Don’t Buy Don’t Sell in the Trump era

After authorising the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles (each costing around $1.5 million) at a Syrian airbase with no apparent consequential strategic purpose and diminishing none of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability, the maker of the Tomahawk missiles, Raytheon’s stock rose sharply, adding more than $1 billion to its market capitalisation. Other missile and weapons manufacturers, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics, also saw their stock rose considerably – collectively gaining nearly $5 billion in market value. This on its own may not matter much, after all, which president of the USA has not dropped  expensive bombs on some ‘remote’ nations of the world. But this time may be different.

Trump used anti-establishment and anti-corporate language during his election campaign to distinguish himself from all other candidates – he opposed neoconservative foreign policy, financial and corporate interests, notably Goldman Sachs. Now, after his inauguration, you can hardly see much difference between his foreign policy plans and policies proposed by neoconservatives. His cabinet looks like a ‘who’s who’ of Goldman Sachs alumni. He ratcheted up the military tension in the South China Sea, ordered a failed major special force operation in Yemen, and now seems to be pushing the USA to the edge of nuclear war with North Korea. The more he uses militaristic confrontational rhetoric and actions, the more ‘presidential’ he  looks in the eyes of the mainstream media. He seems ‘unstoppable’.

But is he, really?

Less than 100 days into his presidency, we have already seen the Women’s March against Donald Trump become the largest day of protest in US history with another Tax Day March happening in more than 150 US cities soon after. ‘Trumpcare’ failed almost as soon as it was announced because of the grassroots pressure. The illusion that Trump could do whatever he wants and gets away with it is also his biggest failing. He can no longer hide behind his populist rhetoric, now he is the president , it would seem that the emperor is now truly naked, with his hitherto ’see-through’ clothing now gone. The only person unable  to see this is Donald Trump himself. He encompasses everything his populist rhetoric was against – crony capitalism, wall street financial interests, foreign military interventions, neoliberal trade deals and non-affordable healthcare.

Though it may seem counter intuitive, given his forceful populism, he is, in truth, a gift to the progressive campaigning community. It has already begun and will become more apparent over time

Trump is such an figure, he is an impossible target to miss. Campaigners no longer need to spend most of their time to highlight the omnipotent hold of the corporate America on American government and democracy, i.e. the subtle differences between crony capitalism and capitalism. Trump holds the stock of defence contractors without any regard for conflict of interest,  ensured  the CEO of the biggest oil company in the world became his Secretary of State, filled his cabinet with people from the very bank that came to symbolise all that’s wrong with global finance, and chose an Education Secretary who wants to private public schools and whose brother was the founder of the notorious private military company Blackwater.

Trump is such a figure that his name alone can mobilise millions around the world to protest –beginning with the biggest march in US history, the January 2017 Women’s March against Donald Trump, that mobilised 5 million people in nearly 700 places around the world, on all seven continents.

It took Trump no time at all to call for a significant increase in USA military spending. This came as a shock to many Americans, not to mention around the world, who thought that USA spending was at its outer limits already.  This call for increased USA spending is accompanied by a call for EU NATO nations to increase theirs also. The UK is the only nation willing to ‘rise’ to this challenge.

With President Trump as the unashamed figurehead of a global military-industrial complex and with the UK arms industry also riding on the back of the profits from current conflicts, there is more than enough substance to argue the case for an international  campaign that calls this madness out. We need a framework that can start this process and we need a direct call to civil society campaigners: Don’t Buy Don’t Sell.

From US government’s own statistics, US alone was responsible for 82% of all $188 billion in global weapons exports in 2014. Top weapons exporters by value:

US: $153.8B
EU states: $15B
Russia: $10B
China: $3B

The US exported more weapons (by value)  and five times more than EU, Russia and China collectively. From 2004 to 2014, about 79% of the world arms trade, by value, has been supplied by the United States, about 10% by the European Union, about 5% by Russia, and less than 2% by China. The U.S. share of the world’s arms market has grown, while the E.U. share have diminished, with no clear trend in the Russian and Chinese shares.

Countries in the richest quintile of world population appear to have accounted for about 97% of world arms exports and about 66-67% of world arms imports, regardless of whether quintiles are based on national GDP per capita at a real market exchange rate or at purchasing power parity. By either standard, the richest quintile was the only GDP-per-capita quintile with a positive arms trade balance. Countries in the most democratic quintile of world population appear to have accounted for 92% of world arms exports and about 55% of world arms imports. The most democratic quintile was the only degree-of-democracy quintile with a positive arms trade balance. … Over the period, the arms trade surplus of the United States appears to have offset about 17% of its total trade deficit.

In summary, the US government is telling us that the most democratic and richest countries in the world are funding the global military-industrial complex to improve each other’s overall trade balance by buying and selling to each other as well as selling a significant amount to less-well-off and/or  less-democratic countries.

The military-industrial complex is the only economic sector that is completely destructive. Weapons are made for destruction – the more are used the more are made to replenish the stock. Even if they are not used, it costs a compatible amount to decommission them – the  USA is poised spend $1.5 trillion to decommission and upgrade their nuclear weapon stockpile in the next 10 years. This is money that could have been used elsewhere and more productively for the benefits of the society and economy.

‘When you have a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail’. Citizens need to realise this is a common problem in all the richest and democratic countries. Without exception, defence/military industries take a far more prominent role (behind the scenes) in national politics than their economic/societal contribution warrants. In the UK, despite the atrocities in Yemen, the British government is more concerned with selling even more weapons to Saudi Arabia after Brexit than restricting their use or stopping the arms trade altogether.

