money-paper airplane fighters, in graphic for Shadow World created by Independent Lens

Global Arms Expert Andrew Feinstein Explores Shadow World of Weapons Trade

November 09, 2017 by Craig Phillips in Beyond the Films

Andrew Feinstein is one of the world’s leading experts on political corruption and the global arms trade. A frequent commentator on BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, and The Guardian, his writing has been published by The New York Times, Der Spiegel, the Huffington Post, and many others. As the author of the book on which the film Shadow World is based, Feinstein guided the filmmakers (working with director Johan Grimonprez) on the issues and history addressed in the film. As a founding director of Corruption Watch UK, and a former African National Congress (ANC) Member of Parliament from South Africa, he is uniquely qualified to talk about the global arms trade, a clandestine topic explored at disturbing depth and width in Shadow World, which premieres November 20 at 10 pm on Independent Lens [check local listings].

Critic Jen Yamato called the film “a dense and impassioned documentary detailing how American politicians and their allies have been in bed with the arms industry for decades.”

Feinstein spoke to us about how his background led to the book and this film, the most shocking things he learned from making it, his thoughts on the North Korea situation, and where we can go from here.

You yourself were involved in politics, as a member of Parliament in South Africa. Was your experience then what led you to want to write this book? Were you frustrated with your own country’s arms dealings?

Andrew Feinstein: I served as an ANC Member of Parliament under Nelson Mandela. Sadly, towards the end of Mandela’s time in office, his successor, Thabo Mbeki, decided to spend $10bn on weapons that the country neither needed, nor has used in any meaningful way. $300m of bribes were paid to politicians, senior officials and senior members of the military. This was at the time that Mbeki claimed we did not have the finances to provide life-saving medication to the 6 million South Africans living with HIV or AIDS.

According to the Kennedy School at Harvard, this policy decision led to the avoidable deaths of at least 365,000 South African over the following five years.

The financial oversight committee on which I was the ranking ANC member started to investigate the deal and the corruption. The ANC leadership instructed me to stop the investigation. When I refused, they thwarted the investigation, including removing me from the committee and then forcing me out of Parliament.

This arms deal was the moment at which the ANC and South Africa’s young democracy lost its moral compass. The country’s current President, Jacob Zuma, faced 783 counts of fraud, corruption, and racketeering in relation to the deal, and presides over an administration characterized by pervasive corruption and incompetent governance.

I wrote my first book, After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa’s Uncertain Futureabout this deal and its devastating impact on the country’s young democracy. While writing it I became intrigued by the international defense contractors, uncritically supported by their governments, who were responsible for corrupting South Africa. My interest was further piqued by the discovery that there hadn’t been a comprehensive book on the global arms trade since 1979.

This is what led to me starting the Shadow World project.

Shadow World writer Andrew Feinstein
Shadow World writer Andrew Feinstein

And what was one of the most shocking revelations, at least to you personally, as you researched this book and film?

The fact that of the 502 violations of UN arms embargoes that were identified by a team of researchers, only two led to any legal action at all. In other words, governments, companies and/or individuals selling weapons into conflicts, specifically embargoed by the UN, did so with impunity.

This reflects the reality that the global trade in arms operates in something of a parallel legal universe, in which national laws, multilateral and international agreements are regularly ignored. This is one of the reasons why the trade in weapons accounts for around 40% of all corruption in world trade, and enables, makes more deadly and often lengthens existing conflicts.

[T]he global trade in arms operates in something of a parallel legal universe, in which national laws, multilateral and international agreements are regularly ignored. The other realization that alarmed me was how little our governments learn from history when it comes to the provision and control of weapons. The U.S. funded and armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan, who were then central to the creation of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the perpetrators of 9/11. But the same pattern is being repeated today in Syria, where the US, both directly and through Saudi Arabia, is providing support to groups who are linked to extremism.

For the layperson coming at this with only the basic knowledge of key players (world leaders) and general awareness that something nefarious has gone on for years, how did you approach this story without feeling overwhelmed?

I felt profoundly overwhelmed by the scale of the industry, its political and economic power, and the legal impunity with which it largely operates. But at the same time, I felt a passionate determination to reveal the reality of this industry that promotes corruption, undermines democracy and the rule of law and makes us less, rather than more, safe.

The key to addressing this story was to ensure that the factual base was extremely solid. The book which inspired the film has over 2,800 footnotes thanks to an amazing team of researchers. It has never faced a legal challenge and was described by the Washington Post as “the most comprehensive account of the trade ever written.”

The next challenge was how to make this difficult and vast amount of information as accessible as possible. It’s for this reason that I was, from the outset, very keen to make a documentary based on the book. The director Johan Grimonprez immediately grasped the systemic nature of the trade and so, together with our extraordinary producer, Jos Barnes, we started to work out how to convey this complex, controversial story into a 90-minute film.

Shadow World director Johan Grimonprez
Shadow World director Johan Grimonprez

And what was that collaborative process like in putting the film together, between yourself and director Johan Grimonprez? How did you work together to tell this incredibly huge story in a way people could understand?

I come at the topic from an investigative research and political perspective. Johan addresses it philosophically, emotionally and visually. I think the combination worked very effectively.

The subject matter is overwhelming so we had to decide on a limited, comprehensible focus: We start with the political and economic alliance between Ronald Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher which gave rise to the deregulation that enabled the arms trade to become even more cavalier, corrupt and profit-driven. Their relationship also gave rise to the most corrupt commercial transaction of all time, the Al Yamamah arms deal between the U.K. and Saudi Arabia, in which around £6bn of bribes were paid.

In addition to their crucial relationship, to understand the global arms trade one has to comprehend the dominant role of the U.S. which accounts for over a third of all weapons production globally, and spends more on defense than the next five countries combined.

