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By Frida Berrigan
Sunday 20 May 2007
They don’t call us the sole superpower for nothing. Paul Wolfowitz might be looking for a new job right now, but the term he used to describe the pervasiveness of U.S. might back when he was a mere deputy secretary of defense – hyperpower – still fits the bill.
Face it, the United States is a proud nation of firsts. Among them:
First in Oil Consumption:
First in Carbon Dioxide Emissions:
First in External Debt:
First in Military Expenditures:
First in Weapons Sales:
In this gold-medal tally of firsts, there can be no question that things that go bang in the night are our proudest products. No one makes more of them or sells them more effectively than we do. When it comes to the sorts of firsts that once went with a classic civilian manufacturing base, however, gold medals are in short supply. To take an example:
Not First in Automobiles:
Not Even First in Bulk Goods:
But why be gloomy? Stick with arms sales and it’s dawn in America every day of the year. Sometimes, the weapons industry pretends that it’s like any other trade – especially when it’s pushing our congressional representatives (as it always does) for fewer restrictions and regulations. But don’t be fooled. Arms aren’t automobiles or refrigerators. They’re sui generis; they are the way the USA can always be number one – and everyone wants them. The odds that, in your lifetime, there will ever be a $128 billion trade deficit in weapons are essentially nil.
Arms are our real gold-medal event.
First in Sales of Surface-to-Air Missiles:
First in Sales of Military Ships:
First in Military Training:
First in Private Military Personnel:
Rest assured, governments around the world, often at each others’ throats, will want U.S. weapons long after their people have turned up their noses at a range of once dominant American consumer goods.
Just a few days ago, for instance, the “trade” publication Defense News reported that Turkey and the United States signed a $1.78 billion deal for Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter planes. As it happens, these planes are already ubiquitous – Israel flies them, so does the United Arab Emirates, Poland, South Korea, Venezuela, Oman and Portugal, not to speak of most other modern air forces. In many ways, F-16 is not just a high-tech fighter jet, it’s also a symbol of U.S. backing and friendship. Buying our weaponry is one of the few ways you can actually join the American imperial project!
In order to remain number one in the competitive jet field, Lockheed Martin, for example, does far more than just sell airplanes. TAI – Turkey’s aerospace corporation – will receive a boost with this sale, because Lockheed Martin is handing over responsibility for parts of production, assembly, and testing to Turkish workers. The Turkish Air Force already has 215 F-16 fighter planes and plans to buy 100 of Lockheed Martin’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as well, in a deal estimated at $10.7 billion over the next 15 years.
$10.7 billion on fighter planes for a country that ranks 94th on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, below Lebanon, Colombia, and Grenada, and far below all the European nations that Ankara is courting as it seeks to join the European Union – now that’s a real American sales job for you!
Here’s the strange thing, though: This genuine, gold-medal manufacturing-and-sales job on weapons simply never gets the attention it deserves. As a result, most Americans have no idea how proud they should be of our weapons manufacturers and the Pentagon – essentially our global sales force – that makes sure our weapons travel the planet and regularly demonstrates their value in small wars from Latin America to Central Asia.
Of course, there’s tons of data on the weapons trade, but who knows about any of it? I’m typical here. I help produce one of a dozen or so sober annual (or semi-annual) reports quantifying the business of war-making. In my case: the Arms Trade Resource Center report, U.S. Weapons at War: Fueling Conflict or Promoting Freedom? These reports get desultory, obligatory press attention – but only once in a blue moon do they get the sort of full-court-press treatment that befits our number one product line.
Dense collections of facts, percentages, and comparisons don’t seem to fit particularly well into the usual patchwork of front-page stories. And yet the mainstream press is a glory ride, compared to the TV News, which hardly acknowledges most of the time that the weapons business even exists.
In any case, that inside-the-fold, fact-heavy, wonky news story on the arms trade, however useful, can’t possibly convey the gold-medal feel of a business that has always preferred the shadows to the sun. No reader checking out such a piece is going to feel much – except maybe overwhelmed by facts. The connection between the factory that makes a weapons system and the community where that weapon “does its duty” is invariably missing-in-action, as are the relationships among the companies making the weapons and the generals (on-duty and retired) and politicians making the deals, or raking in their own cut of the profits for themselves and/or their constituencies. In other words, our most successful (and most deadly) export remains our most invisible one.
Maybe the only way to break through this paralysis of analysis would be to stop talking about weapons exports as a trade at all. Maybe we shouldn’t be using economic language to describe it. Yes, the weapons industry has associations, lobby groups, and trade shows. They have the same tri-fold exhibits, scale models, and picked-over buffets as any other industry; still, maybe we have to stop thinking about the export of fighter planes and precision-guided missiles as if they were so many widgets and start thinking about them in another language entirely – the language of drugs.
After all, what does a drug dealer do? He creates a need and then fills it. He encourages an appetite or (even more lucratively) an addiction and then feeds it.
Arms dealers do the same thing. They suggest to foreign officials that their military just might need a slight upgrade. After all, they’ll point out, haven’t you noticed that your neighbor just upgraded in jets, submarines, and tanks? And didn’t you guys fight a war a few years back? Doesn’t that make you feel insecure? And why feel insecure for another moment when, for just a few billion bucks, we’ll get you suited up with the latest model military… even better than what we sold them – or you the last time around.
Why does Turkey, which already has 215 fighter planes, need 100 extras in an even higher-tech version? It doesn’t… but Lockheed Martin, working the Pentagon, made them think they did.
We don’t need stronger arms control laws, we need a global sobriety coach – and some kind of 12-step program for the dealer-nation as well.
Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center.