Arms Down

Posted April 13, 2012

Categories: Articles, Featured, Security, US Foreign Policy

Every year, in the last two weeks of their final semester, a group of seniors in the 20th-century world history class at my high school played a mysterious game. They were honor-bound not to tell anyone what they were doing. All we knew was that, while their fellow seniors goofed off and marked time until graduation, this group of students were completely obsessed with…something. They were constantly in whispered negotiations, passing notes back and forth, passionately gesticulating. They seemed to be involved in a very serious, very adult activity. The rest of us were all intensely envious even as we made fun of their dorkiness.

Finally, when my turn came to take the class, I discovered that this mysterious game was a sophisticated simulation of geopolitics. Each student was assigned a different country and provided a portfolio of that country’s economic, political, and military resources and trajectories. Our job was to somehow improve our country’s global standing, by whatever means necessary. The scenario was different each year, given the vicissitudes of world politics. In quiet years, our teacher would even throw in a twist of his own – a regional conflict, a major famine – just to keep us on our toes.

It was 1982. Perhaps because I was studying Russian and had leftish views, my teacher assigned me the Soviet Union. I was not amused. The Soviet Union was not in great shape. Looking at my portfolio of statistics, I could not see any way to revive my country’s fortunes. The Soviet economy was stagnant, the political system geriatric, the military in decline. I could find no plausible way of squaring the circle, not with the Cold War resurging in the Reagan years.

Then, I discovered a small flaw in the simulation. The game was set up according to the logic of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union locked in an arms race. My counterpart in charge of the United States, a rather hawkish student, was not interested in détente. Rather than waste my time trying to convince him otherwise, I turned instead to the European Community and China. I supplied both with cheap energy in exchange for food and other imports. More importantly, I concluded threat-reduction treaties on both fronts that enabled me to cut military spending. The game was not set up to accommodate this detour around the Cold War. The United States was caught off guard. Though my hawkish fellow student didn’t want to, he ended up cutting military spending as well, just to keep up economically.

Our teacher, dismayed at peace breaking out within the first couple days of the simulation, brought in a student from outside our class to play Mongolia and, rather improbably, to launch a cross-border attack on the Soviet Union. Even this challenge couldn’t stop the inexorable reduction in military spending that I’d initiated worldwide. I easily bought off Mongolia. Flush with the savings from the military reductions, I brought perestroika to the Soviet Union three years before Gorbachev.

If only cuts in military spending were so easily accomplished. The Cold War has been over for more than two decades, and yet the world continues to increase its military spending every year. We live at a time of unprecedented peace, and yet we spend as if we are living at a time of unending conflict.

In the United States, the Obama administration has been flirting with reductions in Pentagon spending. But the current plan is to keep spending steady in the short term with modest reductions over the next decade. The Republicans have a different idea. Both Paul Ryan (R-WI) in Congress and Mitt Romney on the campaign trail have called for major increases in military spending. “Romney, the candidate most likely to challenge Obama in the 2012 elections, has introduced a plan that’s 60 percent higher than the $525 billion Obama proposed in his FY 2011 defense budget,” writes Sylvester Brown, Jr. in Focal Points, the FPIF blog. This comes despite the debt crisis, overall economic precariousness, and the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. As James Surowiecki points out in The New Yorker, “after the Korean War, President Eisenhower cut defense spending by twenty-seven per cent; after Vietnam, Nixon cut it by twenty-nine per cent; and, after the end of the Cold War, the defense budget was cut by twenty per cent.”

So, where’s our generation’s peace dividend?

Increased military spending in other countries is similarly inexplicable. Only Europe has committed to significant military reductions. Other regions, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute figures for 2010, have gone on spending sprees.

Unlike that geopolitical simulation from my high school class, there are no easy shortcuts to reducing military spending. Countries remain locked in a mindset that spending on weaponry provides security, even though these same countries will argue that comparable spending on the part of other countries produces exactly the opposite. Imagine a guy who brings a semiautomatic to the neighborhood picnic and then gets all upset when other folks come packing heat as well. “Yeah, but I only brought my gun to protect people!” he protests. “You all didn’t need to bring your weapons.” The other people nod their heads gravely, and one of them speaks up: “Yes, but you’ve been acting strange lately, so we just wanted to play it safe.”

Any demilitarization plan must begin with the United States. As the number one military spender and arms exporter in the world, the United States is the heart that pumps the blood that keeps the military-industrial complex functioning worldwide. U.S. arms manufacturers have gamed the system to maintain their dominance. They have set up their manufacturing in as many states as possible in order to buy the support of Congress. This means that even when the Pentagon wants to shut down a weapon system, like the F-22 fighter jet, it becomes nearly impossible to get Congress to go along. And then, if the U.S. government does somehow manage to start cutting back on procurement, the manufacturers can shift to focusing on arms sales abroad.

We are in a dangerous zero-sum world in which a military reduction in the United States means a military increase somewhere else.

To break out of this zero-sum situation and create a virtuous circle of military reductions, we must pursue a three-prong strategy. The first addresses U.S. military spending, the second focuses on the global arms trade, and the third creates incentives for countries to reorient their budget priorities.

The economic crisis in the United States, combined with the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, has created a political opportunity for a new bipartisan consensus on military cuts. Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican senator from Oklahoma, is the face of this consensus. His “Back in the Black” blueprint from last summerproposes $1 trillion in military cuts over the next decade. But in order to avoid the usual pork barreling that prevents even progressive representatives from voting against weapons systems manufactured in their states, Congress must adopt a new mechanism. For base closures, Congress accepted a package deal – one vote, up or down. This method considerably reduced the horse-trading that would inevitably have occurred among representatives trying to preserve bases in their own districts. My colleague Miriam Pemberton recommends a similar process for Pentagon procurement.

