Globalisation, guns and butter

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Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

In a topsy-turvy world, beset as it is with such pestilences as globalisation, what hope is there for the wretched man in the street? Particularly if the said man in the street comes from a country that is euphemistically called ‘developing’. When the newly elected President of the sole superpower was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace some years ago, the whole developing world sat up to take notice. But the man in the street knew better. In a world awash with the concept of ‘pre-emption’ as the best defence, the wretched individual is hard put to find the knight in shining armour who could boast of having the leading hand in imposing – or at least yearning for – world peace. The United Nations and its erstwhile Secretary General – both recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize – did precious little to live up to the ideals of their exalted status.
Our own region – and in particular the Land of the Pure – is caught up in an (open-ended) war-on-terror crazed world, in which the age old military doctrines appear to need another make-over. The classical conundrums that have been exercising the lofty minds of military strategists – not to forget economists – over the ages would call for a fresh going over. For one, how about taking a closer look at the oft-posed fundamental choice: guns or butter? This happens to be one of the classical choices as formulated by strategists.
The first thing that deserves the reader’s attention in this equation is that the choice purported to be made is between ‘guns and butter’; never between ‘guns and bread’, as some misguided people have advocated over the years. This clearly signifies that necessities of life take first precedence and are not negotiable. A person, in other words, needs to be alive in order to be able to make a choice! So, bread comes first. Man can forego butter; never the bread! This is a fundamental fact of life.
This having been got out of the way, let us have a closer look at what ‘butter’ signifies. Butter strictly relates to the trimmings, those that follow the ‘necessities’. Going without butter means that a nation or state is willing to forego the trimmings. In other words, the people are agreeable to lead a Spartan existence, at least in the short run, in order to divert the state’s scarce resources to other – more important – ends.
‘Guns’ signify the state’s means of defence. When resources are scarce – as is the case with most developing economies – the question of how much to divert for defence assumes added importance. Needless to state, defence needs vary from state to state. Some states are more vulnerable than others. Geopolitics, therefore, must represent the decisive factor in determination of the minimum defence needs.
The aforesaid notwithstanding, unraveling the relative equation between guns and butter for a particular state is no simple exercise. This is because – human nature being what it is – more than one extraneous and subjective factors – both internal and external – come into play. What criteria, then, are to be adopted to determine a state’s defence needs? More important; who is to be the arbiter?
The countries with volatile borders are the hardest hit. For them, defence requirements assume added and, it may be said, bloated importance. Who is to determine when to draw the line and where? Also, how are the objective criteria to be sifted from subjective considerations? These are some of the perennial questions that present themselves begging for answers.
Objective determination of the defence needs of a state is the moot exercise. How much to spend on defence is to be determined through an equation in which several variables figure. Co-relating these divers variables is the name of the game. Looking at it in another way, a state’s defence can be visualised as the construction of a boundary wall around one’s abode. How high should the wall be to make it impregnable? It would need to be tall enough to keep the invaders out and yet low enough to let in fresh air so that people inside do not suffocate. Several countries in the developing world are wallowing in the mire of over-reaching in their mad quest for guns. They have made their security wall so high that they are in grave danger of suffocating within.
The confusion has been worse confounded by the international money lenders, both ‘aid’ donor countries and international agencies. They are the ones who are guilty of distorting the classical guns versus butter equation by lending money left and right. Such loans – most of them tied – enable poor states to go for guns in a big way, without being bound by the economic parameters.
It is an irony of nature that, the more armaments a country acquires, the more insecure it feels. All it gives rise to is a vicious circle of sorts getting out of which is well nigh impossible. The only gainers in this sorry state of affairs are the armaments exporting states whose economies flourish. Matters are made worse by the speed with which armaments become obsolete.
It is the duty of the international community to do something to set matters right. The United Nations, the charter of which is supposed to be the voice of the ‘Peoples of the United Nations’, cannot absolve itself of the blame. International disputes (and every dispute between any two member-states is, by definition, an international dispute) that fester around the globe need to be tackled purposefully. The secret is to remove the cause for the conflict rather than paper-over the cracks, as hitherto. The UN is the logical arbiter in such disputes. Would it be too much to expect it to assume its responsibilities in real earnest?
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.