 million per year.

These corporations also profit from the international arms trade—which, despite the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, has also continued unabated during the pandemic. In Libya, for example, where several actors have called for a ceasefire, in particular during Ramadan, and where there is an official UN arms embargo in place, fighting has not only intensified but it has turned into what the UN acting special envoy called “an experimental field for all types of new weapons systems” due to arms shipments from supporters of the warring parties.

As noted in a previous blog, governments are also experimenting with new technologies of violence, surveillance, and repression during the pandemic, risking violation of human rights now and in the future. The military contractors involved in the development of these technologies include many of the usual suspects but also involve a growing number of tech firms including Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and many more.

It’s important to note here that Amazon, which is suing the US government over not choosing it for its military cloud computing contract, has profited wildly from the coronavirus. At least, its CEO has. Jeff Bezos’ net worth has increased by $24 billion during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Amazon workers are striking because the company has not provided them with proper protective gear or been transparent about the number of positive cases in its facilities. Amazon is also using surveillance technology to identify union organising activities at its Whole Foods facilities. This a prime example of various strands of militarism, capitalism, and repression coming together to exploit moments of crisis for the personal gain of those at the very top of the money chain.

Making more than violence

Despite the stranglehold that militarism and its material realities seem to have over our politics and economics, this pandemic is starting to create some cracks and shifts in the official narrative. This week in New York, for example, where doctors and nurses are wearing raincoats and bandanas instead of proper protective gear, the military did a fly-over with their $20 million jets to “thank” front-line medical workers, additionally wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars of fuel. New Yorkers were not impressed.

Around the world, people are starting to ask, how could our governments have been so unprepared for this crisis? They are looking at where their tax dollars have been going, towards weapons, war, and militarised “security”. They are asking, what else could this money have been spent on?

The Global Campaign on Military Spending has shown that one F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft could pay for 3244 intensive care unit beds, or that one submarine could pay for over 9000 fully-equipped ambulances. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has shown that a years’ worth of current investments in nuclear weapons in each country that has them could pay for hundreds of thousands of medical workers, ventilators, protective gear, and more. We know that more jobs could be created through investments in a Green New Deal and a Red Deal than are currently created by military spending, and that such investments would help us mitigate the climate crisis and improve the lives of billions of people and everyone else living on our planet.

So what do we need to do shift our culture and economics away from militarism and towards peace, solidarity, and social well-being?

Cut military spending now

We can start by cutting military spending. Mikhail Gorbachev, former premier of the Soviet Union, has called for an emergency special session of the UN General Assembly to revise the “entire global agenda,” including by committing states to cut military spending by 10–15 per cent.

WILPF welcomes this call. But we also do not believe that a 15 per cent cut in military spending gets us to where we need to be. Fifteen per cent of $1.9 trillion is $285 billion. Yes, that is a lot of money! It could be put to immediate good use on multiple fronts, from health care to employment and wages to housing to education to food and shelter, during this crisis and beyond.

But when we consider that the United States alone spent $732 billion last year on militarism, or when we consider that the nuclear weapon maintenance and modernisation programmes are going to cost over $1 trillion, or when we consider the annual costs of operating foreign military bases or the single unit prices of jet fighters, battle tanks, and submarines, we can clearly see a much greater cut is not only possible but absolutely necessary.

Disarm and demilitarise

To achieve this, the UN General Assembly needs to take additional actions, including taking over implementation of Article 26 of the UN Charter. This article gives the UN Security Council and the (now-defunct) Military Staff Committee the responsibility for creating a plan for regulating armaments and reducing military spending. These bodies have completely reneged on this responsibility. The UN General Assembly should take it up and negotiate a concrete programme for military divestment, demilitarisation, and disarmament.

The UN General Assembly has already negotiated and adopted the international Arms Trade Treaty, which is a good first step. But as a tool that is supposed to prevent arms transfers that lead to human suffering, it has not lived up to its promise or potential. Much more is needed. Because many of the ATT’s champions are major arms producers and exporters, the Treaty has been used since its adoption as a tool to legitimise their production of and profits from weapons. While beneficial to certain governments and corporations, it has meant that people around the world continue to die from bombs and bullets on a daily basis.

We need an international system that deals directly with the production of weapons, as well as their sale, trade, trafficking, and with war profiteering. We need a programme for general and complete disarmament, building on the prohibitions, divestments, and elimination of specific weapon systems that we already have, taking the economic and political incentives out of arms manufacturing.

As part of this project of disarmament, divestment, and demilitarisation, we need to consider how to hold states to account for their commitments. Interim measures could include, for example, the establishment of an international monitoring body to track investments in weapons production and purchase, profits from sale and trade, with the objective of imposing taxes or other penalties for crossing agreed thresholds. The funds from this system of taxation could be deployed to assist with disarmament programmes, to retool arms production facilitates to other socially progressive purposes, and for disarmament and demilitarisation education.

