The global arms trade doesn’t enjoy a particularly sunny reputation. And honestly, fair. Groups like Amnesty International have condemned the industry for its lack of oversight, noting the deadly cost paid by civilians.
The United States is the biggest arms dealer on earth. From 2017 to 2021 it sold weapons to over 100 nations, and in 2020 alone, American companies made $111 billion from foreign military sales.
While this may sound like a lot, profits are actually only a part of why the U.S. does it. Behind the scenes, arms sales are a common foreign policy tool, giving the U.S. leverage over the countries it sells to, and, according to some, helping it to shape behavior, conflicts, and security all over the world.
Take our involvement in the Ukraine conflict. By sending billions of dollars in weapons, along with intelligence and training, the U.S. was able to provide crucial support to Ukraine as it pushed back against invading Russian forces. All without risking a single U.S. soldier on the battlefield.
But it isn’t always so clear-cut. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has used American weapons to commit human rights abuses as part of a war the United States has opposed. In the Afghanistan war, American soldiers faced enemies using weapons first provided by the U.S. to anti-Soviet mujahideen decades before. This is a complex, and messy business.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, the reality behind U.S. dominance in the global arms trade.
David D. Eisenhower: Good evening my fellow Americans, until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.
Joseph Biden Jr.: Last week I signed an 800 million dollar package of security assistance to Ukraine. Today, I’m announcing another 800 million dollars to further augment Ukraine’s ability to fight in the East.
Donald J. Trump: If we don’t sell it to ‘em, they’ll say ‘well, thank you very much, we’ll buy it from Russia’ or ‘thank you very much, we’ll buy it from China.’
Barack Obama: I can also announce that the United States is fully lifting the ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam that has been in place for some 50 years.
Gabrielle SIERRA: If I'm someone who comes in knowing nothing about arms trade, which I have a feeling many of us might be in that camp, do you think you can give me just a sort of 101 rundown? What are the key things that I should know?
Rachel STOHL: We don't often think about the arms trade when we're reading news stories or hearing about current events in the news, but it's sort of front and center in the tools that are used by Washington in its foreign policy arsenal.
This is Rachel Stohl. She is the vice president of research programs at the Stimson Center, where she also directs their conventional defense program.
STOHL: The global arms trade is an integral part of governments and their foreign policy and defense policies around the world. The United States commands by far the largest share of the arms market. It's more than 40% of the global arms trade just in the last year alone, and that's next to twice the size of its closest global competitor.
So really they're unrivaled and unparalleled in their domination of the arms market.
Bill HARTUNG: There's a handful of supplier nations that control the bulk of the trade in major weapons - tanks, aircraft, helicopters, missiles, et cetera.
This is Bill Hartung. He is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, he focuses on among other topics, global arms trade, military strategy and nuclear policy.
HARTUNG: And the United States is at the top of the list. Russia is about half of that. China's about one seventh. France is a player. UK and Germany are in the mix. But basically the top five control three quarters of the trade. So when you've got this big military complex, there's an incentive to export because it makes bigger production lines cheaper per weapon. It's very profitable for companies to sell overseas when the government has already paid for them to develop the weapons.
One reason U.S. foreign arms sales lead the pack is that the U.S. spends an extraordinary amount on its military overall. Defense spending hit $801 billion in 2021 alone. Compare that to the next highest spender, China, at $293 billion.
The US is also home to 4 of the top 5 private arms manufacturers in the world. Companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and Raytheon Technologies are synonymous with the business of war. It's a bit like silicon valley - where American companies tower over a global industry.
So how did the U.S. get here? Well, after WWII, the U.S. arms industry grew rapidly throughout the Cold War. The United States was spooked about Soviet expansion and increased its military budget as a result. Preferring proxy conflicts to outright war, the U.S. and Russia increasingly shipped weapons to smaller nations.
Budgets had grown so much that by 1960, President Eisenhower warned of a booming "military industrial complex", leading to decades of debate about how much the arms trade, and private arms industry, fuels conflict.
