We Do Guns–Not Plagues

We now face, with the global spread of AIDS, a human catastrophe that is beyond history. We have never witnessed anything so devastating. In sub-Saharan Africa, there is a pandemic that threatens to exceed the toll that the Bubonic Plague took on Europe in ushering in the Dark Ages. 23 million people are infected in Sub-Saharan Africa, with new infections coming at the rate of roughly five thousand a day.

A national intelligence estimate done by the U.S. intelligence community projects soberly that one-fourth of the people who live in southern Africa are likely to die of AIDS. One out of four. This disaster, the intelligence estimate goes on to say, is likely to be exceeded in the former Soviet Union and to be met or equaled in South Asia. The study warned of a “demographic catastrophe.” That was its term. And it warned that this catastrophe will produce a huge, multimillion-person pool of impoverished, orphaned children, who will be unable to cope and will be vulnerable to exploitation and victimization.

The World Health Organization has estimated that it will cost $2 billion a year to do something effective to stem the tide of this disease in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. Two billion dollars a year. Now, there is some good news. In Uganda, a government that was effective, and that had some resources mobilized dramatically in a public education program and a public health program, demonstrated that in fact you can make a significant contribution in stemming the flow of the infection. It is possible for the disease to be checked. But of course too often the resources and the will have been lacking.

This week the Clinton administration formally designated the AIDS disease as a threat to U.S. national security. This is the first time a disease has ever been termed a threat to our security. The intelligence estimate said that it is a disease that will topple foreign governments, touch off ethnic wars, and snuff out hope in impoverished Africa. The National Security Council has been told to take a rapid reassessment of our government’s efforts. As a part of the drive, the administration announced promptly that it was going to double its budget request to combat AIDS across the world, raising that request to $254 million. Two hundred fifty-four million dollars!

Now for those of you who are not dot.com billionaires, that may sound like a lot of money. But as Leon Feurth, Al Gore’s National Security Adviser, said, it is “inadequate for the task.” Another aide put it more graphically: “It’s a joke.” This is a rounding error in the New York City budget. Two hundred fifty-four million dollars out of an annual budget of $1.8 trillion that the United States will spend this year. It is, by comparison, about 5 percent of the $5 billion that Senator John McCain identified last year as pure pork in the military budget; “pure pork” being defined as those projects that the senators funded for the military that the Pentagon did not ask for. It is less than one-tenth of one percent, one one-thousandth, of the Clinton administration’s budget request for the military this year, which of course the Republican Congress has deemed woefully inadequate.

We are, Madeleine Albright says, the “indispensable nation.” We see, she says, farther than other nations. But we see with blinders on. And the reality that goes virtually unreported is that we don’t do plagues, really. We don’t do much foreign assistance, we don’t do global warming, but we’re not isolationists. That’s a bad rap. We spend a greater percentage of our gross national product on international activities than any other industrialized nation. But we don’t do the soft stuff; we do guns. We spend 98 percent of our international budget on the Pentagon.

Now, both the Clinton administration and the Republican Congress agree on one thing, as do George Bush and Al Gore, one of whom will be our next president. America, they all agree, is too weak militarily and does too much for the poor at home and abroad. That is, it spends too little on its military and too much on domestic programs and foreign assistance. Both the president’s budget and the congressional budget project an increase in military budgets over the next five years and a decrease in both domestic spending on the poor and international programs.

This year President Clinton asked for $306 billion for the military–up from $292 billion last year. Republicans deemed it insufficient. Their budget resolution calls for $311 billion, and only $289 billion on all domestic programs (not counting social security and the other entitlements). There’s no defense justification for this. Colin Powell put it the best way at the end of the cold war. He said, “I’m running out of enemies. I’m down to Kim Il Sung and Fidel Castro.” The United States and its allies now account for about three-fourths of the world’s military spending.

We will spend, next year, more money researching, developing, and purchasing new weapons than any other individual nation will SPEND on its entire military. We have no global rival. In fact the joint chiefs, in their planning statement, admit that there is no military rival to the United States. There’s not even a possible one on the horizon. This is very troublesome when you’re trying to plan military budgets. So the joint chiefs agreed that there was one problem that required even greater readiness and increased spending. Because we face no known threats, they argued, we have to prepare for the threat of the unknown. And, of course, that is very expensive.

