David Cameron, the travelling (weapons) salesman

By Babak Moussavi

A Eurofighter Typhoon: part-manufactured by BAE systems, and proudly owned by the Royal Saudi Airforce. Oh.

It is a truism to say that we live in a time of economic difficulties. The UK government’s austerity programme has not improved the lot of the ‘squeezed middle’, it has not restored growth to the economy, and it has not created jobs. It is not surprising then, that the economy is a chief concern of most people, just as it is for the government.

But what price can we expect to pay to improve the economy? Investment in infrastructure, manufacturing, and services are all needed for sure, as is the development of an innovative, dynamic economy. But this is not a proposition entirely removed from ethics. For David Cameron’s latest attempt to stimulate these things appears to be by urging foreign countries to invest in a very shameful business: the arms industry.

Mr Cameron is currently doing a tour of East Asia with a number of business leaders, with the express intent of winning foreign investment in British weapons. The British government appears to have been particularly hurt by the decision of the Indian government (now the single largest importer of arms in the world) to plump for French Rafal fighter planes, rather than the part-British Eurofighter Typhoon. This may have catalysed Mr Cameron into action, but it is not the first time he has played a role as the head of a trade delegation that includes British arms manufacturers. And his is hardly the first government to do so anyway: think of the notorious Al-Yamamah arms deal signed by Margaret Thatcher, a fraud investigation into which was controversially halted by Tony Blair on the grounds of public interest. Still, as the incumbent Prime Minister, Mr Cameron must have felt acute embarrassment when Saudi Arabian troops were transported to Bahrain in British trucks to crush the popular uprising there. It also emerged that British military personnel had been training Saudi special forces.

Despite the inherent dirtiness of this business, Mr Cameron still seems intensely relaxed about lobbying on behalf of British manufacturers in order to win weapons contracts. This is in keeping with his foreign policy aims. Mr Cameron appears to be more comfortable when dealing with domestic affairs, but when it comes to foreign policy, he seems to have primarily one objective in mind: trade. Indeed, in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in 2010, he told the audience that he aimed to place “our commercial interests at the heart of our foreign policy”, so that Britain could “earn its way in the world”.

"I give you a good price"

In itself, it does not seem to be such a bad idea that the Prime Minister is grappling with globalisation and appreciating the need for strong commercial ties with other countries. But the weapons industry is not just any old business. For weapons are either used in war or repression, and Britain should wish for neither. To be sure, selling weapons to a constitutionally pacifist democracy like Japan, is not the same as selling them to a Middle Eastern autocracy. But the news that Mr Cameron is visiting Burma with his arms gang, does not bode well. As well as possibly flouting EU sanctions (technically side-stepped by the fact that the businessmen are officially – and laughably – visiting as tourists), it would be highly unethical to sell weapons to a regime that, despite the hopeful breakthrough of the recent elections, remains repressive.

Mr Cameron’s ‘commercial foreign policy’ is at best confused, and at worst amoral. In Libya, he seemed to really believe in doing the ‘right’ thing. And yet, when ethics and economics come into conflict, he seems to turn a blind eye to the former, believing that his winning a big arms contract will ‘create jobs’, as though that is the true ideal worth striving for.

As the economist David Ricardo said, all countries have their comparative advantage. If Britain’s is in selling weapons, then it is not enough to say we live in a time of economic difficulties. For it seems we may be losing our ethics too.

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7 comments
  1. Apparently he doesn’t just bring arms with him, but earthquakes too…

    There is certainly something distasteful about the arms race. Even the legal one!

    It is a complex issue though.

    Logically, the conclusion of your argument should be that Britain should not be manufacturing arms for itself either. Otherwise, you are saying there is something morally wrong about other countries having weapons, but no problem with Britain having them. Since we don’t (and couldn’t) live in a perfect world where it was unnecessary for Britain to use force to defend itself, that is a difficult proposition to support.

    If there is then no problem with Britain having (at least some) military firepower, there must logically be no similar problem with other states possessing firepower for self-defence and perhaps humanitarian purposes. If there is no problem with that, there should then be no problem selling guns etc which are to be used for those purposes. For it appears illogical to say that each country must manufacture its own weaponry and so on.

    The real problem then comes when states intend to use weapons, whether purchased abroad or manufactured at home, for purposes of aggression or oppression. This is, clearly, unacceptable.

    Even in that final situation there is a small complication. If we don’t sell them the guns, China/Russia/France will. So someone will definitely sell them, and someone will definitely profit. Why should it not be us? After all, it will make no difference to the final result.

    That last paragraph is deliberately provocative, and I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it does highlight a moral conundrum. A means/ends question.