SIERRA: How does the arms industry compare to other large scale industries, like agriculture or oil?
STOHL: Sure. So if we compare the arms trade to other industries, the international defense trade remains relatively small, but that's in terms of dollar value. So if you look at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute or SIPRI, they put the value of the arms trade around $212 billion in 2019. Now, if you compared that to the global trade in agriculture, that was approximately $1.4 trillion dollars in 2020.
SIERRA: Okay, because yeah, that sounded like a big number to me, but definitely not in comparison. Okay.
STOHL: So that gives you sort of a sense of the enterprise. But I don't want people to be too bogged down in sort of the numbers and the dollar value because when you're thinking about the impact of the global arms trade, it's really vast, right? It involves or impacts nearly every country on the planet, whether they're arms exporters, arms importers, maybe they're a transit or a trans shipment country, maybe they feel the effects of the arms trade in terms of, like, refugee flows, or maybe they're involved in conflict or neighboring conflict. So there are many different downstream consequences. Now, obviously, we don't intend for innocent civilians to be killed by the global arms trade, but it happens. And so we have to think about how the arms trade fits into larger policy concerns.
SIERRA: Right? These are weapons or tools that can lead to death and destruction.
STOHL: Deadly consequences all across the board.
SIERRA: Is there a spectrum of relationships from a full on adversary like Iran, to whom we would never sell weapons to an ally like Ukraine, to whom we provide weapons for free, to a NATO ally like the United Kingdom, who we are committed to defend, you know, unconditionally from attack? Where do arms deals fall on such a spectrum?
HARTUNG: The idea of a spectrum is a good one because as mentioned, countries like Iran or Syria, the United States is never going to sell them weapons unless there's a dramatic political earthquake of some sort. In Ukraine, it's of the moment, the weapons are vital for it to defend itself. A country like the UK or another NATO ally there is a commitment to defend them and therefore, sales to those countries are relatively uncontroversial. Although they're an advanced economy, so they pay for the weapons, they don't get them as aid. And then there's a big group in the middle, some African allies, some Middle Eastern allies and others where there's human rights issues, maybe there's been a military coup or there's active conflicts. So in all of those cases, there's judgment calls to be made. There's no automatic decision to make the sale. There may be conditions. You may withhold weapons at a certain point if conflict is heating up and you don't want to stoke it. So it ranges from countries that the sales are uncontroversial, in some cases urgent, in some cases for future deterrence, then you've got this problematic group, and then you've got a group that's completely beyond the pale because they're long standing adversaries.
SIERRA: To get just like a little more granular, step by step, how do these agreements start, who is approving them? How long does it take? How does it go?
STOHL: I think at the most basic level, what we can say is the U.S. engages and arms transfers under several headings. So the first is government to government sales, also known as foreign military sales in which the U.S. government sells directly to another government. And those are overseen by the Department of Defense with inter agency feedback about those particular sales.
Direct foreign military sales happen all the time and it’s the one we hear about most. This October, for example, the US sold missiles to Japan, to the tune of $450 million. These types of decisions, and arms sales policy in general, are made at the executive level. Presidents have significant leeway to shape them. But with direct foreign military sales there is also a complicated review process. It includes the embassy, the combatant commander of a particular region, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Secretaries of State, Defense, Commerce, and Trade. And in the end, Congress also has to approve. It can take a while but it is a reliable process.
STOHL: The second one is called direct commercial sales, and that's where a U.S. vendor or company engages directly with a foreign client on a sale. That client could be a government, it could be a military, it could be a police force, it could be any number of private entities. That is licensed by the Department of State, but that deal is negotiated by the industry and the client. So it's a very different sort of system. Now, there's still an inter agency review process of those sales as well to be able to get a license from the State Department.
Lockheed Martin, which sits at the top of commercial arms sales, sold over $67 billion dollars worth of weapons in 2021. In fact, they were the sole contractor for the largest foreign deal of the year - a $6.9 billion dollar heavy hitter that offered four combat ships and naval equipment to Greece. Direct commercial sales still need an export license and congressional approval, but they are popular due to the shorter review time.
