When President Dwight Eisenhower completed his second term in 1961, his farewell speech drew Americans’ attention to the “military-industrial complex” that might pose a danger to world peace in the future. For a general who was also Supreme Allied Commander in World War II to issue such a surprise warning, it is wise for all of us to take heed and reflect.
The weapons market is one of the most profitable valued at $400 billion annually worldwide (Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Most of the manufacturers are American companies such as United Technologies, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. As you know, all private companies must make a profit to stay alive in business. One thing that bothers me is that if a private company makes weapons, it will always try to enhance them and push their sales regardless of endangering world peace and stability. Herein lies a major force that propels the arms race.
In communist and authoritarian countries, the government assumes total control of the weapons industry because they cannot allow the opposition to be armed. As a consequence, their weapons industries lack the profit push of a private enterprise characteristic of the capitalist system. This explains why American and European private manufacturers are always one step ahead in sophisticated weaponry. The state monopolies of non-democracies can only play catchup for their talents lack the profit incentives to move forward except to follow orders.
All governments will make or buy the weapons they need either for defense or offense, locally or overseas. Besides this huge military market, the drug lords and radical groups around the world are also buyers of lighter weapons in the black market. Since the attacks of 9/11, there is a new worry how to prevent terrorist groups from getting a nuclear bomb.
Being the top manufacturer, the United States is also the top buyer of weapons. In 2016, the US defense budget amounted to $600 billion compared with $1,000 billion for the rest of the world (Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies). The huge weapons spending leads to some simple questions — What will they do with such a big stockpile year after year? Do they take pleasure in just looking at them, or find an excuse to use them?
Fortunately, a third world war has not occurred since 1945 perhaps due to the fear of nuclear weapons where nobody wins. However, the world is full of regional conflicts such as in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq where the US was directly involved with a huge loss of lives and resources. Although wars are complicated to understand, the American public correctly believes that all the wars since Vietnam are stupid wars that also prove to be quagmires. Wars are cruel for ordinary people, but are profitable for arms dealers and private military contractors, especially without an end in sight. Will these self-serving merchants try to promote wars? You bet they do. But how?
In communist or authoritarian countries, the leaders make wars for their own survival or to solidify their political positions. They don’t need to make money out of wars because their high positions already guarantee their lavish lifestyles. They are restrained not by the people or the constitution, but by their own capabilities and the military strengths of their opponents.
On the other hand, the US and other democratic countries make wars by employing high-sounding excuses like defending freedom and democracy. Occasionally, they employ highly technical smokescreens like weapons of mass destruction as seen playing out in the Iraq war. These excuses are good enough to garner public support. But how can they persuade the legislators to approve the war and its budget? Some money in the form of campaign contributions will help. As the Iraq war gradually unfolded, the public finally discovered that the Bush Administration invaded Iraq under false pretense. Many legislators and top officials have benefited hugely either from military contracts or from campaign money donated by the weapons manufacturers and war merchants. The sad thing is that this is all legal under US laws even though it brings tremendous sufferings to the American people.
Now we understand why President Eisenhower cautions the American people to be vigilant about the rising power of the military-industrial complex whose salesmen will seduce the country into war that will endanger world peace and stability.