Peace dividend, where are you?

Dan Rodrick HC

September 30, 1991|By Dan Rodrick

How is it that President Bush can step boldly forward to announce elimination of vast stores of the nuclear arsenal while at the same time warning there will be no savings from the move? Why shouldn't we expect some serious savings? Does this man have any domestic priorities? I must be missing something here.

"In the near-term, some of these steps might even cost money," Bush said Friday night in his address to the nation.

Let that be a warning. It's not a given that there will be a peace dividend from the new peace. The "new world order" might be as expensive as the old world order. It's too early to be canceling bake sales, folks. That's what I heard the president say.

Bush and other guardians of the military-industrial complex -- a tough bunch, tough as dinosaurs -- are dancing a little side step on us. They want us to believe they're leading the way on disarmament -- and they are, and it's wonderful to a point -- but at the same time they want to keep the defense establishment fat and happy. They want us to believe that the "new world order" calls for a military overhaul that forces the United States into a complete retooling of its defense network. They want a flexible, high-tech military that still includes a space-based weapons system and the B-2 bomber.

And that's expensive. So, they warn, don't get any big ideas about transferring this money from the Pentagon to Health and Human Services.

If that's what the boys are up to, it won't work -- not in the long run.

There is now mainstream acceptance -- growing every day, in the warm afterglow of the Cold War -- of the idea that we spend too many tax dollars on defense and that we are overloaded when it comes to these costly nuclear weapons. There is a blooming "green" movement -- my use of the term goes beyond its ecological inference -- throughout the United States and Europe that will, one generation down the road, turn the tide once and for all against nuclear arms as tools of power. The new generation will help the world move from nation-state thinking to what author and ecologist Jeremy Rifkin refers to as "biosphere politics."

If you don't know about it, you should; in fact, you might be part of it already. This is not an ephemeral thing, not a blip on the cultural radar. It's here to stay. It represents, in fact, a sea-change in public attitudes throughout the world. The freedom movements in Eastern Europe have direct spiritual links to the "growing of the green."

At the heart of this evolving thinking, there's a widely accepted idea that the superpowers can actually transfer money, manpower and technology to answer the dire human needs that have left warts all over the planet. The changes in Eastern European didn't just set the stage for these profound changes, they put a lock on them.

So George Bush is really playing catch-up. He's not the provocateur of change. He's the cleanup man. Friday night, he broke from a trot into a sprint to keep up with world events and the thinking of his own constituents, a growing number of whom believe, even with the Gulf War cloud still looming in the horizon, that too much of their tax dollar goes to the Pentagon. Key elements of Bush's plan should have been adopted years ago. Our nuclear warehouse has been overstocked for years. It has cost us -- and the Soviets -- billions of dollars, and delayed the end of the Cold War.

Of course, this goes against conventional thinking that we needed to race the Soviets on nuclear arms in order to make the evil empire change its ways. But we had as much at stake in preserving the old order as they did. Ask anyone who works in defense technology or who sits on the board of a company that serves the Pentagon. For years, we spent billions that could have been spent elsewhere or channeled back into the economy. There are a lot of could-have-beens left from the Cold War. We wasted a lot of time, and money.

But now, just in case any of us get big ideas about where a savings can be transferred, there's the president, uttering warnings out of the other side of his mouth: Don't expect big dividends. And he's got his bean counters at the Pentagon lined up to make the case. Major budget savings are unlikely, they say. Even if all U.S. nuclear weapons were eliminated, the military budget would drop by "no more than 15 percent." A "senior administration official" told the press that Bush's new plan might even require more defense spending. The president says the "peace divided I seek is not measured in dollars." To which I ask: Why not?

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