STOHL: And then the final sort of category, I'm just going to call U.S. security assistance, where the U.S. provides defense articles or services through aid that's funded by the U.S. taxpayer, but that goes to a foreign government. So we hear a lot about that in the context of Ukraine, for example. When we hear about drawdowns from U.S. stockpiles, there are things called excess defense articles. There's many different programs that cover this range of security assistance, which is really an aid based program versus a, I'm paying you to purchase a particular item.
Regardless of which type of sale the U.S. engages in, there’s a lot going on besides profits for arms manufacturers. The sales provide an economic benefit for the U.S. military too.
Christa ALMONTE: Taxpayers don't pay for weapons that go abroad, but they do pay for weapons that come to our own forces.
This is Captain Christa Almonte. She is a foreign area officer for the U.S. Navy. She is also a visiting fellow here at the Council, focusing on defense, security and intelligence.
ALMONTE: If we, say, for example, we put an order in for 10 helicopters with a U.S. industry. Five of those are going to go overseas, but five are going to go to our armed forces, and we get those cheaper because we basically bought them by the dozen instead of just the six that we needed. That's an actual benefit to us that taxpayers can feel. And remember, foreign military sales is, by no means, limited to arms. It can be desalinization kits. It can be flashlights. It can be night vision goggles. It can be Jeeps. It can be just about anything.
SIERRA: Amazing that sales work the same way, whether you're buying an avocado or a weapon, that if you buy in bulk you get a good deal.
ALMONTE: But there's also another side to it. Every time a company makes a helicopter or a Jeep for another country, they do have that follow-on technical support. That means it keeps the line open - production line open over the years. The United States may have that Jeep, but we don't need the maintenance on it as much. We do better upkeep, we already have more spare parts. And so we would not, ourselves, be keeping the production line open. But because we are still selling it to other countries, it does keep it open. It keeps that manufacturer in business. Whether it's a mom-and-pop manufacturer or it's a Lockheed Martin and a Boeing of America, it keeps it open. That's important because 10 years, 20 years from now, we may need those spare parts and if we haven't been selling, then there's been no reason to keep the production line open. And frankly, we can't find spare parts to our own equipment and companies will not necessarily open the production line back up for us. They are selling other things and they're not going to reopen when it's not beneficial to their own bottom line as well.
Because the U.S. relies on private industry to arm its large military, it needs those companies to thrive in the periods between U.S. purchases. The argument goes that foreign sales allow companies to keep operating - and developing new weapons- so that they’re ready the next time the U.S. needs something new.
SIERRA: Is there also a benefit that our allies have the same technology as us? You know, is it more secure?
ALMONTE: It is. So there's a few different reasons why technology from the United States, it's much better for us to operate with our own technology. Number one we understand it, it can talk to itself. If someone gets a piece of equipment from, let's just say a European country or from China, they don't necessarily interoperate and we can literally sail right past each other, or fly right past each other, and not be able to have secure communications. That's not helpful if you're trying to do an operation or an exercise and you don't want people to know the details of it, other than those you're operating with.
OK, so we understand how foreign arms sales happen. But what about why? Beyond the economic benefits, why does the U.S. sell weapons to countries all over the world?
ALMONTE: The simple answer is, U.S. weapon sales and security assistance programs build security partnerships among partner nations, among allies, and with those nations that are ready and willing but not quite able in some aspect to advance national security objectives that are similar to our own here in the U.S. When we enable partners, we essentially multiply the forces that we have to answer a call for a defense, or security, or humanitarian assistance. We give them the ability to do for themselves. So we don't have to send our own forces around the globe quite so often. And it is a foreign policy tool. You can see in the news today, President Biden is again reviewing sales agreements already signed by his predecessors with Saudi Arabia as a result of the OPEC agreement to decrease the oil production, and that was, of course, largely Saudi Arabia and Russia. So it is a tool that the president has at his disposal to sway governments one way or the other. If a country does something that we weren't expecting them to do when we agreed to the contract, then we certainly have the ability to put that on hold.
