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The global arms trade is suffused with corruption, imperils the vulnerable and makes us all less safe. Yet arms merchants and their government supporters can turn to a set of time-honed and well-packaged arguments to justify the status quo. Each one of the claims is either deeply questionable or simply untrue. The arms business needs to be undressed. Then, we will find its claims are indefensible; nothing more than myths. The WPF's Project Indefensible debunks the seven core myths that the arms industry uses to deflect criticism and explains what can be done. It includes an interactive website and book, Indefensible: Seven Myths that Sustain the Global Arms Trade. The project was sponsored by WPF, and the book's author is Paul Holden, our colleague at Corruption Watch, along with collaborators Bridget Conley-Zilkic, Alex de Waal, Sarah Detzner, John Paul Dunne, Andrew Feinstein, William Hartung, Lora Lumpe, Nic Marsh, Sam Perlo-Freeman, Hennie Van Vuuren, and Leah Wawro.
Seven Myths that Sustain the Global Arms Trade
Myth 1: higher defense spending equals increased security.
Fact: It is unclear that large outlays on defense make a consistently measurable difference in providing security to the countries that buy weapons. Moreover, there is solid evidence that shows that, in certain instances, spending money on buying weapons may actually decrease a country’s security. These include: arms races, purchases by regimes that are foremost concerned with their self-protection against their own populations; access to funds through corruption and waste; and ill-conceived wars that may increase security threats.
Myth 2: military spending is driven by a sound analysis of national security.
Fact: The decisions to build, sell or buy weapons systems often have little to do with defending the nation. Other factors at play include claims that weapons systems generate economic benefits (see Myth 4); and pure corruption—that is, the kickbacks and access to public funds are the rationale for the deal, and the weaponry is a ruse.
Myth 3: we can control where weapons go after they are purchased, and how they are used.
Fact: Once a weapon is sold the seller has little control over how it is used. Friends become enemies. Weapons are seized and taken by new actors. Arms officially intended for one state can be sold to another (or a non-state actor). Those defending the trade may point to the passing of the Arms Trade Treaty by the UN in 2013, and its ratification by nearly the entire globe thereafter, as an example of how these sorts of lessons have been learnt. Unfortunately, the Arms Trade Treaty is full of holes, and is unlikely to have any major impact on the trade at all.
Myth 4: national arms industries are technologically innovative job creators.
Fact: In Europe, if one factors in the size of subsidies and welfare afforded the defense industry, it becomes clear that European defense companies are dependent on public funds in order to maintain their profitability. In the US, the scale of government purchases creates a unique set of incentives; but even here, the number of good quality jobs created by defense spending is less by order of magnitude than the jobs created through investment in other sectors such as energy and education. Global defense spending has either an insignificant or negative impact on growth. Increasingly civilian technologies lead new breakthroughs, with military applications focusing on integration and adaptation. Further, the estimated economic benefit of ‘offsets’ is chimerical and based on over-inflated claims. And, as a final kicker, there is now compelling data demonstrating that military spending is strongly correlated with poorer national economic growth: military spending can actually hurt the economy.
Myth 5: corruption is only a problem in developing countries and marginal to the defense industry as a whole.
Fact: Corruption in arms deals is corruption between producing and purchasing countries; the willingness of each side makes it possible. The arms trade is hard-wired for corruption for a number of reasons: the linkage to national security; the highly technical and complex nature of the systems, which means that very few people are able to critically evaluate deals; and the close relationship between purchasing governments, the arms industry, middlemen and senior figures in the military and intelligence agencies. The ‘revolving door’ whereby the same individuals circulate between government and the private sector, aligns the interests of these actors against those of the public. The trade is also truly global, composed of massive agglomeration of once disparate companies, with long lines of supply that are spread throughout the world, increasing the potential and scope for international corruption.
Myth 6: national security requires blanket secrecy
Fact: Secrecy more often reduces security rather than enhances it. Secrecy is so widespread that many countries fail to even report how much the military receives in funding. Even where budgets are disclosed, many countries allow for off-budget expenditures. Secrecy allows for cover-ups and makes accountability impossible. Protecting whistleblowers and demanding accountability are not luxuries, they are necessities of functioning democracies.
Myth 7: the world is more dangerous than ever, and it is simply the wrong time to tackle the arms trade.
Fact: the first decade of the 21st century was the most peaceful in recorded history. The second decade has proved appreciably more violent, though still far less deadly than previous historical eras. Today’s global security context, that has both reasons for hope and reasons for concern, is precisely the right time to open a debate on the role of the arms producers and traders in portraying – or mis-portraying—the rationales for how they conduct their business. Indeed, today is always the right time to challenge distortions that privilege the few and increase vulnerability for the many.
Exposing these myths reveals the final and most important fact: Change is Possible.
Confronting the arms trade, with its massive political clout and economic influence, is a tough ask, but it is not impossible. Once we clear away the myths, we see that there are things we can do now, right now, to begin pushing back against an industry that makes our world poorer and more perilous. Together, we can foster an evidence-driven, accountable and transparent public discussion of the global arms business. Together, we can start pointing out the absurdities that protect a business to the detriment of the security and economic prosperity of the world. By doing so, we can make the world a safer, more prosperous and more harmonious place.
About the cartoonists.
Access the Project Indefensible website here.
Our partners, Corruption Watch, have assembled a list of organizations that can help you get involved in advocacy projects designed to counter the impact of the global arms business.