Arms Sales and False Alarms

Contrary to popular consensus, the United States is not the Walmart of worldwide arms.

Our world is coming to an end—and it is America’s fault.

At least, that seems to be the response of the arms-control community to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on global conventional arms sales. The general consensus is that the United States is the Walmart of worldwide arms, and it’s pouring fuel on the fire of warfare everywhere.

According to the report, U.S. arms sales in 2011 more than tripled over the previous year. At about $66.3 billion, the report concludes, America holds about three-quarters of the world arms market.

But statistics can be misleading. Take the claim that U.S. arms sales tripled, for instance. Most of the seemingly dramatic uptick results from a single arms deal—a real whopper with Saudi Arabia. Remember, too that “arms sales” are not the same thing as arms actually delivered. In terms of actual arms deliveries (and surely deliveries matter more than contracts for sales to be consummated over a multiyear timeframe), the United States supplied only a bit more than Russia.

Still, apparently we are supposed to assume that the report is dire news indeed.

A press release from the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, warned that these record sales by the United States 

highlight the fact that the global arms trade is booming and that more needs to be done by Washington and the rest of the international community to regulate the flow of weapons to irresponsible regimes with substandard human rights records and conflict regions like the Middle East and Africa. The enormous human toll from the unregulated arms trade undermines security and impedes development.

Echoing the association’s criticism, a Chinese news website on Sept. 4 asserted that “those countries [like the United States] which beautify themselves as ‘responsible’ do not have any principles or responsibilities at all in arms export.” The People’s Daily noted that

according to a report issued by U.S. Congressional Research Service, U.S. arms export accounted for 78 percent of the world total in 2011 and about half of them flowed into the Middle East. The flow of advanced U.S. arms will break the sensitive and fragile geopolitical balance of the region and threaten national and public security.

There is a problem with implying that the United States is fueling warfare in the Third World: there isn’t much evidence to support that suggestion.

Indeed, the world is actually getting less—not more—violent. The Human Security Project, a research center affiliated with Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, Canada, tracks global trends in political violence. Its 2010 report concluded that various “forces and political developments . . . have driven down the number of international conflicts and war deaths since the 1950s, and the number of civil wars since the early 1990s.” A one-year bump in U.S. overseas arms sales is hardly likely to change that trend—especially when that bump is more a statistical blip than real.

Further the “developing nations” receiving the most arms from all exporting countries are Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, the UAE and Venezuela. Saudi Arabia, India and the UAE are hardly powers wreaking havoc throughout the Third World. And while Pakistan and Venezuela may be regarded as more problematic, it’s worth noting that they are supplied in large part by China and Russia, not the United States.

Most of the concern over delivering arms that fuel violence involves troubled nations in Africa and Latin America. No argument that troubled countries in both continents are awash in arms. But it is hardly fair to blame the United States. According to the CRS report, last year Italy sold $300 million to African countries—three times as much as American exports. Meanwhile, just the small European nations logged combined sales of some $2.4 billion to Latin America, nearly double American sales ($1.4 billion).

Clearly, American arms sales are not destabilizing the world. So what is it that really angers most of the critics?

America is the doghouse with the disarmament nongovernmental organizations because President Obama did not deliver the goods. He had promised to push through an agreed text for a global conventional arms control treaty at the UN convention in July.

The purpose of the convention, which was attended by representatives of just about every country on the planet, was to establish common worldwide standards for the global arms trade. It failed. “President Obama should have—but did not—provide the leadership necessary to close the deal on the arms trade treaty and help reduce human suffering caused by irresponsible international arms transfers and arms brokering,” railed Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, in a press release when the conference collapsed at the eleventh hour.