DSEi: Playground of the Power Elite

The images have become commonplace.  Pick-up trucks laden with rocket launchers and machine guns.  Dusty men with their rifles, poised as so many Rambo’s.  Billows of smoke that linger after the bomber has flown on to its next target.  These are the images of contemporary conflict.  Differences of socio-political opinion are settled by bloody confrontation.

True, violent conflict is as old as mankind itself.  True, self-defence is a necessity, even a responsibility.  But the business of war has become the norm rather than the exception.  The significance of this development lies not merely in the multitude of violent and unnecessary deaths—but more so in our readily viewing this reality with a novel brand of bold nonchalance.

In business-speak for international arms dealing, DSEi—Defence & Security Equipment International—boasts that its biennial exhibition ‘provides a time-effective opportunity to meet the whole defence and security supply chain’.  DSEi further promises that this year’s event will exceed attendance figures from 2009: 25,170 attendees; 1280 exhibitors; 98 countries; 70 official delegations; 27 national pavilions.   Just have a look at its slick website offering ‘infinite opportunities’ to those who would jump on the weapons carousel.

The DSEi exhibit organiser, Clarion Events, offers a patronising disclaimer:

While we would all wish to see a world in which no nation has any need of equipment for defence or peacekeeping, it is not the world we live in now.

No, of course, it is not the world we live in now.  With the success of DSEi’s past five exhibits setting the standard for international arms fairs, the 21st century has ushered in a world teeming with weaponry.  And the problem is that once the bar is set, there is not much chance of turning back.  It is rather like trying to ride a bicycle on a street crowded with trucks, buses, and SUV’s; you are undeniably exposed and vulnerable.

Clarion Events carefully notes that ultimate responsibility for the DSEi exhibit lies with the UK government.  The ‘UKTI DSO’ to be specific—the ‘United Kingdom Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation’.  This is where the bold nonchalance grins with the glow of remembered imperialism.

In order to achieve ‘greater global market access’, PM Gordon Brown decided in 2007 that the UK ‘Defence Exports Services Organisation’ (‘DESO’, who under the Ministry of Defence had thus far facilitated the DSEi programme) should be upgraded.   Under UKTI since April 2008, ‘security’ has been brokered by a power elite.  Weapons deals are ‘business opportunities in overseas markets’.   The UKTI DSO casually affirms that it is ‘responsible for the invitation and management of overseas VIP delegations to the [DSEi] show’ and that it will host ‘dedicated facilities located at the show, including a business lounge (in partnership with the MOD) and the EST [Export Support Team] Demonstration Area’.

The UKTI DSO hosts ‘Meet the Buyer’ sessions, where ‘UK Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs)’ meet with ‘key overseas procurement officials and advisers’ before, during, and after the DSEi exhibit.  Describing the sessions as ‘very Dragon’s Den’, the UKTI DSO suavely brokers arms deals.  (full descriptions found here and here)  Perhaps the blithe pragmatism displayed in filling ‘shopping lists’ to satisfy the ‘warfighter needs’ derives from the fact that those wars are usually in someone else’s neighbourhood.  The few of our own, so to speak, who are killed seem to pale in the light of those ‘infinite opportunities’.

In 1956, sociologist C. Wright Mills warned of a developing ‘power elite’, composed of economic, political and military men whose interests, in the wake of two world wars, had increasingly coincided.  Noting that a ‘society that is merely expedient does not produce men of conscience’, Mills foresaw a ‘system of organized irresponsibility’ whose ‘underlying population have accepted what can only be called a military definition of reality’.

To be sure, there are voices in our society who urge reasonable and responsible international relations.  But the power elite has become entrenched well beyond Mills’ view.  It transcends national borders and secures its position by raising the stakes for challenging the status quo.  From the ordinary man to the leaders of states, to object is to risk being put in the cross hairs—literally.

But challenge we must.  Ironically, the first DSEi exhibit took place in London on 11 September 2001, in the very hours of the deadly attacks in America.  As we look back a decade later, we must emphasise that the pain and the grief experienced on one side of the ocean were the very same pain and grief that were being sold on the other side.  This is the cost of war.  The world’s people are not digitised expendables from the gaming sensation Call of Duty.  We all ache with the reality of weapons that are used.

Peddling militarised societies is not about security.  Despite all the euphemisms and acronyms pushed by the politicians, aggressively arming the world is not about democracy.  It is not about protecting civilians or safeguarding sovereign legitimacy.  It is about money—and the power of the elite.  To systematically encourage confrontation is irresponsible.  ‘Equipment for peacekeeping’?  There is no longer a peace to keep.

Brenda Heard is the founder and director of Friends of Lebanon, London. She is the author Hezbollah: An Outsider’s Inside View (2015). She can be reached at: brenda.heard@friendsoflebanon.org. Read other articles by Brenda.