America’s Military Power A Thankless But Most Crucial Role – OpEd


India’s leading television news channel WION recently reported on America’s military industrial complex being the biggest gainer from the war in Ukraine. It  pointed out that the predominant player in the global arms spectrum remains the US, accounting for close to 40% of the world’s total global exports dominated by its five main arms manufacturers. The main argument is that whenever there is a major conflict or growing tension, the military complex will be the direct beneficiary, being blamed for obsessing over helping to arm Ukraine in fending off Moscow’s aggression.

Pinning the root cause on the greed and hidden pursuit of the military complex as the ultimate factor in the never-ending global wars and conflicts misses the whole architecture of understanding conflicts and international politics. By elevating the criticality and sphere of influence of the military ventures and the supposed gains to both the state and the private entities, it risks bypassing the basic dichotomy of power and purpose in global politics and in assessing state’s intention and orientation.

In highlighting that all the money in funding the war in Ukraine is going to the pockets of defense contractors, with seeming unapologetic stands, the narration has been shifted quite entirely from the basic facts and realities of conflict progression, especially the Ukraine war. The perception and narrative have been shifted to one that seeks to place the West, the US and the perceived warmongering defense complex as the instigators who are happy to prolong and even create regional and global tensions that are deemed vital to sustain their operations and profits. The domain of wars and conflicts is not as easily narrated and perceived as a fixed tenet of scientific inevitability. 

The causes, tools and underlying aspects of power executions and conflicts are varying, and often when deciphering what are the long term sustaining factors that prolong wars, the West and its overarching military interests are blamed as the prevailing cause. Cases of Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iraq and the unsolved Middle East and Africa’s security climate have been primed as the hidden realities and agenda of an overwhelming power and influence of a deep state that is dictated, run and funded by this powerful military industrial complex. This pretext and narration have been casted at the forefront as an easy pinpointing avenue and in painting a new reality and justification in warping beliefs and playing the victim card for conflicts and aggressions inflicted. In the case of Ukraine, the truth and reality remain a clear cut picture, but have been successfully framed in laying the cause and the blame to the West and the US in goading Moscow to act out of sheer defensive necessity as a result of the decades long provocation. 

The system in place in America and the West, especially the open, transparent and effective check and balance platform and the sense of accountability create a first preventive barrier of further deterioration in unchecked and unhindered aggressions and conflict instigation, including the pervasion of arms and deadly weapons of mass destructions. This spectrum of self-check and accountability to the state, the public and the office bearers reflects the willingness and adherence by rules and norms, to be held accountable and to realign to state and global expectations. The arms sales and exports are also driven by both written and unwritten understanding and needs of the buying states involved, where these weapons and defense systems are approved after a long process of debates and deliberations at various levels, including the congressional arms sales review process. Factors involved that will be scrutinized include the impact and long term implications on the sales, the conditions and criteria set on the purpose and potential risks and harm to identified parties, and the factors of human rights and record of law obeying processes.

The arms sales are often and predominantly approved for the ultimate overarching purpose of defending freedom, democracy and serving as the deterrence to challenging powers in undermining this pillar of faith. Arms transfer to Taiwan and Ukraine remain the pinnacle of this domain, where America remains the only power that is both capable on merit and willing in spirit and principle to deter aggressions and changes to the rules-based order. Serving as the deterrence to further violations and risks of conflicts and in saving lives from brutal regimes, it serves a higher purpose and comes with a rigid process and oversight parameters in place to reduce and to prevent abuses. For Beijing and Moscow, their arms exports and penetration have been extensive, especially to regions and states that are left with relatively no better options.

 Both Russia and China’s comparative advantage has been that they are able to offer advanced military technology at relatively low prices. Primary regions include South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.Of equal importance is their willingness to sell the arms including tanks and fighter jets to states that have charred records and stature of governments, including those that are under sanctions by the West for their violations of human rights. These states are often at odds with the US and continue to pursue these arms mainly for their regime interests and survival, with no qualms to get them from Moscow and Beijing who in turn are readily offering. As pointed out by Professor Vuying from the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, China is seeking clients everywhere in the world and it has made some big progress in terms of the technology of its weapons, with the ability to upgrade  and at the same time to offer at a lower price which makes the Chinese weapons attractive to many countries. 

The eventual end destination of these arms and weapons is not guaranteed, which creates further vulnerabilities and implications that will fuel greater risks and impact on the communities and worsening the record of human rights and freedom.In upholding rules and order and preventing aggression and threats to peace and freedom, a credible, effective and respected deterrence is the first frontier, together with diplomacy. Lacking that in any form will invite anarchy and threats to the rules-based order. For America, its biggest deterrence to its own potential mistake of harming the present peace and stability is its own self correction, self-realisation and self determination to seek the best path forward and to amend ways and self-correct through its established and ingrained democratic accountability. The second deterrence level will be by external threat of retaliation and second strike, led by the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of nuclear annihilation, which remains a credible deterrence to all powers. 

However, in the best settings, a state’s own self deterrence based on its principles and values are the utmost denominator and assurance in preventing conflicts and wars. Even if we were to cast aside the first self-correction and deterrence platform, do we support the rivalling power by enhancing its military goals and arms escalation just to ensure its deterrence capacity and to act as a check and balance to the other power, knowing that the other power is both restrained and abiding by its own system of self-check, democracy and rules adherence? For China and Russia, the most impactful deterrence and barrier to their tendencies and potential intention for conflicts and greater bellicose actions will be the strength and capable deterrence power of the US, which sums up the equation of why the US serves an undeniably crucial role for world peace and stability. It brings back the age-old debate on who is the more “evil” party, one who confronts and stands up to brutal dictators or states that harm their own people and threaten freedom and lives, or one who does nothing on the surface but continued to defend the system and in upholding the entrenched authoritarian and oppressive drive?

When push comes to shove, a global superpower has to stand up for a global cause that transcends its own national cause, out of sheer obligations and profound moral conviction and sense of duties with the power it possesses. It comes with the readiness to forgo certain segments of self benefit for the bigger picture of greater returns to humanity and civilizations. A mighty and thankless task, but a duty that reverberates across creed, nationalities and religions. Lacking this power credibility and capacity to deter and enforce, Moscow might have been venturing further into Europe, Beijing might have long created powerful bastions all across the world and retaken Taiwan by force, and Pyongyang might do the same against Seoul, all of which leading to global anarchy and prolonged major wars with unimaginable toll on human sufferings.  

It might seem to be an old cliché but the truth remains unbendable and that a proven system of peace preservation and a rules based architecture of international relations that has maintained the global order and peace for almost a century must continue to be protected. For the world has been too complacent or ignorant of the peace dividend we have enjoyed for decades, at our own future expense.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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