We are a very rich nation, so we can afford to spend all this money on the military, and we could afford, if we wanted to, to spend it on the military and do AIDS and plagues and diseases. But the reality is, we are already spending more of our GNP on international affairs than any other industrialized country, and there is sort of a limit. You feel it in the domestic debate about priorities. The United States HAS smart missiles now and schools that are literally falling apart. We police the world; other nations give their citizens cradle-to-grave health care.

There’s a sort of choice, and we are at the limit, I think, of about what we are going to spend on international affairs in a routine way, unless we enter some major conflagration. So the real trade-off, in fact, doesn’t come as much from domestic affairs anymore as from international affairs. Our development and humanitarian assistance spending will be about $11 billion next year. That is less than one-tenth of one percent of our GDP–the lowest percentage in forty years. Republicans think of course that’s too much, and so they’re calling for reducing it another 20 percent over the next five years. The average industrialized country contributes about three times as much of the share of their economy to international assistance as we do. In per capita terms, among all of the advanced industrialized countries, we are next to last. We trail only Portugal, which is slightly poorer than we are.

The Bible says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” I don’t know about that, but it certainly is where your head is. And one of the problems, one of the great costs of spending 95 percent of your attention on the military, is that you don’t see other things. The Clinton administration admits that its reaction to the AIDS disease is tardy, that they should have seen it coming about a decade ago but did not. Faced with a pandemic, we find it hard to respond.

Look at what happened to Russia: the contrast between the way we treated Russia and the way we treated Germany at the end of World War II is quite striking. After World War II the military budget was cut by 90 percent in three years. Troops were demobilized. And in that context, Secretary of State Marshall could gain support for a Marshall Plan that provided significant resources to the defeated countries and our allies and gave them the space to rebuild. Since the end of the cold war our military budget has slowly gone down; it is down about a third. But it remains at 90 percent of the cold war average.

That is all we did: reverse the Reagan buildup. We did not put any significant resources into helping Russia through a much harder transition. We are likely to pay for that in the future.

It was Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president, the career soldier, who summarized this as well as anyone.” Every gun that is fired,” he warned, “every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft, from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone, it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children.” And that is the reality of American foreign policy. We do not do plagues; we do guns.

The scope of the elements of a bipartisan consensus or a bipartisan folly on foreign policy can be overwhelming and depressing and make people feel that nothing can be done. But I suggest you think of it as normal. Countries tend to do what they do best, what made them successful. Then the world changes, and they continue to do what they do anyway, even when it doesn’t make much sense. Institutional arrangements, inertia, the bureaucracies, the lobbies, the complexes, the habits of mind all are very hard to change.

That’s what happened to us. We were enormously successful in the cold war. This is an enormously successful society. So we keep doing what we did for many years. We keep spending in the same sets of priorities, even though the world has been transformed.

Now this is the task for small “d” democrats. Unlike an authoritarian regime, where speech is suppressed and the people can’t organize independently, in democracies, the people provide the hope. They can think beyond the bounds of the institutional inertia. They can challenge the bipartisan political consensus. They can start to ask common sense questions and get common sense answers. And they can organize to make change happen.

One of the most striking things about this period, if you look at public opinion polling, is not that the American people support this policy. In fact the American people think that we ought to be increasing spending on education and decreasing it on the military. They think we’re spending 20 percent of our budget on foreign assistance and think it ought to be 5 percent, when in fact it is less than one percent. They think that we ought to be much more engaged with the UN and much more reluctant to be a global cop on our own. A large majority supports a set of common sense propositions that conflict with current U.S. policy. The problem is that people are relatively passive and complacent in a prosperous time.

But that is our opportunity, and our challenge, and our duty, as citizens, and as activists, and as progressives. And there is hope. The extraordinary movement on land mines took on, basically, the united militaries of the world, turned them around, and created an international treaty to ban land mines. The same thing happened with the criminal court on human rights violations. The human rights movement itself is an extraordinary success story. The environmental movement has transformed governments’ perception of the need to deal with the environment. The Seattle coalition–the turtles and teamsters of Seattle–is beginning to challenge the ways business does business in the global economy.

We should not accept, as fate, the feeling that, if our leaders do not lead, nothing can be done. In fact, this is a moment pregnant with possibility. But we, the democrats (the small “d” democrats), have to take the lead, raise our voices, and challenge the entrenched assumptions and institutions. There will be no movement without struggle, no change without citizens that demand it. This is our mandate.