Upon the death of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt just months before the close of the Second World War, America was initially led by President Harry S. Truman. Arguably, the true post-war presidency was that of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two terms, which set the stage for America and the world going forward. In his 1961 Farewell Address, Eisenhower issued a sharp warning to the US and the world, cautioning that “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Looking back at the intervening six decades, we have a better understanding of what he meant.
The post-war period was marked by a realization that we needed to defuse anger and aggression by finding new ways to cool heads and help mend fences. This focus on peace and security was the foundation of the UN system and other institutions and organizations seeking to prevent the devastating wars and destruction the world had experienced.
We have to acknowledge today that we sadly did not live up to those best intentions, as wars continue to rage across our planet. Except for a rare drop in military expenditure at the close of the Cold War, global military spending has continued to steadily rise since the 1940s, passing $2 trillion for the first time last year.
At that very juncture, in September of 1990, I had the honor of accompanying then Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal on a historic trip to the Soviet Union, seeking to build consensus for a UN resolution giving Iraq an ultimatum to remove its troops from Kuwait, otherwise authorizing UN member states to use “all necessary means” to do so.
Saudi Arabia successfully lobbied China and the Soviet Union in order that they not deploy their Security Council veto power. The historic resolution passed in the Security Council, ultimately leading to 42 member states joining a UN-backed coalition to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait in January 1991.
As I strolled across Red Square on that visit, I ran, by chance, into an official from the Soviet Foreign Ministry who had been the head of the Soviet Information Office in Washington, just at the time I had been head of the Saudi Information Office in the city. Although I must admit that I had forgotten his name, we decided to go for a coffee together at a nearby hotel, exchanging stories and anecdotes.
Our Saudi delegation had been staying at the Lenin Guest House, and I told my friend that we had literally spent hours trying to put a telephone call through to home. I asked him how the Soviet Union could be a superpower when it did not even have functioning telephone lines. He told me: “Hassan, we may not have sophisticated phone lines, but go and ask the Americans whether we are capable of aiming a nuclear weapon at their capital.” Clearly, they had chosen to focus their resources on military expenditure.
The military industry continues to this day to be one of the most lucrative sectors of the entire economy. Over time, countries have spent ever more on defense (and offense) capabilities, and what is more, the links between governments and arms manufacturers are frequently rather opaque.
US spending makes up almost half of the $2 trillion spent globally on defense in 2022, and accounts for 12 percent of all federal spending and almost half of the discretionary spending. Corporations like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman or BAE Systems each generate dozens of billions of dollars in defense revenue. In Israel, a country of fewer than 10 million people, three major corporations are among the world’s 50 top arms manufacturers.
The arms industry is very secretive, continuing to elude forms of supervision and transparency that are common for other sectors, even when sensitive. The profits are tremendous, and growth is often exponential. The connections between arms manufacturers, governments and militaries are very opaque, giving the impression that the only objective is to funnel ever more money into those companies, as wars proliferate and elongate throughout the world. The provision of arms to militias, the sale of weapons to both sides in stalemates like in many African wars, and government assistance to provide arms as aid to countries around the world are pleasing realities for arms manufacturers.
Military aid to Ukraine will soon be closing in on $100 billion in a war where the frontline has been static for the best part of a year. Israel and its healthy military industry are just as trigger-happy as we have known America to be.
Last week, 57 Arab and Muslim-majority countries called for an end to the war in Gaza, allowing humanitarian aid to enter, and halting all arms exports to Israel at a joint summit of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Riyadh. Islam, just like Christianity and Judaism, is a religion based on principles of peace and tolerance.
With more than 54 percent of the global population subscribing to one of these three great monotheisms originating in the Middle East, this central message of God must be heard. The Riyadh summit chose to amplify the message, convinced that empathy and peaceful coexistence remain the foundation of human interaction. Jewish people were an integral and respected part of the Middle East for centuries; it was only the creation of Israel, atoning for Western guilt, that drove a wedge into our region. We Arabs cannot be called antisemites, for we lived in peace with Jews for centuries while the rest of the world persecuted them.
The Arab world today is coming out of its shell, competing with the power of the military-industrial complex by emphasizing the power of tolerance, compassion and making peace. Arab countries have been ready partners in peace for Israel and the world, offering Israel peace and full diplomatic relations, notably through the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, sadly left unanswered. Arab leaders speak the language of peace and coexistence, honoring the religious messages delivered to us through our Middle Eastern prophets of God. It is time for the other side to listen.
- Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He led the Saudi Information Office in Washington from 1972 to 1981 and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.