The next challenge is to rein in arms sales. The first step in this process is to approve the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). A relatively modest initiative, the ATT seeks to ensure common standards, higher transparency, and some accountability in terms of end users. Negotiations will begin in less than 100 days to nail down the precise language. The Obama administration has reversed the Bush administration’s opposition to the treaty. But approval will require two-thirds of the Senate, and that might be a tough sell.

And yet, an ATT is an essential precondition for more transformative change. After all, the goal should not be simply to regulate arms transfers, but to discourage them.

We should treat armaments like cigarettes. They are a social ill that deserves a sin tax. Brazilian leader Lula proposed such a tax on arms sales back in 2003 at the G8 meeting in Evian. Alas, it didn’t go anywhere. In his study of the various proposals, Michael Brzoska of the Bonn International Center for Conversion concluded that a tax could only be levied if the arms trade was a great deal more transparent, the costs would likely be borne not by producers but by consumers, and a significant portion of the revenues generated by such a tax should compensate countries that reduce their arms imports. “As long as arms sales, currently predominantly of small arms, are a factor that hinders economic and social development in some parts of the world it makes good sense to consider ways of reducing it,” he wrote. “The proposal of an arms trade tax has potential to do just this, possibly more as reminder of the social costs of arms sales than as a fiscal instrument.”

Which brings us to The Costa Rica Consensus, a proposal from former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias to reward any country that shifts its budget priorities away from military spending and toward expenditures on health, education, environment, and other human needs.

“During my recent presidential administration, I took this proposal to leaders around the world, including the World Bank and regional development banks,” Arias writes at Foreign Policy In Focus. “I was told that these organizations can’t easily modify their regulations without support from their donor countries. That is why I´ve called on the World Bank and on regional development banks to invite their donor countries to create funds designed to support nations that comply with the basic requirements of the Costa Rica Consensus. Specific funds already exist for technology, for water, and for climate change. Why not a fund that motivates countries to use their resources to improve human security?”

The final ingredient is activism. Governments will not shift their priorities unless and until we demand that they do so. Sign a petition in favor of the Arms Trade Treaty. And get involved in GDAMS.

Next week, on April 17, activists in 40 countries and more than 100 cities around the world will participate in the second annual Global Day of Action on Military Spending. There will be street theater in Dhaka, demonstrations in Istanbul, a parliamentary debate in Yaoundé, protests against military bases in Okinawa, a peace village in Oslo, a high-level seminar at the UN in Geneva, a flash mob in Oakland, Tax Day leafleting in Bethlehem, PA, a “walk of shame” in Washington, DC, and much much more. Check out the GDAMS website for a complete list of actions.

Also on April 17, SIPRI will release its figures for global military expenditures for 2011. It’s not going to be pretty. But if we continue to make a stink about our misplaced budget priorities, we can start to shift the conversation toward real reductions, real restrictions on the arms trade, and the kind of virtuous circle of demilitarization that the world so desperately needs. I saw a glimpse of this virtuous circle 30 years ago in a high-school simulation. Now I’d like to see it happen in real life.

Punishing Charity

Back in the 1990s, Mehrdad Yasrebi had a great idea: create a charity to help young children in Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. From his home in Oregon, Yasrebi created the Child Foundation, which helped thousands of children. Only problem was, the United States maintained sanctions on Iran. The U.S. government ultimately raided the offices of the Child Foundation and accused Yasrebi of funding terrorism. That charge, which a U.S. district court judge determined was without merit, nonetheless caused irreparable damage to Yasrebi’s career and family.

“The case perpetuates a pervasive sense of fear and alienation among American Muslims,” writes FPIF contributor Ahmed Souaiaia in America’s Sanctions Hit Home. “It cuts familial bonds between Americans and their relatives living in their ancestral homelands. It creates classes of citizenship, allowing naturalized U.S. citizens to be treated as second-class. It punishes Muslims in the United States for the sins of the regimes they left behind.”

In China, FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan reports, a still-growing economy is nonetheless posing some difficult questions. “What worries China’s leaders is that one of capitalism’s engines of self-destruction—economic injustice and inequality—is increasing,” he writes in The Frog and the Scorpion. “According to Li Shu, an economist at Beijing Normal University, from 1988 to 2007, the average income of the top 12 percent went from 10 times the bottom 10 percent to 23 times the bottom 10 percent. According to the Financial Times, it is estimated that China’s richest 1 percent controls 40 to 60 percent of total household wealth. Wealth disparity and economic injustice have fueled ‘incidents’ ranging from industrial strikes to riots by farmers over inadequate compensation for confiscated land.”

In this week’s FPIF Picks, I look at Noam Chomsky’s latest – a series of interviews and reflections on the Occupy movement. “Having spent so much time thinking about and engaging with social movements, Chomsky is both optimistic about the energy of Occupy and realistic about the challenges it faces,” I write in the review of Noam Chomsky’s Occupy. “He appreciates the ‘just do it’ ethos and embraces its radical approach to participatory democracy. But he reminds his audiences that all social movements reach further than they can grasp.”

Finally, in the FPIF blog, we have contributions on the bromance between Mitt and Bibi, Salafists and the Arab Spring, and the war on drugs in Guatemala.


World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 10, 2012


  1. Thanks John for this great article on military spending. It is articles like this that FPIF should do everything possible to get published as widely as possible in the US and in other countries around the world.

    Rob Wheeler
    Chair, World Alliance to Transform the UN

  2. Thanks, Rob! We encourage other websites to republish FPIF articles free of charge. They get out there — but not enough, alas…


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