Military-industrial complexes and their variations

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Few Presidential addresses have exercised a more lasting impact on the popular consciousness than Dwight David Eisenhower’s farewell address. In his most memorable passage, he warned Americans that “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” In this sentence, President Eisenhower, with help from speechwriter Malcolm Moos, coined a phrase to describe the challenge that states have faced since the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution catalysed a fundamental transformation in the relationship between armaments, warfare and the state. Suddenly, differences in rapidly developing weapons technologies meant the difference between defeat and victory in major wars. With armaments more important than ever, the firms that produced them became more politically influential than ever before.

Scholars and policymakers have since the First World War sought to make sense of these dynamics. They have, to this end, developed a succession of analytic models, amongst the most prominent of which are those of the—merchants of death, garrison state, military-industrial complex and iron triangle—to explain precisely how arms industries impact democracy and international relations. Many of the worst fears embodied in the earlier theories have not been borne out by subsequent events. Defence firms did not “cause” wars as per the merchants of death hypothesis and democracy did not give way in states where it already existed to the authoritarian rule of “specialists of violence.” Nonetheless, the core insight of the military industrial complex and iron triangle schools of thought—that defence industries and their allies in the military and politics will act as an interest group to promote procurement projects—has proven robust. The particular way that these dynamics occur, however, varies from state to state as a function of their institutions.

Even though the production of armaments by defence firms headquartered in one’s state exercises a distorting effect on national politics and military procurement, few states can escape this dynamic. The national security advantages of greater supply security and enhanced military adaptation, combined with the fear that once abandoned, defence-industrial capabilities cannot be quickly reconstituted, compels most states that can produce armaments to do so. A military-industrial complex, of some form, is thus a fatality for the modern state.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford research encyclopedia of politics
EditorsWilliam R. Thompson
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780190228637
Publication statusPublished - 19 Nov 2020


  • Military-industrial complex
  • Garrison state
  • Defence-industrial base
  • Merchants of death
  • Supply security
  • Military adaptation
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • Varieties of capitalism
  • Arms production
  • Defence arms


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