Saturday, February 18, 2012

Defense: The Arms Trade – Rich Sellers, Poor Buyers, Failing Regulation

Source: ISN

The world's leading arms exporters are firmly located in the United States, Europe and Russia. But to maintain a healthy defense industry, many governments continue to sanction the long-term sale of arms to buyers that reject democratic norms and values.

Prepared by: ISN staff

As part of our broad discussion on defense economics this week, we have described how defense expenditures are driven to a large extent by prevailing economic conditions. In the case of developed states, for example, the most recent economic crisis has led to tumbling defense budgets. A fair sample of developing countries, in contrast, have recovered more quickly from their economic woes and have pursued a fresh round of defense spending. Not surprisingly, most of their ‘big ticket’ purchases, as in the past, come from major defense contractors in the West, which permits Western governments to maintain a healthy defense-industrial base and to better balance their imbalanced import-export ledgers. These benefits, of course, come at a Faustian price – too many Western states, in their pursuit of the short-term ‘bottom line’, continue to sanction the long-term sale of arms to governments that reject their own democratic values and norms.

Who Gets What and Why?

The above slideshow quickly reinforces an uncomfortable truth – i.e., the leading arms exporters of the world are firmly located in the United States, Europe and Russia. Between 2000 and 2010 these countries and region accounted for 90% of all global weapons exports, the overwhelming majority of which then went to the developing world. Well, is this ‘natural’?

We know that ‘natural’ has nothing to do with it. The West’s traditional dominance of the global arms trade does not mean that the developing world should have automatic access to their weapons. International sanctions exist that forbid the sale of arms to states that fail to comply with global norms. But, as Amnesty International reminds us, international arms trade controls are often circumvented by suppliers and recipients alike. Consequently, the sale of arms to emerging nations is not only driven by economic considerations but also by distinct geopolitical calculations. This is most apparent in the Middle East, as our slideshow demonstrates.

Indeed, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria respectively are made upon the basis of each state’s strong diplomatic ties with those nations that are home to the world’s biggest defense companies. Saudi Arabia, to cite just one example, is one of the United States’ most important allies in the Middle East and continues to rely heavily on its arms companies, as illustrated by the Royal Saudi Air Force’s recent $29.4 billion purchase of top-of-the-line F-15 fighter aircraft. (According to the Congressional Research Service [CRS], this purchase dwarfs all previous arms sales to Riyadh.) At the same time, while Syria remains on the margins of the international system, it continues to look to Russia for its arms. One of Moscow’s largest pending orders involves the proposed sale of 24 MiG-29M2 fighter aircraft to Damascus. As the contract would benefit Russia’s defense industry to the tune of $6 billion (not to mention ensuring access to the Russian Navy’s base at Tartus), it helps to explain why Moscow is so critical of proposed UN resolutions calling for Bashar al Assad to step down as the leader of Syria.

Blatant Disregard

So, if we all worshiped at the altar of arithmetic, arms sales should be relatively simple things. In truth, however, the political and economic interests that underscore them do not always run according to easy-to-follow or pre-planned scripts. Like Syria, Iran is also a major recipient of Russian arms transfers. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, Moscow exported approximately $1.5 billion-worth of arms to Iran. Yet Moscow remains sufficiently concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions to support international sanctions against the current regime. Germany provides another interesting example. Despite some comparatively tight export regulations, it has repeatedly been criticized for exporting arms to countries in the Middle East. Indeed, the very fact that Heckler and Koch’s G36 assault rifle was extensively used during the Libyan uprising vindicates Amnesty International’s conviction that existing arms export controls, “with all their loopholes,” do little to safeguard human rights and security.

Unfortunately, our slideshow does not show the impact of worldwide arms transfers on specific intra-state conflicts or political upheavals. Neither can we claim to have the complete picture regarding global arms sales. Many Western governments not only defy arms control regulations, they quite often fail to declare arms transfers in accordance with international treaties and legislation. Such blatant disregard for international agreements appears to be setting a precedent for emerging powers to follow. According to Amnesty UK’s Kate Allen, China continues to defy UN embargoes on supplying attack helicopters, fighter aircraft, light weapons and ammunition that could be used in the Darfur region of Sudan. This makes it increasingly likely that this sub-Saharan region alone will receive more than 1.5% per cent of all global arms exports, as previously estimated by SIPRI.

As ugly as these facts may be, how exactly do we solve the problem of global defense contractors overlooking international norms and facilitating arms sales or transfers to the more unstable regions of the world? After all, such sales 1) guarantee that the West will remain a significant actor within a transforming international system, 2) help bolster geopolitical allies, regardless of how unprogressive they might be, and 3) remain very good for business, especially as Western nations attempt to stagger their way towards economic recovery. Given these temptations and needs, our unhappy conclusion is that disregard for international norms and laws is likely to cloud global arms sales and transfers for the foreseeable future.