Real security – lessons from Covid-19
Every second year for several decades Eurosatory – the world’s biggest arms fair – has been held in Paris. But not in 2020.
Despite the event’s impressive array of fabulously rich backers, this biennial showcase for the latest, smartest offerings in death and destruction was cancelled. Even with the avid support of the French government, the world’s largest arms companies and their enthusiastic national governments, and the manifold ancillary enterprises which piggy-back on the sale of weapons, Eurosatory was no match for Covid-19. The risk of infecting the 58,000 visitors and nearly 6,000 international exhibitors who regularly turn up was deemed too great. Like arms sales, viral pandemics are no respecters of borders.
Yes to security – but whose?
This cancellation is particularly ironic in view of the argument that massively expensive weapons production and trade are justified by their contribution to our security. However, when the immediate threat arrived in the form of a deadly virus, its rapid spread faced little opposition since most governments were so unprepared. Why, you might ask, given epidemiologists’ predictions of a pandemic a decade ago and much more recently? Governments ignored the warnings because they were fixated on delivering a different sort of ‘security’ – one predicated on the availability of highly sophisticated weaponry. By spending heavily on ‘defence’, those in power were certain that they could keep us safe from attack by unspecified enemies.
Covid-19, the invisible enemy that weapons can’t kill
Certainly, no one imagined that the world’s most powerful economies could collapse so easily without a shot being fired. Hardly any foresaw that it was a robust and well-funded health service – not state-of-the-art fighter jets – that would be essential to protect the population. After all, governments reasoned, providing the health facilities needed to cope with a pandemic could hardly be a priority. Emergency hospital beds or functioning ventilators seemed too far-fetched an ask compared with the demands of the arms lobbyists. Far more urgent was the goal of supporting weapons production and ensuring its prosperity. So defence budgets flourished at the expense of healthcare. Tragically, France’s death toll topped 29,000 on 8th June – the day Eurosatory was supposed to open its doors to the world’s arms dealers.
Covid-19 – what does real security look like?
What might the outcome have been if even part of the ‘defence’ budget had been transferred to the health sector? How many doctors and nurses could have been trained for the price of a single €97M Dassault Rafale fighter jet? How many extra ventilators and hospital beds could have been provided? How much could conditions in care homes have been improved, to protect the vulnerable from untimely death? What if some of the defence research budget had been spent on research into the family of coronaviruses, which might have speeded up vaccine development, saving lives and protecting jobs? Or try asking the domestic abuse victims of the lockdowns what should come first: more arms spending, or safe shelters to provide refuge from a violent home?
A price worth paying?
In the end, how many French citizens, especially the relatives of those who died unnecessarily because of inadequate provision or care, feel that spending on weapons was a worthwhile sacrifice? We need to ask: against what and whom were the armaments supposed to be defending us? Yet hardly has the first wave of Covid-19 started to recede than the arms lobby is again agitating for increased expenditure, especially for the European Defence Fund in which France is a major player.
Covid-19 and economic recovery – why focus on arms production?
There has been so much propaganda about how the arms industry is essential for job creation that hardly anyone questions its validity. Yet few governments are willing to say just how many jobs the industry actually provides. Why is this? If the arms industry really were a major employer and contributor to a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) as is claimed, should governments not be delighted to share the news with the electorate? Apparently not. Data are shrouded in secrecy, usually on the grounds of ‘national security’. Around 300,000 are employed in the aeronautics industry and ancillary services, but this figure includes the dominant civil aviation sector. So how are we to believe, much less verify, the dubious claim that defence is a big employer?
Creating employment in other sectors
As countries gradually emerge from lockdown, the biggest economic challenge facing governments is how to deal with unemployment. In the absence of reliable data proving that the arms industry is a major employer, it’s hard to justify huge subsidies if the goal is to maximise job creation. Experts will tell you that economies dependent on a few big companies concentrated in a few sectors can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to fast economic recovery, largely because an economy based on smaller companies tends to be more flexible, adaptable and responsive – and to create more new jobs.
Are ongoing subsidies to arms production the best way to a healthy economy?
Generally speaking, perpetually subsidising any large industry leads to an inefficient distribution of resources. The influential arms lobby has been demanding huge government subsidies to ensure continuing employment. But why favour unwieldy arms companies which can’t adapt readily to a post-Covid-19 world? If maximising employment as fast as possible is the goal, there are other much more socially useful industries which could flourish with lower initial financial support from government. Although EU competition rules limit subsidies for most national industries, defence remains an expensive exception. In the longer run, an economy with a significant share of small and medium-sized companies would be more likely to survive economic chaos without the constant need for huge government subsidies. It’s ironic that those who trumpet the benefits of a free market economy are mute when challenged on welfare hand-outs to the ‘defence’ industry.
What is real security?
How many unnecessary coronavirus-type deaths will it take for us to understand that our real security CANNOT and MUST NOT depend solely on an arsenal of weapons? When will we acknowledge that the most devastating real threat in recent history left us all but helpless, at least initially?
Providing real security calls for a range of life-enhancing policies. No government, however powerful, can afford to neglect long-term its people’s real needs: social welfare, healthcare, economic stability, employment, climate justice. But we can’t achieve these goals without diverting funds from the bloated budgets earmarked for ‘defence’, which proved powerless against an unexpected tiny silent killer.
– Karen King, Stop Fuelling War
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