What it is: The close and interdependent relationship of armed forces and armaments industries, and the influence it may have on a government's foreign and economic policies.
What it means: This expression was first used as long ago as 1961, during the Cold War, when the US president Dwight D Eisenhower gave a public warning in his last major speech: 'We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.' Eisenhower was aware that the arms industry had done well out of false rumours that the US was falling behind in the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union - the government paid them huge sums of money to make more weapons. But soon people began to fear something else: that the influence of powerful military leaders would force the government to go to war. The Second World War was highly profitable for American industries, especially those which manufactured supplies for the military. War now would justify the existence of America's huge military system and keep the arms and arms components manufacturers in business. The Vietnam War did just that for companies like Dow Chemicals, makers of napalm. Weapons firms were also busy supplying the US forces for the 'proxy wars' fought in Africa and Asia. Soon arms manufacturers round the world were not only equipping their own countries, they were looking for buyers overseas as well. A handful took over smaller companies and became powerful multinational corporations, with substantial influence over politicians responsible for foreign policy and the spending of public money. (In the US 'political engineering' or 'pork-barrel politics' are names given to the way the military involve senators and Congressmen in the distribution of defence sub-contracts, thus keeping them on-side.) US career soldiers almost all make the arms industry their second career - which means that they too want to keep it going. And in the 1990s private military companies were growing fast. These were being sub-contracted to provide not only 'non-combat services' but also units of armed security forces - who aren't committed to keeping the laws of war (or protected by them, either) but follow their own codes. Some private companies have been employed to identify 'potential enemies' around the world, in order to hike up yet more orders for arms. As for influence on the government: important 'think-tanks' are backed by the arms industry, and defence company chiefs have moved on to become government advisers. By the end of the 20th century military-industrial complexes had become an even greater danger than before.
Think about it: Eisenhower also said we must never let the combination of military and business interests 'endanger our liberties or democratic processes. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals.' Alert and knowledgeable citizens (whose taxes pay for military expenditure) are certainly needed to call for cutting the dangerous link between the arms trade and foreign policies. They are needed even more to argue that security and liberty can never, in the end, depend on armed force. The idea of 'defence' has to be thought about in new ways. The United Nations was set up to achieve world peace, and that aim hasn't been abandoned despite a poor record of commitment to it.
Here is a reminder of 'people power' from a lawyer concerned with human rights and globalisation: 'It is a civic duty to assert fundamental rights, to rebel against the erosion of democracy and the idea that might (or wealth) is right. Citizens can make their presence felt by moving into many areas from which they cannot be excluded, by speaking up at World Trade Organisation summits and in organisations that have some power and independence.'
There are many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dedicated to righting the world's wrongs. Some (like Greenpeace and Amnesty International) have considerable influence and independence. Another, the Center for Defense Information, vigilantly compiles information about the US military-industrial complex, continually updated on their website.