So the U.S., its weapons procurement system of legalized bribery characterized by the revolving door of people moving between defense contractors, the state and the military, as well as its pervasive militarism, were an essential part of the story. The United Kingdom, whose companies such as BAE Systems have for many years been the most corrupt in the world, has also played a crucial role in supporting and enabling the U.S.’s military endeavors in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.

Into that narrative, we insert, briefly, the story of the South African arms deal, where my work started and which reflects so tragically on the socio-economic opportunity costs of the corrupt weapons business. And finally, we come to the nuclear peace deal with Iran which runs so counter to the preponderance of military might over diplomatic initiatives, and which is now under threat from President Trump.

To do this we interviewed over 50 people: politicians, military leaders, arms dealers, philosophers, war journalists and rebels who have opposed the hegemony of the arms trade and the militarism it enables. We used only a small number of the interviews to ensure that characters became embedded in the audience’s mind and that the material was easy to digest and follow.

To provide both reflection on and relief from the dark nature of this material, Johan has threaded through the film the inspiring, insightful poetry of Eduardo Galeano, together with some moving and hopeful images. This combination reflects our collaboration: the investigative, the creative and the philosophical.

It was an extraordinary process of bringing different worlds, different styles, and different mindsets together within the unity of our understanding of the nature of the arms trade. I found it both challenging and deeply educative, as it forced me to think about my work in a far broader and more creative way. Ultimately it was an exhilarating experience that has enriched my continuing work on this most complex and damaging of industries.

Is the current North Korea arms escalation and situation an outlier or part of this long-running narrative too? How much do you know about how we got to this point?

The North Korean situation is emblematic of this narrative. It feeds into the notion that might is always right – reflected in the reality that the U.S. government employs more people to run and maintain one aircraft carrier than it has diplomats across the globe. And the U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers.

The solution to the North Korea issue obviously has to be a diplomatic one, as the military alternative could result in the deaths of millions. As a consequence of North Korea’s endemic poverty, diplomatic mechanisms that provide food relief and hard currency have kept the autarkic regime under control for decades.

So why change the approach? North Korea acts as a useful ‘enemy of last resort’, that is, the nature of the threat is often vastly overstated to justify constant increases in military budgets and ever greater spending on weapons systems. This reaches an apex when other obvious enemies are quiescent. It is President Trump’s uninformed bombast that has led to the North Koreans becoming more aggressive.

A return to informed diplomacy is the only solution, but it is neither politically appealing to the President nor is it profitable from those who benefit from instability and war, specifically defense contractors, lobbyists and the politicians who are rewarded with campaign contributions and sometimes bribes.


When researching the book and film, did you get any threats or fear for your security, from any of the players involved? 

We have only been threatened by an arms dealer on one occasion. A few of the defense contractors have tried to bribe us to change our tune. Many participants in the business threaten to sue us but none ever has – this is another reason we ensure everything we write or screen is backed by extensive documentary and/or human evidence.

Those who are most under security threat are the incredibly brave people – in the military, in governments and in the companies – who provide us with information. It is because of them we are able to pierce the national security-imposed veil of secrecy that hides most of the malfeasance that occurs in the global arms trade. They are the true heroes.To change the nature of the arms trade and the war-making it foments, requires a fundamental change in the nature of our politics, specifically in the dominant role that money plays…

Do you think there is ever a way or will ever be a way out of this cycle of arms funding, dealing, and war? It tends to feel like we’re caught in a hopeless loop because of how deep this all goes.

Absolutely. When I had to leave South Africa in the mid-eighties to avoid serving in the apartheid military, I would never have believed that within ten years apartheid would be defeated and a democratic government would be in place with Mandela —who had been described as a terrorist not only by the apartheid regime but by the U.S. and U.K. as well — as President.

To change the nature of the arms trade and the war-making it foments, requires a fundamental change in the nature of our politics, specifically in the dominant role that money plays in politics and also the lack of accountability and transparency that has become a feature of representative democracy. We are seeing dissatisfaction with the current status quo, not just in the US, the UK and South Africa, but in many countries around the world.

In addition, when I think of how little was written, shown or spoken about the global arms trade when I started this work 17 years ago, I am hugely encouraged by the ever-increasing focus on the trade and its structural absurdities.

What would you like viewers of the film to come away from it with? What discussions should the audience have afterward?

We would like viewers to come away feeling appalled by the nature and impact of the global trade in weapons, with a sense of outrage that this is being done in their name using their tax dollars. But also with a sense that we can together as active citizens do something about the war business, by disseminating information, by engaging critically and vociferously with those who enable the current status quo, by demanding change through activism in myriad forms, including crucially legal advocacy.

As one of the characters in the film states: “Augustine said Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are and courage to see that they don’t remain the way they are.”

What are you working on nowadays?

I spend a great deal of time giving talks after screenings of the film around the world, and engaging with people on the issues, trying to start small groups to work together on the issue in places where they don’t exist and bolstering such organizations where they do.

My small organization, Corruption Watch UK, continues to investigate the arms trade on an ongoing basis. We are currently investigating one of the world’s largest defense contractors, recently involved in corrupt deals that have undermined security in various countries. Our intention is to publish a major report on the company, at the same time as people protest the company’s activities in all of the affected countries, with the intention of pushing for prosecution of the company and its senior executives in multiple jurisdictions.

Together with the Boston-based World Peace Foundation we are also creating short vignettes from the footage that didn’t make it into the film, to distribute on social media.

And I am trying to write a crime novel set in the arms trade.

If you want to dive even deeper, here’s a radio interview Andrew Feinstein conducted with Rebecca Costa:

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.