A Road Not Taken: The Dream of the Peace Dividend

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket signifies in the final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, from those who are cold and are not clothed.”—President Dwight D Eisenhower

“It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”Bumper sticker in the 1960s

The Peace Dividend

The idea of a peace dividend surfaced in 1969, when the Johnson administration asked what the federal government should do with its savings when the war in Vietnam finally ended. The thought was that the peace dividend could provide money for roads, clean air, education, housing and foreign economic aid. But it did not happen because the Vietnam War continued and drained our resources, while critical areas of our infrastructure, manufacturing sector and educational system began a decades-long decline.

With the end of the Cold War, there was once again talk of a peace dividend. US President George H.W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher brought it up when they talked of the economic benefit of a decrease in defense spending. Taking office in 1993, President Bill Clinton imagined moving resources from Cold War spending to civilian products and services.

More recently, President Obama said that hundreds of billions of dollars spent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan could now be used to rebuild US infrastructure and create new jobs. And now the anticipated reduction of tension with the state of Iran allowed some to argue for peace dividends due to that agreement. But these hopeful wishes did not happen and are not happening. Instead, we have a larger military budget now than we had while we were involved in the Cold War. With the current increasing fear, terrorism, Middle East unrest, drone strikes, an active public relations industry promoting “national security” and most of our presidential candidates vying for being tougher and more hawkish, it looks like talk about a peace dividend is off the table.

Imagine a Peace Dividend — Boy, Do We Need One!

For a moment, let’s imagine what our society could look like if we had that peace dividend. Instead of a failing infrastructure, decaying cities, declining community cohesion, increased militarization of police, declining educational and health care, increasing childhood poverty, a growing population of homeless people, the continuing oppression of people of color (and other marginalized groups) and runaway inequality, we could have an egalitarian society, fulfilling jobs, the finest educational system, health care for all, time off to care for our children, long vacations, clean and wonderful cities and towns, a beautiful countryside, excellent public transportation, security for seniors, conversion to ecologically friendly industries, community work on climate change and a model for the world to emulate of a friendly, peace loving, open and healthy society. But we don’t.

Even if we got a peace dividend, it would not have trickled down to those in need envisioned in the imagined scenario above, due to the policies of our neoliberal capitalism, our rapidly expanding military budget and the self-serving power of the corporate elite. The United States is the richest country in the world, yet it ranks beneath most industrial countries in education, health, transportation, infrastructure, etc. According to the 2015 UN Human Development Report, our country stands eighth in the world in fulfilling its citizens’ needs. We also have one of the most unequal incomedistributions in the developed world.

What Stops Us From Having a Peace Dividend?

This answer is primarily based on the effects of the following four points.

1.) The development of the military-industrial complex in World War II, which tied military mobilization and war to overcoming the Great Depression. In addition, this turning the US economy into an imperialist world power, supported by a powerful military. After the Vietnam War loss, the military has had an uneasy relationship with civil authority and no effective civilian control.

2.) The conversion of our capitalist economy from FDR’s New Deal to neoliberalism, which advocates policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector. This shift created a condition where top federal government executives partnered with top political and corporate managers to operate an economy backed by a military presence with the goal of building and maintaining a US empire.

3.) The fact that we have been in almost constant conflict since the end of World War II in Korea, Nicaragua, Vietnam and the Balkans, with shorter military incursions in Africa, Chile, Grenada and Panama. By the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon laid out a strategy for the US called “full spectrum dominance” to control every region of the earth. Currently, the US has some form of military presence (that we know of) in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, UAE, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

4.) The economic disaster of 2008 and the near collapse of our economy, which caused a drop in the Gross Domestic Product, a growth in unemployment, lost household wealth, immense human suffering and a massive growth in poverty and homelessness, while the 0.01% flourishes.

The Effects:

1.) Most of our tax dollars that could have been used for social programs feed the military-industrial complex.

2.) Through neoliberal capitalism, wealth has been transferred to the 0.01%. 3.) The citizens have become passive, confused and angry.

Military Excess

We initially build our military to deal with external threats. After World War II, it was used to establish and maintain US power in the world. But little that our military does is designed to defend the United States from direct attack. Our military has been transformed into a global defense system, an empire of bases, designed to support an aggressive and expansionist imperialist foreign policy. It protected our corporate economic growth, extending beyond our borders to some 800-plus military bases around the world in 130 countries. The military needs to be continually upgraded and mobilized to protect our assets in other countries, as well as protecting and influencing capitalist countries that reduced their militaries because of our promise of protection (they got the peace dividend). Militarism has become a pillar of the political economy, and has even invaded our pantry, where almost every item in our supermarkets is tied to the Pentagon. The military is codependent with capitalism by maintaining a permanent armed presence around the world. Through its wars and deployments, it has become a major engine of ecological mayhem, making it the single largest polluter in the world.