STOHL: Arms transfers are seen by the policy establishment as contributing to several overarching national security and foreign policy aims. And I think the first one is really very obvious and the most concrete, easiest for us to wrap our head around, which is we're contributing to the military capability and capacities of foreign partners. So they may be addressing shared security threats. Maybe we want to improve military interoperability. Maybe we want to provide them weapons for their own self-defense. It's a very straightforward reason. But the results are particularly uneven, particularly over the last few decades. We also may engage, and when I say we, I mean the United States, may often engage in arms transfers as a means to develop access and influence with a foreign partner. So that would include things like foreign basing or over flight rights, or allow the U.S. military to conduct activities in a foreign country and to really build a defense relationship. Now, I should add that influence is really, really difficult to quantify. Much of the U.S. arms trade sort of rests on the assumption that consistent security cooperation with a foreign partner helps build U.S. influence. I think in reality the impact is really difficult to measure. And we can look at lots of anecdotal episodes suggesting that the efficacy of security cooperation in shaping the behavior of a foreign partner to act in a way that the U.S. wants it to act is really questionable.
SIERRA: Are there good examples from history when the U.S. has regretted providing or selling arms?
HARTUNG: If you look at when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of the '70s, the US strategy was to arm the Mujahideen - some of the extremist groups that were helping drive the Soviets back. And some of those players went on to become part of the base of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was part of the supply chain for that pushback against the Soviets. So you had this blow back or what I call the boomerang effect, where you sell arms for one reason and they come back to be used against you in another context.
Hillary Clinton: We were just so happy to see the Soviet Union fall and we thought ‘okay fine, we’re okay now. Things are going to be so much better.’ Now, you look back, the people we’re fighting today, we were supporting in the fight against the Soviets.
HARTUNG: In Iraq, because of ISIS, and even before that because of corruption, many of the US weapons ended up in the hands of anti US forces that had been supplied to the Iraqi government. Some were lost in Yemen. There's various other places where this has happened. So it's like once you sell these arms, you ... And they will last for decades. They're usable for long periods of time. Politics will change, the chaos of war. For various reasons, they can end up on the wrong side relative to US interests and so that's a big concern.
STOHL: I think our security cooperation history is sort of replete with examples of transfers that in retrospect, were deeply regrettable. I mean, you can go all the way back to the Arms For Hostages deal that eventually became known as the Iran Contra Affair. You can think about security forces that would use them in violation of human rights or international humanitarian law. But we can go back to many, many other cases throughout history where we know U.S. arms have been used in contravention of sort of U.S. interests and U.S. values. And that's sort of the problem. When your values don't align with the recipient country and you can't influence their behavior, often you see that mismatch.
Many agree with Rachel that the U.S. should consider selling fewer weapons to countries that don’t share U.S. values: particularly authoritarian countries. But in some administrations, officials saw that as yielding the field and competitive balance to arms rivals like Russia and China.
STOHL: I don't want to make the case that all arm sales are bad. I certainly don't believe that. I think there are cases where we've seen necessary or positive outcomes. I think Ukraine right now is a very good example of where effective U.S. security cooperation in the short term, and I want to say we don't know what's going to happen with these weapons in the long term, but for right now, we understand that short term need to provide those weapons. There are lots of others. We can go back to U.S. military cooperation with Europe after World War II and sort of how our Western allies have rebuilt their militaries. And we don't generally have sort of negative views of arms transfers to our NATO allies. Those are positive relationships. I think the big sort of overall problem is when we use security cooperation as a bandaid for a short term crisis, but we don't consider long term strategic thinking about desired outcome and potential impacts, that's where we have that disconnect.
For years, this type of thinking was not very common in the U.S. government - but there is evidence that some of that might be changing.
STOHL: In the last decade, we've really seen the political salience of arms transfers and responsible security cooperation grow substantially, and particularly among lawmakers. I mean, I've had more conversations about the arms trade in the last decade than probably the 15, 20 years before. People just are aware whether we're talking about Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen, whether we're talking about Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, it's just a more politically salient topic. And we're seeing more and more members of Congress raise concerns about particular arms transfers.
