5 years ago


Economic growth: Flexing muscles

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If the essential message of the last Scopus piece ('Economic consequences of the global war on terrorism,' May 03, 2019) was understood, the thrust of this particular piece should be predictable. That message was simply that plunging into militarisation becomes the result of pique from economic growth more than fear or threat. A weapons-acquisition spiral somehow enters the picture, literally gobbling up any perceived economic benefits of war and neutralising the gains of economic growth. Winning the Cold War, for instance, drove the United States into imagining enemies, then creating them (in this case, jihadi Islamists), eventually wasting all the trade-surplus benefits the end of the Cold War brought in the 1990s to quell that particular threat. Should history not be as blind as we, we can at least try to amend our lapses and excesses by intuitively preventing the trigger-happy mistake being rerun elsewhere. Hundreds of millions of people may benefit from the fruits of their genuine welfare input and innovation, rather than as a cog of an uncontrollable military machine.

Climbing military expenditures of ascending economic powerhouses today ring this alarm bell. This is a recent observation of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): we spent more money on the military in 2018 than we have ever spent since the Cold War ended, that is, since 1988, a whopping $1.8 trillion (Niall McCarthy, World Economic Forum, Newsletter, May 02, 2019). As the world's largest military spender, for sure the superpower United States fed this spiral, but it was the expenditure growth of lesser entrants that stole the show. Whereas US spending climbed for the first time since Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Barack Obama's second term began, three other countries spent a greater share of their gross domestic product (GDP) on weapons than the United States. China might automatically enter many a minds, but it is not one of them, in fact, it barely makes the top-10 spender's-list. Saudi Arabia's 8.8 per cent, Israel's 4.3 per cent, and Russia's 3.9 per cent lead that list, while tiptoeing the 3.2 per cent US figure were Turkey's 2.5 per cent, India's 2.4 per cent, France's 2.3 per cent, Australia's 1.9 per cent, which equals China's, followed by Canada's 1.3 per cent and Germany's 1.2 per cent

That listing is loaded with more startlingly new interpretations than can be satisfactorily explained in one newspaper article, or even a few. For example, two of the top-5 just happen to be Muslim countries, not only that, but self-declared reform-driven Muslim countries. Yet, Saudi Arabia's Yemeni adventures and Turkey's military mobilisation against Syrian refugee influxes (and with them, jihadi adventurism) are not sufficient to explain their spotlight presence. As a footnote, we begin to understand, alas again and again, how "reform" becomes but a façade for quite contrary instincts and interests. Most important, though, just as these two countries had drawn swords against each other a century ago (when the House of Saud, supported by the west, pushed the Ottoman Empire back), so too today we see them at the brink against each other. Of course, Iran completes the triangulated tussle in a volatile region.

Fuelling that outcome is Israel's presence on that list. As we have noted under Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel will do anything to undermine Iran: its clandestine dealings with Saudi Arabia are now almost public knowledge, and how Turkey has begun slipping away from the cordial Israeli relationship of before only follows its steady recalibration of Iranian relations, through, in fact, Vladimir Putin's unilateral Syrian engagements. Once during the Cold War, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey belonged to the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO, also called the Baghdad Pact), as a front-line defence against Soviet "communism"; yet today each is closer to Moscow than Washington, less for strategic (global) reasons than tactical (local or regional).

Of course, the highlight of that top-10 list is the presence of the two dominant 21st century economic drivers (indeed, from the 1990s), China and India. Whereas India cannot be considered a world power without establishing its economic credentials more solidly and over a longer time-span (so as to heave the massive size of its impoverished people out of the picture), China can now afford to think about building its military having successfully planted the pillars of its global economic might. If that reading is correct, we can expect China to climb that ladder in the coming years, in turn prompting India to keep scrambling behind. Just as the United States drove the Soviet Union into bankruptcy during the Cold War when both countries faced each other eyeball-to-nuclear-eyeball, so too may the China-India tussle end the same way. Minus the eyeball-to-eyeball component of their rivalry, China and India, in spite of their current rapprochement, at the Xiamen BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) Summit in September 2017, just after the summer 2017 Doklam stand-off, near Bhutan, cannot claim world leadership simultaneously. China and India seem set for a tit-for-tat arms race. For would-be doctoral students searching for a dissertation topic, how the two countries tango with each other economically against that security tussle may shed useful insights as to mid-21th century power-play: will military and economic dynamics within each country be correlated or not?

In the uneven playing field they have both entered, India's relative advantage lies with the other countries on that top-10 military expenditures list: whereas Russia could play both China and India off against each other, given the unparallel capacity of Putin to exploit such rivalry, France, Australia, and the United Kingdom (in rank order in that top-10 list), have already gone out of their way to augment India's position. Controlling numerous Pacific Ocean islands, France can boast over 3.0 million square kilometres of jurisdiction there (based on the 200km economic exploitation zone privilege), prompting it to conclude defence agreements with Australia and India recently, a gesture likely to grow in size over time and with more partners steadily. Australia enjoys a Quad relationship with Japan, India, and the United States (in order of chronological importance), while marooned post-Brexit Britain would need any friend anywhere outside of European, with no better a place to start than where lay its "crown jewel" during its empire heydays.

Polarised interpretations like that can and will be tempered, but may not be erased. Both Australia and India remain top trading partners of China, while France and Great Britain would want nothing less than regaining the vitality their economy once commanded, which a positive relationship with China would permit. Yet, in all of these discussions, the key feature is not how the world's largest military spender (which itself spends more than all of these countries combined), is not at the driving wheel, but gets mentioned only within the context of the story of other aspiring powers.

Note how the world's leading peacekeeping country once, Canada, has entered that list, as too the country that began World War II, Germany. Yet, Germany still refuses to divert 2.0 per cent of its GDP to the military, as is a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) obligation, while Canada today seems to want to return to its halcyon 1950s-1960s years as a peacekeeping leader.

If the world is shifting in terms of its power claimants, it is merely echoing corresponding shifts on the economic front: wherever money has accumulated, there, by and large, we find the war instincts/interests being stoked. Perhaps this may be the missing link in peace negotiations and welfare construction: how to tackle instincts individually rather than issues collectively over a negotiating table.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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