Financial Times Review

By John Lloyd

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The Financial Times

Farewell to arms

This is a book about the arms trade, in which a plethora of details are set to work to expose what Andrew Feinstein calls “a world of money, corruption, deceit and death”. More than most campaigners against the trade, Feinstein has taken the moral high ground in action as well as print.

Elected as an African National Congress MP in 1997, he demanded a thorough inquiry into the massive arms contracts given by the South African government to British, Canadian, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish companies, aimed at modernising the country’s ageing defence equipment. The contracts – which Feinstein says were for ships, aircraft and weaponry that South Africa, a country with no external threat, did not need – were widely said to have prompted a shower of large bribes. Alleged recipients included President Jacob Zuma, who was charged, while he was deputy president, with numerous counts of fraud and corruption related to the deal. These charges were dropped by the National Prosecuting Authority in April 2009: the authority argued there were “serious flaws” in the prosecution’s handling of the case. In May 2009, Zuma was elected president.

Feinstein sought to bring this into the light but was blocked and resigned his seat. He has since made exposing corruption in the trade his life’s work – founding, two years ago, the NGO Corruption Watch with fellow campaigner Susan Hawley. The Shadow World is the work of a knowledgeable, committed and angry activist who has in his sights, above all, the US and UK governments and their weapons manufacturers – in particular the UK’s BAE Systems.

Fittingly, he begins with a quotation from Bernard Shaw’s 1905 play Major Barbara, in which the arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft proclaims that “when I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need”. It was Eisenhower who famously expressed disquiet, on leaving office, at the power of his “military industrial complex”. But both before and after him, presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers have discovered, sometimes the hard way, that when a substantial part of industry and employment is accounted for by weapons companies, these companies’ wants cannot be ignored.

This realisation can come reluctantly, as with Eisenhower, or enthusiastically, as with George W Bush, whose main cabinet colleagues were closely allied to the arms lobby; or it can come real-politically, such as when Tony Blair vetoed a 2006 Serious Fraud Office investigation into an arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
Feinstein is good at sketches of the latter-day Undershafts and their agents, a varied and sometimes vividly eccentric bunch. One of the world’s most successful arms manufacturers was Marcel Dassault, interned by the Nazis and – though Jewish – offered liberty in return for working for them. He refused and was sent to Buchenwald but was saved by the arrival of the Allied military and returned to France to build the Mirage, one of the most successful fighters of its time – as well as one of the world’s (still) leading defence companies. On the other hand, Gerhard Mertins, a former Wehrmacht major, was an active go-between for 1950s Arab leaderships seeking arms, founding a company, Merex, which benefited hugely from arms contracts with countries as diverse as Venezuela, Pakistan and (to show even-handedness) India.

The reasons for the existence of this business are largely assumed to be as rotten as it gets: there is little credit here for politicians who claimed to have launched “good” wars. Two chapters, “In defence of humanity” and “Bringing Peace to the world”, are ironic about the proclaimed aims of governments that promoted humanitarian interventions: Feinstein, at least implicitly, tends to see them as occasions for corporate enrichment and more corruption.
A rounded narrative of the arms trade needs a fuller account of the constraints on politicians and the compromises they feel bound to make. Yet in documenting some of their more egregious and dirty deals and deliberate blindnesses, he has done a large service.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor