Arsenal of Discretion: Responsible Arms Transfer Policy

This article was originally published in the Winter 1997 issue of the Harvard International Review.

A weapons stockpile found by US Marines in Iraq, 2004. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As the United States adjusts to the post-Cold War world and seeks to consolidate and expand the gains of newly democratic regimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, it must shed the outdated policies that currently govern arms sales and other military assistance programs. The threat of communism has passed, and with it, the urgency of sending massive quantities of weapons to US surrogates around the world has diminished. Instead, the United States must reevaluate the effect that arms transfers have on regional stability, the promotion of democracy, and the protection of human rights.

Unfortunately, US arms transfer policies have not yet adjusted to this reality. The United States continues to be the world’s primary arms supplier. Between 1993 and 1996, the United States transferred US$75.6 billion worth of weapons and military training to other countries. Of that total, nearly 48 percent went to undemocratic states. Clearly, US policy is being guided by other considerations, including the lure of perceived short-term economic benefits.

A February 17, 1996, White House press release illustrates the unfortunate tendency to ignore the nature of the recipient regime in making arms transfer decisions. The release states that “the Unites States continues to view transfers of conventional arms as a legitimate instrument of US foreign policy—deserving US government support—when they enable us to help friends and allies deter aggression, promote regional security, and increase interoperability of US forces and allied forces … The United States will exercise unilateral restraint in cases where overriding national security or foreign policy interests require us to do so.”

The criteria expressed in that statement are, indeed, critical components of any sound US policy on arms transfers and should remain as such. But the statement fails to address the effects that arms transfers are likely to have on democratization, peacemaking, and human rights. The United States must learn to “exercise unilateral restraint,” not only for national security and foreign policy interests, but for the furtherance of democracy and human rights.

By exercising restraint, not only can the United States foster democracy, it can enhance its own security as well. The June 1996 Report of the Presidential Advisory Board on Arms Proliferation Policy concluded that US security and world stability are threatened by the proliferation of advanced conventional weapons. According to the report, “The world struggles today with the implications of advanced conventional weapons … These challenges will require a new culture among nations, one that accepts increased responsibility for control and restraint, despite short-term economic and political factors pulling in other directions.” The United States must take the lead in fostering that “new culture.”

One way for the United States to exercise leadership is to adopt a formal code of conduct on arms transfers. Legislation establishing such a code, sponsored by Georgia Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney and California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher, has passed in the US House of Representatives, and I have introduced a companion bill in the Senate. This legislation is designed to bring about a fundamental shift in US arms transfers to the rest of the world. The code seeks to make the expansion of democracy, stability, and human rights central criteria for decisions on arms transfers. Clearly a broad range of other factors, including regional stability, interoperability with US forces, and the ability of a nation state to defend itself, should be taken into account, and the legislation allows for this.

In order for it to succeed, a US code of conduct must be part of an international effort to curb worldwide arms sales. The United States must work toward establishing a multilateral regime governing the transfer of conventional weapons. Fortunately, many European states seem to share this objective. The Labour government in the United Kingdom has embraced the concept of a code of conduct, and the French government is sympathetic as well. Similar legislation has been introduced in several other EU member states.

Ultimately, the United States must lead the way. It must stop selling arms to nations that ignore the rights and welfare of their citizens and to nations that use arms to bully their neighbors or populations. The United States should lead the way to the establishment of a multilateral regime that will effectively prevent such nations from obtaining arms with which to enforce and administer nefarious activities. Exercising such leadership will help ensure that US foreign policy promotes democratization, human rights, and peace.

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John Kerry

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