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Issue #1520      28 September 2011

Act now to stop war

“If you want peace, prepare for war”.

“Prepare for war, and that is just what you will get – so prepare for peace instead”.

It’s an argument that has waged back and forth, in various forms, for as long as there have been armies, perhaps even weapons. Let us call them the security discourse and the peace discourse: now, soon after International Peace Day, is a good time to compare them.


The first statement is attributed to the Roman author, Vegetius; the second informs a little-known part of the US Constitution, limiting military appropriations by Congress to a span of two years. Its lead author, James Madison, believed that “a standing military force with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty”.

Dwight D Eisenhower, one of Madison’s successors in the White House, who stepped out of uniform to run for office, warned of a “military-industrial complex”; a combination of “an immense military establishment” and a burgeoning defence industry that was “unique in the American experience”. What is unprecedented today is the extent to which they have merged: the second biggest contingent of forces in the invasion of Iraq, after the US military itself, were private contractors.

As troop levels are drawn down in both Iraq and Afghanistan, will this colossal collocation of interests now meekly accept a reduced role in world affairs, with the reduced budgets that would imply? That has happened before – in the years following America’s defeat in Vietnam, Washington’s interests were pursued instead through proxy armies fighting low-intensity warfare, in Nicaragua, Angola and elsewhere.

But the decades since then have seen an exponential expansion in the pace and scale of capital movement around the world. For combat to be immersed in the logic of global markets is to drive it to deliver ever-higher returns. Missiles need to be fired to be replaced, and wars need to be fought to advertise the capabilities of the latest whizz-bang weapons systems. Only then can profits rise to meet market expectations.

This is why we should be especially wary of developments underway on our own doorstep. To begin to join the dots is to perceive mounting cause for concern. Take, for instance, Australia’s bloated “defence” budget, with its star attraction: the purchase, now delayed, of as many as a hundred F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, at a cost of over $16 billion. Announcing the decision in the Senate, then Defence Minister John Faulkner said its purpose was to enable Australia to “join in future coalition operations”.

Cross-reference that with the Defence White Paper of 2009, with its talk of the “threat” of Southeast Asia being used as “a conduit for the projection of military power against us by others”. Then juxtapose it with the annual AusMin talks, just concluded in San Francisco, which reportedly set the seal on arrangements for US military deployment here to be radically stepped up. Expect an official announcement when President Obama makes his twice-delayed visit later this year.

That will make Australia one more significant node in a major escalation of American bases in the Asia-Pacific region. The strategic naval and Marines base on the island of Guam is being upgraded, at an estimated cost of US$8 billion. And the South Korean government has now, at last, apparently subdued a determined peace camp to press ahead with the construction of a naval base on the island of Jeju.

Designation by UNESCO as a world natural heritage site has not prevented the plans, which will destroy a substantial stretch of Jeju’s coastline. Neither has the opposition of local villagers, who – together with fellow protestors from far and wide – have tried tactics ranging from hunger strikes, and chaining themselves to bits of construction kit, to lawsuits demanding a proper environmental impact study.

There are two sides to this story, of course, and the US is not the only military power increasing its deployment in our quadrant of the globe. If the “war economy” needs an enemy, then China could be next off the block, following the vanquishing of Moscow, Saddam and Osama as successive bogy-men of choice.

Hawks on one side encourage hawks on the other. The security discourse waxes in Beijing as the peace discourse wanes in Washington and allied capitals. There are plenty of potential flashpoints around the Asia-Pacific, and plenty of possible pretexts for those “coalition operations”.

We are about to open our home to an army in search of a war, and seemingly making advance preparations to fight one. Because the front benches of Labor and the Coalition basically agree, there has been relatively little public scrutiny or debate over fundamental questions about our strategic posture and the identity Australia projects in the wider world. It’s time to begin one.

*Jake Lynch is Director Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies University of Sydney  

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