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‘A Good Investment’: The Ukraine War and the U.S. Arms Racket

It all tallies. War, investments, and returns. The dividends, solid, though the effort expended – at least by others – awful and bloody. While a certain narrative in U.S. politics continues in the vein of traditional cant and hustling ceremony regarding the Ukraine war – “noble freedom fighters, we salute you!” twinned with “Russian aggressors will be defeated” – there are the inadvertently honest ones that let things slip. A subsidised war pays, especially when it is fought by others.

The latter narrative has been something of a retort, an attempt to deter a growing wobbling sentiment in the U.S. about continuing support for Ukraine. In a Brookings study published in April, evidence of wearying was detected. “A plurality of Americans, 46%, said the United States should stay the course in supporting Ukraine for only one to two years, compared with 38% who said the United States should stay the course for as long as it takes.”

In early August, a CNN survey found that 51% of respondents believed that Washington had done enough to halt Russian military aggression in Ukraine, with 45% approving of additional funding to the war effort. A breakdown of the figures on ideological grounds revealed that additional funding is supported by 69% of liberals, 44% of moderates, and 31% of conservatives. In Congress, opposition to greater, ongoing spending is growing among the Republicans, reflecting increasing concern among GOP voters that too much is being done to prop up Kyiv.

Such a mood has been anticipated by number-crunching types keen to reduce human life to an adjustable unit on a spreadsheet. The Centre for European Policy Analysis, for example, suggested that a “cost-benefit analysis” would be useful regarding U.S. support for Ukraine. “It’s producing wins at almost every level,” came the confident assessment. In spectacularly vulgar language, the centre notes that, “from numerous perspectives, when viewed from a bang-per-buck perspective, U.S. and Western support for Ukraine is an incredibly cost-effective investment.”

War-intoxicated Democrats would do well to remind their Republican colleagues about such wins, notably to those great patriots known as the U.S. arms industry. Aid packages to Ukraine, while dressed up as noble, democratic efforts to ameliorate a suffering country’s position vis-à-vis Russia, are much more than that.

In May 2022, for instance, President Joe Biden signed a bill providing Kyiv $40.1 billion in emergency funding, split between $24.6 for military programs, and $15.5 billion for non-military objects. Even then, it was clear that one group would prove the greatest beneficiary. Stephen Semler of the Security Policy Reform Institute was unequivocal: U.S. military contractors.

Of the package, rich rewards amounting to $17.3 billion would flow to such contractors, comprising goods, be they in terms of weapons and equipment, or services in the form of training, logistics, and intelligence. “It allows the Biden administration,” writes Semler, “to continue escalating the United States’ military involvement in the war as the administration appears increasingly disinterested in bringing it to an end through diplomacy.”

Broadly speaking, the U.S. military-industrial complex continues to gorge and merely getting larger. Whatever the outcome of this war – talk of absolute victory or defeat being the stuff of dangerous fantasy – it remains the true beneficiary, the sole victor fed by new markets and opportunities. Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, now vice president of the Toledo Center for Peace, had to concede that the U.S. arms industry was the “one clear winner” in this bloody tangle.

The addition of new member states to NATO, in this case, Finland and Sweden, will, Ben Ami suggests, “open up a big new market for U.S. defence contractors, because the alliance’s interoperability rule would bind them to American-made defence systems.” The evidence is already there, with Finland’s order of 64 new F-35 strike fighters developed by Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems. The Ukraine war has been nothing short of lucrative in that regard.

Such expansion also comes with another benefit. The interoperability requirement in the NATO scheme acts as a bar to any alternatives. “The market for their goods is expanding,” writes Jon Markman for Forbes, “and they will face no competition for the foreseeable future.”

It should come as little surprise that the U.S. defence contractors have been banging the drum for NATO enlargement from the late 1990s on. While a good number of those in the U.S. diplomatic stable feared the consequences of an aggressive membership drive, those in the business of making and selling arms would have none of it. The end of the Cold War necessitated a search for new horizons in selling instruments of death. And with each new NATO member – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic – the contracts came. Washington and the defence contractors, twinned with purpose, pursued the agenda with gusto.

In 1997, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin was awake to that fact in hearings of the Senate Appropriations Committee on the cost of NATO enlargement. He was particularly concerned by a fatuous remark by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright comparing NATO’s expansion with the economic Marshall Plan implemented in the aftermath of the Second World War. “My fear is that NATO expansion will not be a Marshall plan to bring stability and democracy to the newly freed European nations but, rather, a Marshall plan for defense contractors who are chomping [sic] at the bit to sell weapons and make profits.”

The moral here from the U.S. military-industrial complex is: stay the course. The returns are worth it. And in such a calculus, concepts such as freedom and democracy can be commodified and budgeted. As for Ukrainian suffering? Well, let it continue.