Increased Armament is Dangerous for Democracy

Ruth Rohde
Published on
March 19, 2024
Activists opposing the sale of Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia pose in front o the German parliamentary building in 2023. Courtesy of Michael Schulze von Glaßer and DFG-VK

A shorter version of this article first appeared in German in the newspaper “Frankfurter Rundschau” on March 6th, 2024. It was written as an intervention into an ongoing militarisation debate in Germany. Due to the word count requirements of the paper, some examples, evidence, and arguments had to be cut from the text. Here is a longer version of the article in English.

TL;DR/Key points:

  • The claim that armament and militarisation protects democracy warrants scrutiny on the basis that armament actually poses threats to democratic principles.
  • The three threats discussed are: opportunity costs, the increasing proximity of politics with a corrupt arms industry, and the increasing dependence on problematic customers for arms exports.

Defending democracy through armament: that is one of the aims of the German government. But what dangers does armament pose to democracy?

Last week, German Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner made the controversial proposal to freeze social spending in order to finance increased defence spending. Just a few days earlier, Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke out in favour of continuing to spend two percent of economic output on defence in the future and, according to “Der Spiegel”, did not expect resistance from the population, as the aim was to defend peace and democracy. Armament harbours considerable dangers for democracy, and the less the logic of armament is questioned, the greater the danger becomes. Three threats to democracy stand out: the high costs, the convergence of politics with the corruption-prone defence industry, and the increasing dependence on autocratic customers for arms exports.

The debate about the costs of armament is currently being conducted with a very narrow financial, but broadly plausible perspective: if more is invested in armaments, there will be a shortfall in key areas such as pensions and social spending. The coalition government has already cut back on areas such as development cooperation, political education and research. At the same time, military projects often overrun their budgets, such as the ongoing refit of the Büchel airbase, which is reportedly increasing in cost by €670 million. The financial problems could, of course, be overcome. For example, through a higher capital gains tax or wealth tax, which are naturally not feasible with the FDP (German neo-liberal party, part of the governing coalition). The dismantling of the welfare state could contribute to the electoral success of right-wing parties, which in the worst case would then govern a militarised state. Security must be understood not least as social security for citizens. But the costs are not only financial. The arms industry competes with other industries for resources, ranging from skilled workers and rare earths to increased environmental pollution and our climate footprint.

The second problem for democracy arises from the increasing convergence of politics and the defence industry. The two share one interest: armament. The defence industry is known to be a high-risk area for corruption. One contributing factor to this situation is the expectation placed upon the population: that armaments policy expenditure and priorities are not scrutinised – and are frequently kept secret anyway for reasons of “national security”. The party funding scandal under former German chancellor Helmut Kohl or the sale of submarines to Israel and Greece (which was already financially strapped at the time), among others, which may have been obtained with bribes, come to mind. A detailed investigation by the Correctiv media platform found as early as 2022, based on judicial documents, that the defence industry is Germany’s most susceptible industry for foreign bribery.

Corrupt arms deals directly undermine democracy when officials in either the seller or buyer country are bribed, or when defence policy decisions are influenced by the private or party interests of politicians. However, there are also more indirect conflicts of interest, such as when it becomes standard practice for public officials to frequently transition between government and the defense industry, or when governments are primarily advised on their arms policy by the very industry that naturally prioritizes armament. Consider the case of the European Defence Fund (EDF). Preparations for the EU’s joint defence investments began in 2015 with the establishment of a “group of personalities” to draw up proposals for European defence research investments. The group consisted largely of representatives from the defence industry. Notably, four of the five companies that received the most contracts in the first EDF funding round (2021) were represented within this group.

Finally, there is the issue of arms exports, which is very controversial in Germany anyway. Germany is already one of the largest arms exporters in the world. Defence Minister Boris Pistorius recently spoke out in favour of even looser export rules for new sales markets, including to countries that are not “flawless democracies”. President Modi’s India, one of the largest arms buyers in the world and a favoured target of Pistorius, is such a “not flawless” democracy – a state in which Hindu nationalism and violence against religious minorities is on the rise. Which states receive the much-invoked rule-based international order is apparently a question of political opportunity and alliances, not of the actual human rights or conflict situation. It is important to remember that until 2013, Russia was also regarded as a good customer. Misjudgements like these cost human lives and undermine the rule of law. This can also be seen, for example, in the cancellation of German opposition to arms exports to autocratically governed Saudi Arabia. Exports to Saudi Arabia are not only problematic due to the human rights situation in the country and its role in the war in Yemen. Germany supplies components for fighter jets that the UK sells to the Saudi kingdom. During the hot phase of the war in Yemen, when Germany decided to stop supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia, this arrangement already undermined German export sovereignty. The UK is heavily dependent on arms exports to the Saudi monarchy. In the early 2000s, for example, this dependence contributed to the government under Tony Blair being persuaded by Saudi Arabia to drop a corruption investigation into an earlier aircraft deal. It has recently been revealed, that the Ministry of Defence itself may have arranged opaque payment structures to keep a Saudi prince/arms dealer on board. The rule of law was actively undermined so that arms deals could continue.

Germany is already lagging behind other countries when it comes to legal accountability for arms export decisions. While in the UK and the Netherlands, for example, it is possible to review in court whether the government is complying with laws regulating arms exports (a pillar of democracy after all), this is not so easily possible in Germany. In the Netherlands, for example, a court recently ruled that the country may not supply combat aircraft parts to Israel because there is a risk that these could be used by Israel in Gaza in violation of international law. Previously, the UK had to suspend arms exports to Saudi Arabia for a year because a court ruled that the government’s decisions to deliver there were irrational. In theory, the same European and international rules also apply in Germany, but they cannot be reviewed in court. In Germany, the judgement of the federal government is sufficient.

At minimum, we should openly discuss the risks as a society. In doing so, the validity of the claim that armament is necessary to preserve democracy should also be considered.

The argument in favour of rearmament is based on the assumption that Germany must be able to defend itself against Russia. At first glance, this rationale makes sense given Putin’s brutal imperialism. But only at first glance. The Russia that we are arming ourselves against out of fear is the same Russia that, due in part to the Ukrainian armed forces, has not even managed to take over Ukraine. To what extent is it really realistic to believe that this same Russia poses a serious threat to the rest of Europe? A danger that not only justifies maintaining a credible minimum level of defence readiness but also the massive spiral of armament into which we are currently entering, with all the direct dangers for democracy that this entails?