Rand Paul: Saudi Arabia’s air and naval blockade of Yemen has led to thousands and thousands of deaths in Yemen from lack of food and medicine. The U.S. should end all arms sales to the Saudis until they end their blockade of Yemen.
Elizabeth Warren: We need to ask ourselves if the benefits of this relationship with Saudi Arabia is worth the costs if this kind of behavior continues.
Chris Murphy: Every single one of those bombs is stamped with made in the USA, and Yemenis know this. They don’t see this as a Saudi bombing campaign, they see this as an American bombing campaign.
STOHL: And we've even seen legislation around arms transfers in order to strengthen the guardrails that are meant to avert risky or damaging U.S. arms transfers. And I think there was a joint resolution of disapproval passed in 2019, and then lots of bills just in the last three years since that were aimed at limiting U.S. military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other human rights abusers. They did not have a veto proof majority, which is why they did not pass. But it was really notable that for the first time you had bipartisan support to actually disapprove of an arms transfer. There's lots of things Congress can do to flip the script a little bit and have to approve arms transfers rather than only being allowed to vote to disapprove them. But it's a really interesting time, I think, for Congress to re-engage in this conversation.
SIERRA: Why are you seeing this now?
STOHL: I think that we really have seen this in the aftermath of what's happened with Saudi Arabia, both with their perpetuation of the war in Yemen with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. I think there's just more light being shed on who our partners are and the behaviors that they undertake. And I think also there's been a question of how has the U.S. been able to influence the behavior of Saudi Arabia through its arms transfer relationship? And I think the most recent OPEC production cut is a really great example because it's a pretty fairly blunt rejection of the longstanding oil for guns bargain that has defined the U.S. Saudi relationship. And so I think there's just more attention being paid to are we actually able to influence the behavior of the recipients of these arms? And the answer is overwhelmingly time and time again, no. And so I think people are questioning on that sort of ethical and moral ground. I mean, when you see a school bus of children killed by a U.S. weapon that was never intended to target civilians, you have to ask yourself questions like is this really where we want to be involved? And I think members of Congress are finally asking those questions.
Oversight before a sale is one thing, but these sales also create ongoing partnerships, not least because of the need for parts and maintenance. As such, the U.S. often conducts oversight after a sale. But experts do disagree on how effective this oversight ultimately is.
ALMONTE: Depending upon the case, the ongoing relationship can last years. It can last a lot longer than the initial case, for example. When I was the Security Assistance Officer in Bahrain, one of my duties was what we call, end-use monitoring. So, an item is delivered to a country and they have it in use. They have it in their garrison, they're using it in defense of whatever it is, let's say night vision goggles, for example. I then had to go and account for all of these items to make sure the country had not transferred them anywhere else. I literally had to go find the bases where I knew they were keeping the material and I had a list with the serial numbers and the amounts and quantities and they would lay out 50, or 100, or 150 of these items and I would check off one serial number at a time. I would take occasionally another American with me from the embassy to do it because it really is a comprehensive assessment. I couldn't have one of the host nation men do it because it's about American eyes on these items to make sure they are where they are said they are, and they're being used for what they promised they would be used for.
SIERRA: Wow. And that's an ongoing process.
ALMONTE: It's absolutely ongoing. It's a cyclical process and depending upon the equipment it can happen every year.
STOHL: So some systems are easier to track than others. Obviously we think about using small arms as an example. There's a serial number on that gun, and you can track it from point A to point B to point C. Other systems also have identifying numbers and characteristics that allow you to track them and our end use monitoring very much looks like, "Okay, does this serial number or this box match what it says on this piece of paper that we actually provided? Is it where we said it would be?" That does happen. What becomes harder is who is utilizing that system. We may say, this can go to this unit or for this purpose, but once it gets across the water or the land, it's difficult to keep track of what is where. And we've seen particularly in conflict zones. So you think Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Ukraine at the moment, on just recent examples, it's very difficult to say in the moment, this is where all of those systems are that we have provided. Some systems are easier to do that with than others. It's very hard to quickly and quietly move a tank or an aircraft, but it's a lot easier when you're talking about small arms and light weapons. So your risks are very different as well.
