Recently JFK biographer Ira Stoll argued against the knee-jerk demonization of the defense industry. He described an event at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government at which an executive from defense contractor Raytheon spoke, sparking protests and chants against “warmongers, imperialists and Zionists” who foment unnecessary wars to make money and advance their oppressive ideologies.
This verbal trifecta of ancient leftist clichés and villains reminds us just how old, simplistic, and dangerous our foreign policy idealism is in a world of ambitious state predators.
This idealistic narrative reflects several bad ideas about how we should defend our security and interests, and deal with aggressors. For over a century now, what British historian Corelli Barnett called “moralizing internationalism,” and we call the “rules-based international order,” has assumed that rather than a tragic constant of interstate relations, war is an anomaly to be corrected.
Supposedly, our advances in understanding human nature and motivation can replace war with non-lethal policies for adjudicating conflict. Multinational treaties and covenants, transnational institutions, and international diplomacy can manage interstate conflict and avoid war’s horrors and destruction.
Only the wicked keep this peaceful settling of conflict from stopping war. One villain frequently blamed for wars after World War I is the arms manufacturers, what became known as the “merchants of death,” today one of our sturdiest and most tired clichés. The animus against armament businesses fed the antiwar sentiments of the interwar periods, and promoted pacifism, disarmament, and the reliance on non-lethal methods for settling conflict.
But as George Orwell pointed out in 1940, the horrors of the industrialized carnage of the Great War promoted the question-begging “meaningless slaughter” take on World War I. Even “to have any knowledge of or interest in military matters . . . was suspected in ‘enlightened circles.’” These attitudes contributed to the growth of pacifism, cutbacks in defense budgets, and a preference for multilateral covenants and institutions, all of which contributed to the disastrous policies of appeasement that culminated in Munich.
Yet despite that epochal failure, the antimilitarism, naïve non-violent approaches to resolving conflict, and the moral hazard created by the projection of weakness such polices create, have become the received wisdom of our foreign policy establishment. Just consider the Biden administration’s disastrous attempts to restart the Iran nuclear deal. Under cover of “diplomatic engagement,” we have not just made the mullahs’ path to nuclear weapons easier, but also financed the regime’s malign aggression.
Another dimension of this disdain for the military and defense industries is the way it has served left-wing, including communist, ideological interests. During the Cold War the Soviets supported and financed antiwar and anti-nuclear weapons movements in the free world, including attempts to limit or stop our development and deployment of new armaments.
An important example during the Reagan administration is described by Air and Space Forces magazine:
“The Soviet Union in the 1970s deployed hundreds of SS-4, SS-5, and SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles against targets in Western Europe. In 1979, NATO countered with a plan to base in Europe 572 of its own intermediate-range missiles. Inflamed anti-nuclear forces began years of protests. President Ronald Reagan, who inherited NATO’s plan, was determined to press on, but found a better way. He offered to cancel the US deployments if Moscow would withdraw all SS-20s—the “Zero Option.” The arms control clerisy considered the idea “unrealistic,” designed to score propaganda points. They were wrong. After the US began to deploy intermediate-range nuclear forces weapons in late 1983, the Soviets folded. The Zero Option became the core of the 1987 INF Treaty. In a few years, all such weapons were gone. Their elimination constituted a key step toward liquidation of the Cold War.”
As was its standard practice, the Soviet Union often financed and directed the protests, especially in Europe. This episode also illustrates the central weakness of treaties and institutions as methods for keeping the peace––aggressors can simply cheat or renege on their obligations, as the Soviet Union and Russia have done during and after the Cold War, and as Iran has been doing for 44 years.
This naïve belief in “parchment barriers,” moreover, rests on a fallacy identified by Thomas Hobbes in the 17the century:
“For the laws of nature, as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to, of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
The central error of the West’s foreign relations is the belief that the whole world and its complex diversity of peoples believe as we do: that humans are, contra Hobbes, by nature good and amenable to improvement, and so want to live as we live. Because we prize peace, prosperity, international cooperation, and honoring our written pledges, so too must the whole world. But thirty centuries of war and slaughter––the most destructive occurring in the West–– belie this optimism. Especially in wars sparked by irrational passions and foundational beliefs, all these virtues are ineffective, if not dangerous. For as Hobbes also said, “Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”
As Reagan demonstrated, the point, then, is not that diplomacy is useless. Rather, every covenant must have behind it the credible threat of mind-concentrating force to compel the signatories to honor their commitments, and to punish them when they don’t. This can’t be achieve with blustering rhetoric and empty threats, but with action. Reagan promised to install the missiles on the Soviet’s doorstep, and followed through when they balked. That action, not the threat, brought the Soviets to the negotiating table.
But decades earlier in the Twenties and Thirties, this lesson about “covenants without the sword” had been made obvious. Agreements like the Versailles Treaty, the Locarno agreements, the Kellogg-Briand pact, and treaties limiting arms were nearly all signed by the future Axis Powers Germany, Italy, and Japan, and all three powers serially violated them. Indeed, the Versailles Treaty’s prohibition of German arms production began to be violated by Germany before the ink on the treaty dried. The 1923 Treaty of Rapallo between Germany and Soviet Russia had a secret codicil that provided for cooperation on weapons research, development, and training.
Moreover, our idealism about non-lethal resolution of interstate conflicts has put a weapon in the hands of our ideological rivals and enemies. Along with the duplicity, fraud, agitation against the “merchants of death,” and protests over defense budgets and development of new or maintenance of old armaments, the communist hatred of free-market capitalism also finds traction in the West’s demonizing the arms industry.
As Stoll points out, free-market capitalism has obviously been critical for the weapons that have made us history’s greatest military power. Hence the left’s support for policies of disarmament or arms reductions is another front in the attack on capitalism. That partly explains the “woke” ESG––environmental, social, and governance––investment guidelines that include armaments along with fossil fuels and tobacco on the list of companies proscribed by firms like Black Rock and Vanguard.
All this is not to say that we should not be diligent in our oversight of the defense industry, or not be troubled by the sometimes-incestuous relationship between government agencies and officials, and weapons manufacturing and procurement firms. Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address in 1961, known for its phrase “military-industrial complex,” warned of this danger. This phrase has been hijacked by the left to serve its goals of weakening America’s defense. But the speech said more than that, and the phrase’s context is worth reading:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
The core sentiment goes beyond arms manufacturers, for it is based on the fundamental concern of the Constitution: the fear of concentrated power, and the collusion of factions that threaten the freedom and interests of the rest of the citizenry. In our age of a hypertrophied federal government of expansive and intrusive powers, there are more “complexes” than just the military-industrial one: the education-industrial complex, the federal agencies-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical-industrial complex, the entitlements-industrial complex––as Eisenhower said, “We must never let the weight” of these combinations “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
Finally, the difference between the “military-industrial complex” and all the others is that without our ability to defend ourselves, no other good we cherish is possible. Without life, our liberty and pursuit of happiness are impossible.
And make no mistake, we are living in a time when illiberal enemies like China, Iran, and Russia are seeking to supplant us as the world’s most consequential power. Yet we are squandering our national fisc on crackpot policies like “zero-net carbon,” redistributing more and more fiat money on new entitlements like student loan forgiveness, and doling out subsidies for “green energy” boondoggles, to name just a few. Meanwhile we’re spending only 3.5% of our GDP on defense.
By all means, make the defense industry transparent and accountable to we the people. But stop the fashionable “woke” demonization that threatens our national security and interests.