During the 1930s, isolationist lawmakers, such as Sen. Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, assailed the armaments industry as the “merchants of death.” The United States, for all its industrial might, was then only a middling military power. And as columnist Gwynne Dyer recently noted on The Blade's opinion pages, while the United States is not isolationist, its political institutions have set it apart as an isolated country.
Mr. Dyer argues that the United States is a “very old-fashioned country” operating under a Constitution essentially in place before 1800. It does not mean that this country ignores its role in world affairs. As the sole remaining military superpower, it cannot do that.
However, our views of national sovereignty have remained relatively fixed at a time when proud European countries are giving up their currencies and the right to regulate them. Again, this is a product of isolation, although thoughtful observers point out that the North American continent has gradually become a single economic entity, if not a political one.
Meanwhile, the modern-day “merchants of death” are busier than ever. The United States is the leading exporter of small-arms abroad, with sales amounting to $1.2 billion. Germany is second, with sales of $384 million, less than a third of the U.S. total.
The Bush administration finds no problem with this. As on other issues, such as global warming, the nonsensical missile-defense system, and the issue of an International Criminal Court, the administration, while prescribing conduct for other nations, says, “No, thank you, we are opting out.”
At a United Nations conference on stopping the illegal trade of light weapons, the United States has put up roadblocks. “We do not support measures that would constrain legal trade and legal manufacturing of small arms and light weapons,” said John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control. “The vast majority of arms transfers in the world are routine and not problematic.”
While the United States might support limits on military weapons (such as machine guns, assault rifles, mortars, grenade launchers, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and portable missile launchers, it chooses not to annoy the U.S. gun lobby by including smaller-caliber rifles and pistols, deemed to be hunting and sporting weapons.
The U.N. estimates that there are some 500 million firearms in the world, and that they claim the lives of at least half a million people a year, 80 per cent of them women and children. Guns in the wrong places and in the wrong hands are not merely innocent hobby items, as even the gun lobby might concede.
Surely a compromise could be reached on this and other issues. However, the Bush administration is paying only lip-service to cooperation with our long-term allies, and using the shield of national sovereignty wherever it chooses.
It is one thing to urge other nations to accept American “ideals.” But when this country is busy retailing arms and cigarettes, both of which are death-dealing commodities, those ideals sound more than a little hollow.