SIERRA: I was going to ask, is this a structural issue, like we just don't have the amount of people that we need and the technology we need to track these weapons when they get to another country? Or is it that we just don't have the will because we don't view it as a huge problem?
HARTUNG: I think it's a combination of the two. We definitely need more resources for end use monitoring, but I think because there's a bias towards selling, there's less interest perhaps in keeping track of how the weapons are used in a systematic way. So I think the two sort of go together. There's a resource issue, and there's an issue of political strategic priorities that come into play.
SIERRA: Have we ever gone and been like, Okay, well, you broke our deal, and we are demanding these back, or we're gonna go get them back? Is that sort of just not on the table, like as an option?
STOHL: So we don't usually say, "Can we have those back?" There’s a couple exceptions. For example, the United States provided stinger missiles to Afghanistan in the late 70s, and they caused a lot of problems for U.S. forces even decades later. And so in the early 2000s, the United States actually engaged in a buyback program for what's called MANPADS, man-portable air-defense systems, and has sort of bought those back. That's a really hard thing to do. It's not something the U.S. government engages in all that regularly. That said, we have other tools in our toolbox to be able to stop sales if they are particularly problematic. If they are used in ways that are in contravention with the end user agreement, if they are used to commit human rights violations or if they're used in conflict that were not sort of the purpose of that sale. So we can stop sales. We don't send everything all at once. We may not grant future licenses. So there can be some sort of punitive measures that are taken if a government or an end user does not act responsibly.
We wanted to know what it was like seeing and handling this process on the ground, and, as she said before, Christa has had experience in the field when it comes to oversight.
SIERRA: You did this firsthand, you were on the ground, you talked about counting serial numbers. Ultimately this is a business, a lethal business. I wonder if you could speak a little bit to how it's felt for you in this process.
ALMONTE: You have to see this from both ways. There was a book that was written by Andrew Feinstein called Shadow World. I'm guessing by the title, you can probably guess how he felt about arms trade, but it was called Shadow World and the Global Arms Trade. Essentially, it was an exposé, and it was fantastically written. And if you've read it and don't have any experience in the arms trade, you would say, "My God, what are we doing around the world?" But you have to look at what I have already enumerated, and that is the many, many, many methods we use to ensure things like what are covered in that book do not happen today. That the arms trade of years ago doesn't happen today. And that's how I tried to look at it. When I was in Bahrain, a great ally of ours, thousands upon thousands of American soldiers and sailors passed through there over the years, including me. I've been stationed there three different times. They're in no danger of being overthrown. They're never going to turn a weapon on us. But I went over as a fresh young officer, and I saw these operations and I spoke to their military, and I literally carried weapons to be delivered in the back of my vehicle to their bases, and I delivered them in person. Over the serial numbers they would read off and I would read off and we would sign the bottom saying, "Yep, you now have control of this weapon." It crossed my mind more than once a day, I would say, that these weapons have been used against us in the past. Again, my husband and my husband's brother, a lot of my friends have been deployed into Iraq and Afghanistan over the years. And it's something you must, all of America that's involved in this process must keep that in the back of their mind. If we don't, then we will overlook something in the process and we will sell to the wrong person at the wrong time. So if we are not questioning ourselves with each and every sale, we are doing something wrong, and that's how I felt about it. I read Feinstein's book because, even though I was in the arms business, I wanted to understand where we could go wrong, to avoid going wrong.
SIERRA: I can't help but think about this in very simple terms. If you give a neighbor a gun to defend themselves or you sell it to them, you can't really control how they choose to use it. There will always be a risk that one day it could be used for evil. I think that's how a lot of people feel about the U.S. arms trade, that in the end it will always fuel death. So, what thoughts do you have about the morality of the arms trade?
