The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis reveals the waste of the military-industrial complex, and the artificial constraints upon public investment for domestic and international objectives. These twin crises can be met in part through a pro-peace response. We must reorient our wasteful military expenditures to socially and ecologically necessary ends.
Our military expenditures are wasteful and dangerous
Each year Australia drops about 2% of its GDP to produce or purchase ships, planes, weapons and train and retain 85,000 personnel to fight and die in the event of any conflict that threatens our security. For 2019-2020, the total expenditure on the Australian Defence Force is $38.7 billion. Scott Morrison has also just announced a new $270 billion dollar plan to boost our military over the next ten years, including new long-range missile capacities.
In terms of meeting traditional military security challenges, this investment is often misallocated. Where we’re comfortable dropping $17 billion on new fighter jets, or $7 billion on space capabilities, our fuel reserves for the entire country wouldn’t last much more than six weeks in the event our supply chains were disrupted.
The misallocation of investment in - and limitations of - our defence force is not an argument for further investment in our capacity for war. The truth is that any expenditures, even those that do advance our strategic position from a military perspective, are inherently wasteful because the primary drivers of systemic risk are not traditional security threats by state or non-state actors. In a lot of ways, we’re still locked into 20th Century thinking.
The return on investment in conventional weapons of war is so low. There’s this old aphorism that gets around, often attributed to Albert Einstein, that goes “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” This is basically true. If we ever find ourselves in such a conflict where we need to deploy such weapons, we’re already screwed.
We shouldn’t be persuaded by folks that think that peace is kept through mutually assured damage or destruction. Most people understand that throughout history, arms races have led to poor outcomes. We need to have the courage to say that we are committed to not repeating the mistakes of the 20th Century, we will consign imperialism and great power games to the past, we will lead to make peace.
Australia’s foreign and defence policy misperceives risk
Narratives of an Australia at risk of foreign control are disseminated widely, from every other week in the Sydney Morning Herald to the enormously popular and often school-issued text in Tomorrow, When the War Began. These popular fears in the Australian psyche misperceive what is our greatest security risk – climate catastrophe on a planet where our economy is predicated upon complex globalised just-in-time supply chains.
Part of this our response must include an unprecedented collective effort and investment in achieving ecological sustainability. There are strong and radical cases for a Green New Deal that repairs humanity’s relationship to the environment through substantially modifying or transcending capitalism as a mode of production.
However, it is also increasingly clear even for mainstream, establishment thinkers that the climate crisis will destabilise states and produce distributional conflicts over scarce resources. This suggests that the industrial capacity and expenditure devoted to producing and purchasing weapons might be better put to expanding our domestic manufacturing sector, practicing food sovereignty, producing clean energy and ameliorating climate change. Investing in a safe climate future mitigates conflict.
In the United Kingdom, a nuclear weapons contractor shifted production to manufacture 10,000 ventilators in response to COVID-19. As the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament UK rightly points out, this signals that “workers can and must be redeployed to socially useful parts of the economy.” Where Australians have collectively perceived a public investment 2% of GDP on weapons of war as a given to meet military threats, we must expand the horizon of possibility to consider what is socially useful going forward, and to the degree we are willing to make public investments to meet the challenges.
An internationalist response is socially and ecologically necessary
Any investment strategy must be substantially internationalist. The Spanish flu killed approximately one hundred million people in a far less populated and globalised world, comparable to the death toll in World War II. What the COVID-19 crisis has revealed is that health systems from localities in both developing and developed countries, all the way up to international institutions like the World Health Organisation (WHO) are not adequately structured or funded to prevent a global health catastrophe, or deal with one if it arises.
To illustrate the paucity of investment in the WHO, its annual budget sits at about $4.4 billion, which is equivalent to 11% of Australia’s 2019-2020 military budget. Australia as a single middle-power spends about ten times per year on preparedness for war than all United Nations member states collectively spend on the WHO. Imagine the international goodwill we would promote if we expanded the resources of the WHO tenfold!
Any investment we make in reducing our own emissions has spill-over benefits for other countries. To the extent that climate change is ‘baked-in’, we must make investment through foreign aid to ensure that our most vulnerable neighbours can build deep resilience and adaptability to a climate less suited for human life.
And of course, Australia regularly tells itself the story that we cannot maintain generous and humane refugee policies because we need to look after the vulnerable at home. How can we give dignified lives to refugees, when there are homeless on our own streets? Yet throughout our administration of Manus and Nauru, condemning refugees to indefinite detention on offshore island prisons, there has been no new accompanying investment in constructing social housing – yet our Government is happy to continue throw billions around on some new war toys.
I think one of the most powerful quotes that captures what we are seeing here actually came from Dwight D. Eisenhower in the midst of the Cold War, who said:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
We will do best to reflect on that.