Guns or butter, that is the question!

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Friendly Fire
Khalid Saleem
IN the topsy-turvy world of today, beset as it is with such pestilences as globalisation and preemptive doctrines, 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 former President of the sole superpower was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace years back, the whole 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 defense, the wretched individual was hard put to discern the knight-in-shining- armour who could legitimately boast of having a leading hand in ensuring – or at least yearning for – world peace. The United Nations and its erstwhile Secretary General – both recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize – had done precious little to live up to the ideals of this (exalted?) status.
Our own region – and in particular this blessed land – is caught up in an (open-ended) war-on-terror, in a 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 all call for a fresh going over. For one, how about taking a closer look at the oft-posed fundamental choice: guns or butter? This, after all, happens to be one of the classical choices formulated by ‘strategists’. The first thing that deserves the reader’s attention in this equation is that the choice to make is between ‘guns and butter’; never between ‘guns and bread’, as some misguided people may have put it 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 takes first precedence! Man can forego butter; never the bread! This is a fundamental fact of life.
This having got out of the way, now for a closer look at what ‘Butter’ connotes! 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 would vary from state to state; some being more vulnerable than others. Geopolitics, therefore, must represent the decisive factor in determination of the minimum defence needs of the state.
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 in effort to determine a State’s defense needs? Countries with volatile borders are the hardest hit. For them, defense requirements assume added and, it may be said, bloated importance. Who is to determine when to draw line and where? Also, how are the objective criteria to be sifted out from subjective considerations? These are some of the perennial questions that present themselves begging for answers.
Objective determination of the defense needs of the State is the name of the game. How much to spend on defense is to be determined through an equation in which several variables figure. Looking at it in another way, a State’s defense effort 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 intruders 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, though, that the more armaments a country gets its hand on the more insecure it feels. It gives rise to 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 manufacturers and 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 lies in removing the cause for the conflict rather than papering-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 right earnest?
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.
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