‘Don’t Buy Don’t Sell’

We don’t need our governments to buy ever more expensive weaponry that serves no strategic purpose apart from the apparent notion of  ‘that will teach them a lesson and show them who’s the boss.’ Dropping $90 million worth of bombs on Syria that supposedly killed 5 soldiers will not prevent the Assad regime carrying out another chemical attack. Dropping the ‘mother of all bombs’ on an ISIS cave complex that is more than likely too deep for its effective use in Afghanistan, was more PR than the Art of War. Sun Tzu, above anything, would love an all-showing-wasteful-and-short-sighted general as his opponent in a (drawn-out) war.

“Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump. And three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point if we had them why can’t we use them,” Joe Scarborough said on his “Morning Joe” program.

Citizens in the richest and democratic countries have incentive for their own interest to rein in their own military-industrial complex. During the pushback against Trumpcare, even Trump’s own supporters called out his hypocrisy and lies and forced the Republicans to back down. Furthermore, for their own benefits and maximum impact, they should also demand their governments ‘Don’t Sell’ in solidarity with citizens in the Global South. Selling weapons to a faraway country is not a risk-free ‘business’, there will always be far-reaching ‘blowbacks.’ The current refugee crisis in the Europe is one such an example.

The volume of international transfers of major weapons has grown continuously since 2004 and increased by 8.4 per cent between 2007–11 and 2012–16. The flow of arms increased to Asia and Oceania and the Middle East between 2007–11 and 2012–16, while there was a decrease in the flow to Europe, the Americas and Africa. The five biggest exporters—the United States, Russia, China, France and Germany—together accounted for 74% of arms exports (by volume).

  • With a one-third share of global arms exports, the USA was the top arms exporter in 2012– 16. Its arms exports increased by 21 per cent compared with 2007–11. Almost half of its arms exports went to the Middle East.
  • The USA supplies major arms to at least 100 countries around the world—significantly more than any other supplier state.
  • Russia accounted for a 23 per cent share of global exports in the period 2012–16. 70 per cent of its arms exports went to four countries: India, Vietnam, China and Algeria.
  • India was the world’s largest importer of major arms in 2012–16, accounting for 13 per cent of the global total.
  • Vietnam made a particularly large jump from being the 29th largest importer in 2007–11 to the 10th largest in 2012–16, with arms imports increasing by 202 per cent.
  • Between 2007–11 and 2012–16 arms imports by states in the Middle East rose by 86 per cent and accounted for 29 per cent of global imports in 2012–16.
  • Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer in 2012-16, with an increase of 212 per cent compared with 2007–11. Arms imports by Qatar went up by 245 per cent.
  • The largest importers in sub-Saharan Africa—Nigeria, Sudan and Ethiopia—are all in conflict zones.

The global arms trade is showing no sign of slowing down in growth. When every major country in the world is hyping up militaristic rhetoric and playing up possibilities of conflicts in some parts of the world, it is hardly surprising that’s the case. Every country in the high conflict-risk region has been driving up their arms imports, and they are mostly buying from the richest and democratic countries (except Russia and China). The conflicts are happening elsewhere whilst the money makes it way home,  so it seems to make perfect political and economic sense for the leaders of the richest and democratic countries to rachet up their interventionist rhetoric which, in turn, further makes already-worried countries more worried. It is all good for business and it is a never-ending self-reinforcing cycle. By value, richest and democratic countries sells arms mostly to each other but by volume, they overwhelming sell to the global south.

What else to explain the conflicts in the Middle East? There are countries that are being bombed by the US and Russia; and countries that are not bombed are bombing their neighbours. There is no one reputable foreign policy expert that can explain the strategic purpose of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen. Despite that, they have the full support of British and US governments. Let’s follow the money: Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest arms customer. The U.S. sold more than $100 billion arms to Saudi Arabia during Obama years and now we have President Trump who has built up significant personal business presence there.

Within a Five Percent framework, calling for global cuts to military spending, how would a Don’t Buy Don’t Sell call work, in a country like Saudi Arabia – un-democratic  with limited civil society presence?. By building on the longstanding  work of organisations such as  CAAT in the UK and Code Pink in the USA. One of the strengths of Don’t Buy Don’t Sell is it is international. If a Don’t Buy campaign is not practically possible in a country, an international coalition of Don’t Sell campaign can still be formed – if there is no seller, there won’t be a buyer.

The tension between India and Pakistan, and to a lesser degree China, is what’s driving up the dramatic rise of India’s arms imports. All three of named countries are nuclear armed. Any military incident could easily (intentionally or not) turn into an all-out nuclear war. Any military theory or game theory will tell you that you either deter any occurrence of a nuclear war or have an all-out nuclear war – there is nothing in between. That’s what makes deterrence effective and the whole nuclear stand-off situation so dangerous. In a country with an effective civil society like India , which has successfully campaigned against, for example, GM crops or the  extortionate prices of medicines charged by pharmaceutical multinationals, the Five Percent Framework coupled with the  Don’t Buy Don’t Sell call, would be possible. An alliance of civil society groups advocating  – that an arms trade won’t happen if there is no seller and/or a buyer.

With a charismatic leader like Obama, when he ‘pivoted to China,’ people can always say ‘we trust him, he knows what he is doing’, even if the consequences of its failure might be catastrophic. Now with Trump at the helm, could the same still be said? One lesson we’ve learnt from years of the so-called War on Terror is that if your neighbouring country is in trouble, you can’t stay out of it for long. The world clearly understands this – this is why the polls have been showing  people across the globe are  more distrustful of the USA and worried about the future than ever before. This is precisely the time for peace movement, international development groups, human rights and environmental movements to put calls for a framework for cuts to military spending put centre stage and for an international civil society call Don’t Buy Don’t Sell to be taken up as never before – led by those of us in the arms-selling  global north.