    The solution appears to be not to say, dismantle the arms industry, stop marketing arms to developed nations that will use them for (allegedly at least) legitimate purposes. Rather, greater conditionality should be attached to their sale, with a clear threat to cease future supplies, and refuse to supply future training/spare parts/etc should they be used illegitimately. And most obviously, to avoid selling them to states that show a clear desire to use them for illegitimate purposes.

  2. Thanks for the (long) comment, Sam. Two main things in response:

    First – and simply – I wasn’t arguing that Britain shouldn’t sell weapons to anyone (which is why I drew the distinction between selling to Japan, and selling to Saudi Arabia). Rather, my point was that Mr Cameron’s foreign policy is so dominated by the emphasis on commerce, that he has failed to see the inherent murkiness of the arms trade, or has overlooked the facts that selling these weapons often leads to repression or aggression. I don’t think Britain should sell arms to autocratic regimes for example, even if it is ‘good for business’. And anyway, arms aren’t any old business, so even if Mr Cameron wishes to have a commercial foreign policy, it should not come at the cost of ethical considerations.

    But second, since you seem to enjoy the logic of the argument, I would simply say you are correct if that were the argument: it is morally wrong to manufacture arms! But it’s a mistake to say that Britain is wrong in isolation for procuring weapons – but that all countries which do it are doing something morally wrong. For constructing weapons which have the singular purpose of killing people is not a morally neutral act. In today’s world – which you point out, is “not perfect” – it may be necessary, but that does not mean it is morally right. For part of the reason that the world is not perfect, is because it’s not safe, thanks to weapons floating about in the ‘wrong’ hands, which means more weapons are built to fight them, and so on… I’m sure you appreciate that this does not logically entail that Britain unilaterally halts all arms construction, but rather that it places greater emphasis on embedding global institutions that promote peace (and stops selling weapons to people who endanger that peace).

    As for the suggestion that someone will definitely sell weapons to repressive regimes, even if Britain doesn’t, so Britain should do so anyway – I find that argument to be morally reprehensible. How can anyone think it right that Britain might as well make a quick buck by selling its weapons to murderous regimes, because someone else might get in there first? That is precisely the sort of dichotomy between ethics and economics that I have tried to highlight. I certainly wouldn’t advocate sacrificing our ideals for such a shameless, morally bankrupt conception of self-interest.

  3. Charles said:

    I agree that commerce can come at the cost of ethical considerations.

    But what states to ban arms sales to, what states to allow arms sales to, and what states to actively prop up has been a very difficult question over the last decades. The failure to provide arms to the right states at the right time could be just as unethical as selling arms to the wrong states at the wrong times.

    The middle east situation is a case in point; countries with western values have found it difficult to know which to support.

    A ban on selling arms to repressive states seems too clear cut. Is there never a case to sell arms to a repressive state? As a buffer against another state, or to avert revolution where there is the likelihood of something worse?

    • You’re right – like most things, it’s not clear-cut. But the problem seems to be that Mr Cameron seems to find it less of a problem than he perhaps should, and that weapons should not be treated as just another product that Britain manufactures and sells.

      At the very least, a commitment to values should be included when calculating what is in a country’s ‘interest’, otherwise we will quickly return to the amoral (and consequently immoral) geopolitical calculations of the Cold War era, when the ‘free world’ had little problem supporting dictators, simply because they were ‘my enemy’s enemy’.

  4. Rudge said:

    Thank god our forces use arms for noble purposes!

    As for not selling arms to people who go around using them to slap people unjustly, I can see the moral argument behind that, but it must be darn right fascinating to do as Charles says, and contemplate the complex or perhaps not so complex consequences of whatever action those arms are used for.

    “If I sell M2 Bradleys and lightweight M777 Howitzers to Nations A and B, they will successfully oppress, resist or beat up Army C, Rebellion D and Nation E, which is good as Nation A is like a brother, and B a necessary partner for international terrorism monitoring and trade routes, and also good as Army C wants to recruit little boys (no, it’s not a Catholic army), Rebellion D is a communist dictator ****** and will undermine our safety and security in the region, and Nation E needs a good beating for that group stage bashing they gave us in the footie. Also, we need to beat Nation F to the sale as if Nation F gets the sale, their arms industry will grow and our economy will suffer, their far more unethical arms industry will prosper against our mildly unethical but slightly better own version, and we can also impose more instructions or suggestions on international politics if we do the selling.”

    I imagine far more complex and interesting discussions are had, but it must be a difficult game working out whether selling arms works out well or badly for us / overall global goodness, even if the immediate action may be a little bit nasty. If they start introducing these features into Command and Conquer, it’ll be more complicated than the latest Championship / Football Manager!

    • I can just imagine Henry Kissinger grappling with such a dilemma…

      I’m waiting for that particular computer game.

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