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Arming US aggression

It isn't just arms exports to dictatorships we should be concerned about, says James O'Nions. UK companies arm the world's greatest aggressor - the US.

April 1, 2006
8 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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In 2004 global military spending topped $1 trillion for the first time since the Cold War. This extraordinary figure made momentary headlines when it was announced in the run up to the G8 summit in July last year, but then quickly dropped off the agenda again. What never hit the headlines was the equally extraordinary fact that that the USA’s proportion of that spending accounts for nearly half of the $1 trillion total. What’s more, the headline-making return to Cold War spending levels for the world as a whole is largely down to the increases in US military spending under the Bush administration.

Military spending, of course, means much more than buying weapons. It includes the wages of a country’s military personnel and all the infrastructure associated with running its armed forces. In the case of the USA, with some kind of presence in at least 130 countries, that infrastructure is enormous, and despite already being the international arms industry’s biggest customer, the Pentagon continues to represent an expanding market.

Whilst US arms companies were never state-owned like the UK’s were – or Russia’s and France’s partially remain – the USA’s own arms supply needs were traditionally met by US companies, often working with large research subsidies from the Department of Defense. The USA’s huge arms spending, together with the State Department’s policy of arming ‘friendly’ regimes, which was initiated in earnest under President Nixon, has made the US arms industry the biggest in the world. In fact, seven of the world’s ten biggest arms companies are American, and while they still make the vast majority of the USA’s arms, changes have been underway since 2001. Not only has the US recently become the top destination for UK arms exports, but UK-registered companies are buying up US subsidiaries, giving them better access to lucrative Pentagon contracts.

The US military in the world

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute calculates that the USA’s military spending in 2004 was $455 billion, or $1533 per person. Military spending now makes up 3.9 per cent of GDP, compared to a 2 per cent average across western Europe. Between 2001 and 2004, the years during which the ‘War on Terror’ has been waged, the USA’s military spending increased by an average of 10 per cent per year in real terms. The major part of this increase has gone towards the invasion and occupation of Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. Yet the USA’s high military spending, and its willingness to use its military might, by no means started recently.

As early as the 19th Century, the Monroe Doctrine asserted the USA’s right to intervene anywhere in Latin America to protect its interests. Latin America was considered its backyard, and European colonial powers were warned to keep out. As US power has grown this principle has been extended, with the country seeking to establish itself as the ruler of last resort throughout the world. Whilst the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known in Vietnam) sticks out in modern history, not least because it was so disastrous for the US, it is just one of many direct interventions, both overt and covert, which US armed forces and the Central Intelligence Agency have made into the affairs of other countries since 1945. This has involved openly bombing other countries in at least 28 separate military interventions.

These operations are complimented by a vast network of military bases. According to the US government’s latest figures, it has 702 bases in around 130 countries. Yet as former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson points out, this figure fails to account for many of the most important ones, such as in the Middle East and Central Asia. Johnson estimates the real figure to be in excess of 1,000. Quite apart from the threat to national sovereignty that these bases represent, and the geopolitical consequences of a US presence in every part of the world, they also disempower the local population and have widespread environmental and social consequences.

From Republic to Empire?

For most of its history, the justification for US military intervention has been the defence or promotion of freedom and democracy. Noam Chomsky, amongst others, has expertly deconstructed this claim, which in any case is largely rejected across most of the rest of the world. Yet it is not just opponents of US aggression who have labelled it a modern empire – for some neo-conservative thinkers, the concept of empire is one the US should embrace. Think-tanks close to the Bush administration, like the Project for the New American Century, talk about American ‘leadership’ being ‘good for the world and good for America’. Translated, this means good for corporations, and particularly good for US corporations.

Perhaps the best summation of this relationship between US economic policy and military might comes from Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist and leading advocate of both corporate globalisation and US militarism. In an often-quoted passage he wrote that “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas [now part of Boeing]… and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”

We can see the consequences of this in Iraq. Immediately he was installed, the US Administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, passed a series of ‘orders’ that fundamentally changed the structure of Iraq’s economy. They allowed foreign investors to own 100 per cent of Iraqi companies, laid the ground for privatisation of Iraq’s 200 state-owned companies and changed patent laws to the benefit of agriculture multinationals like Monsanto. Iraq’s oil, which was cited by some opponents of the war as the real motivation for the US invasion, has been pushed towards privatisation with almost no public debate. Even with Iraqis now in government, US forces have committed human rights abuses like those at Abu Ghraib, and have destroyed whole cities, as they did with Fallujah in November 2004.

Arming the Behemoth

Whilst it is well known that the UK was the lead supporter of the US in its invasion and occupation of Iraq, it is perhaps less well known that companies which were historically ‘British’ are now key suppliers to the US Armed Forces. Rolls Royce has supplied engines for Hercules military transport aircraft and various military helicopters used by the US in Iraq. In 2005, BAE Systems ranked seventh in a list of companies supplying the Pentagon, up from 12th the previous year. It supplies everything from artillery to hi-tech surveillance systems. According to UK government figures, the US has been the number one destination for UK arms deliveries since 2001, excepting only 2003 when exports to Saudi Arabia were slightly higher. For DESO, the government’s arms sales unit, these two countries represent a ‘big league’ of export markets for UK arms, compared to which even other ‘priority markets’ are of less importance.

Yet for all this, it is the fact that UK-registered companies such as BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, Cobham and Qinetiq have been buying up US subsidiaries that really gives them access to the US market. BAE Systems North America, which includes fourteen major acquisitions since 2000, now accounts for 37 per cent of the corporation’s overall turnover, whilst the figure for Cobham is 40 per cent (see page 11). Though they call themselves UK companies when trying to secure MoD contracts, in reality they are international big businesses eager to cash in on the US administration’s ‘war on terror’.

Tackling US aggression

The issue of arms sales to the US is relatively new, and not one that’s easy to tackle. Yet here is a country whose involvement in conflict is second to none. Its human rights record, from Guantanamo Bay to the execution of minors, is abysmal, and though it is the richest country in the world, around 40 per cent of the population don’t have access to healthcare. If these factors are relevant when opposing arms exports to the global South, then they apply here too.

Of course, if we were to stop arms exports to the US, its own arms industry would have little trouble plugging the gap, but there are some practical things we can do. We can demand the closure of DESO, which spends public money to help arm the world’s only superpower. We can also work to highlight the link between arms manufacture and the role of the US military machine in undermining autonomy and human rights. Global disarmament may still be a distant dream, but reigning in the US is an urgent priority for anyone who believes in social justice.

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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