It’s ironic that our policies force us to have need for a larger military partly because we are the largest arms exporter in the world.

A growing, unmanageably corruptDepartment of Defense (DoD) that accounts for more than 50 percent of all US discretionary spending. This budget is larger by far than all other countries defense budgets. It is tied to jobs located in some 450 congressional districts. This ensures its continuance by legislators who wish to be re-elected by keeping jobs in their districts. In addition, there is the national security budget, which is almost twice the DoD budget; the nuclear weapons budget, which is currently being upgraded by President Obama; the Pentagon supplementary war budget; the black budget and the budgets of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security. There is no way to keep tabs on the money taxpayers spend because the Pentagon has never completed an audit in recent history. Still, Congress continually increases Pentagon spending. It’s ironic that our policies force us to have need for a larger military partly because we are the largest arms exporter in the world.

The decline of the quality of the military, combined with the retired military leaders absorbed by industries, think tanks and media, exerting their influence on policy, leads to Gregory D. Foster’s astute description of a military that is “disproportionately destructive, indiscriminately lethal, single-mindedly combat-oriented, technology-dominant, exorbitantly expensive, unsustainably consumptive, and increasingly alienated from the rest of society, it provokes and antagonizes where it should reassure and thereby invariably fathers the mirror image of itself in others.” In addition, the military is implemented more easily now as a tool for US policy, since we have found ways to bypass a declaration of war.

Neoliberal Capitalism

We live in a regime that is dominated by a type of unregulated global capitalism, which advocates the primacy of economic growth and an unrestricted free market. The US has become an oligarchywhere concentrated wealth, garnered from the exploitation of workers by capitalists, creates concentrated power and corporate control. Taxes are lowered for the corporations and the very rich, which hide their wealth (the US being one of the most secretive). Government regulations are cut, leading to a condition where financial markets begin to dominate traditional industrial and agricultural economics, while the tax burden is shifted to workers.

The transition from manufacturing to a service economy: the destruction of unions, job outsourcing leading to the growth of economic inequality, increased unemployment and homelessness, and the loss of the “middle class” (a term which trains us to overlook our ongoing class war).

The growth of an austerity agenda, privatization, causing the loss of public social programs: health, education, welfare, parks, help for the homeless, libraries, hospitals, water systems, transportation and attempts at promoting a clean environment, the largest student debt in the world and the largest child poverty rate in modern industrial countries. While at the same time, supporting dirty fossil fuel industries that are destroying our climate.

Passive, Confused, Angry Citizens

The attempt by the ruling class to maintain control by diverting attention from its excess wealth and power, using its control of the media to create an attitude of fear and anger in the population by turning groups against one another through the “war on terrorism,” the “war on drugs,” attacks on labor, restriction of voting rights, ignoring the plight of the poor and focusing public attention on the effects (and not the underlying causes) of racism, sexism, anti-LGBT acts, anti-abortion, anti-immigration and fights over gun laws, toilet signs and religion.

Increasing inequality and the militarization of police needed to control growing internal dissent. The growth of government agencies to spy on the public, as well as the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security using rigidly enforced surveillance laws and the suspension of civil liberties on the false pretext of ensuring American safety for a minimal threat (you are 2,091 times more likely to die from blood poisoning than from a terrorist attack), leading to the largest prison population in the world and a growing corrupt legal infrastructure where the poor and people of color are the primary victims.

The loss of civic organizations, the decline of the commons and no active participation in the political process, in addition to the fact that most workers have no say at work leads to a docile, psychologically impaired citizenry and an increase in authoritarianism.

The propagandized US public that trusts the military more than the three branches of government, leading to a growing belief that military action, power and world domination is needed in order to maintain the American way of life. This view was inspired by the reaction to the loss of the Vietnam War. The volunteer military was transformed into a professional fighting force that included private security contractors/mercenaries; the reporters became embedded, and with the military professionals, have substituted buzzwords and vague catchphrases in place of clear statements, further insulating the public from the bloody effects of our international conflicts.

Conclusion: No Dividend for You!

Our military grew in order to stabilize and protect national security interests and save capitalism. After World War II, it morphed into a global system where military spending helped create a military-industrial-congressional complex, forming a three-sided relationship, an “iron triangle,” controlled by a small, influential group of elites. Their wealth requires continuous economic growth protected by military superiority. This arrangement denies the vast majority of the world’s population a fulfilling life on a healthy planet and no hope for any dividends, peace or otherwise.