HARTUNG: There's many - too many cases of arming repressive regimes that are causing huge humanitarian suffering. And so in that case, when it's being done knowing that that's going to be the result, I think it's immoral. I think it shouldn't happen. You know, if we focused in on the most problematic sales and made it harder for those to happen, the world would be a much better place, the United States would be safer, many fewer people would be suffering. And because it's not the whole trade that's at issue, some of these arguments about the economics of it a little bit fall by the wayside. I mean, it's not most advocates of arms transfer control are not saying shut down the whole arms trade. They're saying, let's not sell to these repressive regimes. Let's take a look at how the weapons are being used. All those things can be done and they'll affect a portion of the trade, but not the entire trade. So I think some distinctions have to be made, but there certainly is an element where you see, either an immoral or amoral approach that has devastating human consequences.
STOHL: I wish I saw the world in a more sort of black and white way, but I don't actually take a principled position on whether arms transfers are inherently good or inherently bad. I think they serve a purpose. The problem is, and sort of where I am concerned is they all too often take place sort of irresponsibly or unaccountably or without transparency. That's where I see the challenge. And I think the other challenge for me is that they're often seen as a tool, a first resort, rather than what are our other opportunities? Are there diplomatic solutions? And if we decide, nope, this is the way to go, are we putting in place measures to mitigate any risks that we have identified in sort of our deep thinking about this particular sale? So I see there are some really serious challenges and problems within the current U.S. security cooperation enterprise. And those problems are going to continue to impact the lives of people all over the world. In some cases, we've seen blow back from those weapons against U.S. forces, but also against U.S. interests. And so I think we have to, again, not just look at the short term, but think about those medium and long term consequences. And I think if we are going to continue to sell weapons for whatever reason, we need to do so in an incredibly responsible and accountable and transparent way. And all transfers should really reflect our morals, our values, our understanding of decades of best practice, and in ways that we know are going to contribute to long term interests and outcomes. These are not like, "We'll sell them and see what happens." We really need to be thoughtful about how we utilize arms transfers in our foreign policy and national security goals.
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes. This time, we tried something new, and it’s super cool. Our data visualization colleague, Will Merrow, designed a series of maps and charts to help you understand how the U.S. arms trade is touching every corner of the world. Check them out.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is produced by Asher Ross and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Our associate podcast producer is Molly McAnany. Our intern this semester is Mormei Zanke.
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For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you around!
The United States is the world’s top arms exporter, with 2020 sales from leading U.S. producers reaching $285 billion. It’s a lucrative business, but arms trade is also part of Washington’s foreign policy: it’s used to support U.S. allies, as leverage in international agreements, and even to help one side over another during a conflict. In this episode, Why It Matters explores the global implications of arms trade, and the responsibilities and moral burdens that come with the United States’ outsize role.
Lauren Kahn, “A Refreshed Autonomous Weapons Policy Will Be Critical for U.S. Global Leadership Moving Forward”
Rebecca Lissner, “The Future of Strategic Arms Control”
“U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Control”
“The Future of Arms Control, With Rose Gottemoeller,” The President’s Inbox
From Our Guests
William D. Hartung, “Bombs & Guns: Biden’s ‘Business as Usual’ Approach to U.S. Arms Sales,” Responsible Statecraft
William D. Hartung, “Promoting Stability or Fueling Conflict? The Impact of U.S. Arms Sales on National and Global Security,” Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Diana Ohlbaum and Rachel Stohl, “Yes, Congress, There Is Something You Can Do About Reckless Arms Sales,” Just Security
Rachel Stohl, “Improving U.S. Conventional Arms Policies,” Arms Control Association
Connor Echols, “Where Are Our Weapons Going? U.S. Transparency Is Taking a Nosedive,” Responsible Statecraft
Andrew Feinstein, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade
Editorial Board, “Yemen Crisis Underlines a Shift in Arms Exports,” Financial Times
Watch and Listen
“The Global Arms Trade: Assessing Trends and Future Outlook,” Stimson Center
“The Real Harm of the Global Arms Trade | Samantha Nutt,” TED Talks Live
“Who Profits From the Global Arms Trade?,” Deutsche Welle