The role that bilateral and multilateral development assistance, as well as international financial institutions (IFIs), must be examined as to whether they are incentivising or directly contributing to increases in military spending. The US government, for example, stipulates that recipients of its “foreign aid” must use part of the funds to purchase military equipment or training. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, parts of the funding made available by European Union for the country’s response to the increase in migration flows have gone into purchasing surveillance and other equipment for the police forces.

Indirectly, conditionalities attached to IFI loans and grants that inter alia require privatisations, weakening of labour laws, and cuts in public spending, lead to increasing inequality and poverty. This often prompts governments to spend more on militarism, including by equipping police forces with army-grade weapons, to better protect private interests and resist opposition. These entities should be actively fostering policies for demilitarisation and disarmament, not increasing the availability of weapons and the risks of repression, violence, and war.

Self-evidently, the UN Security Council cannot maintain its current mandate of making executive decisions on matters of international peace and security when its five permanent members, each of which has a veto over every resolution and decision, all profit massively from international arms trafficking and the violence it facilitates in conflicts around the world.

Outside of the UN Security Council, various UN bodies have in the past undertaken serious efforts to reduce military spending. In 1959 the UN General Assembly reached consensus on the objective of general and complete disarmament, which prompted several efforts for disarmament, divestment, and demilitarisation within the UN system.

Essentially none of this work is ongoing now. Routine resolutions are adopted every year at the UN General Assembly about disarmament and development and about transparency in armaments, and mechanisms such as the UN Register of Conventional Weapons and Instrument for Reporting Military Expenditures continue to exist. But the momentum and energy have dissipated. This work should be resurrected and recharged.

Deconstruct power and re-centre reality

The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs is attempting to spark some interest, with its release last year of a paper providing a historical overview of past efforts, followed this year by the publication of a volume of activist perspectives on military spending.

This new publication includes a chapter from WILPF on feminist perspectives on military spending, in which we argue that military spending has consequences for ordering our societies and international relations and has thus far condemned us to live within systems of violence and exploitation. We highlight that the harms caused by militarism are levelled disproportionately by and against men in the immediate term, but are inflicted differentially and devastatingly upon those who have the least to do with creating this system: including women, Indigenous groups, LGBTQ+ people, ethnic and religious minorities, the poor and disenfranchised. Such populations tend to have no or little role in shaping the discourse on military spending, let alone establishing the limits or creating the budgets.

From this context, we reiterate WILPF’s call from 1915 for an end to the privatisation of military production and for outlawing the influence of corporate interest over national policies that undermine disarmament and preclude a rational analysis of weapons and war. We need to centre instead those whose lives have been harmed by the weaponisation of our world; centring a feminist practice and policy that exposes the dominant militaristic narrative as a perspective, not the only credible perspective; and dismantling systems that privilege the militarised voices in our midst.

This project of deconstructing and reconstructing power also means we need to deal with violent masculinities. Not only does the construct of militarised masculinity, as described previously, limit our ability to see past militarism as solution and saviour to all of our problems even while it is the cause of those problems, but it also portrays disarmament or conceptions of human security as “effeminate” and weak. Those perpetuating the dominant systems of thought posit that proponents of alternatives to militarism are emotional, unrealistic, and irrational. As the argument goes, there will always be those who want the capacity to wield power through violence; therefore, the “rational” actors need to retain the weapons for protection against the irrational others. This attitude not only undermines disarmament and reductions of military spending, but also perpetuates a social acceptance of human beings as expendable, in stark contrast to the principles that form the bedrock of human rights law.

Take an integrated approach

This work also requires better integration and coordination among UN and other international mechanisms, including those related to disarmament, human rights, and women, peace, and security. For many years, WILPF has been amplifying the voices of women from around the world whose rights and security have been negatively impacted by the arms trade and the use of weapons in conflict, post-conflict, and in times of “peace”. We have made submissions about arms production and trade to human rights bodies and have talked about women’s rights in disarmament forums. Some governments and elements of the UN system are taking a more integrated approach to some of these issues but are categorically falling short of undertaking actions that will introduce the transformative changes we need in our structures of economic and political power. Adding women and stirring is just not enough, folks.

The UN’s human rights mechanisms have already been stepping up during this crisis. As mentioned in our blog about multilateralism, statements and guidelines from the High Commissioners for Human Rights and for Refugees, some UN special rapporteurs, and at least ten human rights treaty bodies and committees, have been urging governments to ensure respect for human rights during the pandemic. Many of these have accounted for the intersectionality of sex, gender, race, class, disability, and other experiences and identities in their suggestions for how to prevent repression of various populations, including when it comes to using surveillance technologies. This work should be continued and taken up in a coordinated way by other aspects of the multilateral machinery, and must also look at the ways in which militarism impacts human rights during this crisis and beyond.

Evolve and adapt

The connections between military spending, human rights, and the health of people and planet have never been clearer. We are what we spend our money on. Right now, we are armed to our teeth without a face mask to spare. If we are to survive this crisis, and the next one—crises of our own making because of our choices in investment in militarism, fossil fuels, and the capitalist economy—we absolutely must learn and adapt. In this case, adaptation means divestment, demilitarisation, and disarmament. This is entirely possible, if we choose to act. Now.