Anything but Conventional

Daryl G. Kimball

What is the most serious weapons-related security threat? The answer depends on who you are and where you live. For many Westerners, the biggest worry may be catastrophic nuclear terrorism. But for millions of people in conflict-ridden developing regions, the greatest threat emanates from the free flow of and trade in conventional weapons. With global arms sales soaring to more than $44 billion in 2005 and hundreds of thousands of people dying annually from weapons and war, tough new controls on international arms sales are urgently needed.

U.S. and global leaders recognize the high-consequence dangers posed by nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. As a result, they have established a patchwork system of legally binding treaties restricting the possession, proliferation, and use of “unconventional” weapons. However, there is no international treaty regulating the export of conventional arms, which produce more misery and carnage on a day-to-day basis.

During the Cold War, weapons sales were primarily used by Washington and Moscow to win friends and fight proxy wars. Since then, the global arms market has persisted but is driven more and more by profit and interest in sustaining domestic armaments industries.

Partly as a result, countries have sought but been unable to achieve binding restrictions on the global arms trade. After the 1990 Persian Gulf War, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States initiated talks on regulating weapons transfers. The talks limped along until September 1992, when a U.S. decision to sell 150 F-16 fighter aircraft to China’s rival, Taiwan, halted the effort.

Later, in the mid-1990s, a bipartisan congressional coalition sought and failed to establish tougher criteria for U.S. arms sales. The Clinton administration, which relaxed nearly two decades of restrictions on advanced arms sales to Latin America, strongly opposed the adoption of any new standards. A 2001 UN conference on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons foundered because the Bush administration opposed provisions affecting civilian gun ownership or arms transfers to nonstate actors.

The latest geostrategic rationale for many U.S. sales is the so-called war on terror. For instance, U.S. officials claim that the recent sale to Pakistan of F-16 jets with air-to-air missiles will help in the fight against al Qaeda. In reality, they are for fighting India, and they create a market for selling similar U.S. fighters to India.

The result is a robust global arms bazaar led, in order, by the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China. Sixty-eight percent ($30 billion) of all weapons sales last year were with developing nations, many of which have subpar records on human rights and democracy. Last year, the United States alone signed deals worth $6.2 billion with states such as Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates for attack helicopters, missiles, aircraft, and other weapons.

Is the arms trade a cause or a symptom of global conflicts? It is both. As outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently put it, “Arms buildups can give rise to threats leading to conflict, and political conflicts can motivate the acquisition of arms. Efforts are needed both to reduce arms and to reduce conflict.”

In particular, the burgeoning trade in small arms and light weapons, including rifles, machine guns, and mortars, helps increase the level of violence of civil conflicts in many countries, from Angola to Colombia, Congo, Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the Darfur region of Sudan.

In response to this unacceptable situation, one major supplier state, the United Kingdom helped spearhead and win UN support for a process that could eventually lead to a new global arms trade treaty. In October, the United Nations’ First Committee endorsed a resolution that calls for exploring common standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional weapons. Multilateral negotiations could begin in two years. The goal is not to outlaw arms sales but to require suppliers to operate in a more transparent, responsible, and accountable manner.

The resolution won 139 votes, while 24 states, including Russia and China, abstained. The United States was the only state to oppose it. U.S. officials complain that the effort will produce more meetings and less action and lead to a lowest-common-denominator set of standards. Yet, to paraphrase Churchill, what is wrong with more jaw-jaw if it means less war-war?

Rather than impeding the initiative, the United States should be out front pulling. U.S. diplomats should listen to their British counterparts who point out that key suppliers can and should work together to ensure that the treaty compels states to adopt stronger, not weaker, arms transfer controls.

As the world’s leading arms supplier, the United States has a special responsibility and a clear self-interest in establishing tougher, binding standards on conventional arms transfers. Today, most arms sales have little or nothing to do with self-defense and the arms being sold only help fuel conflicts and tensions in unstable areas, undermining prospects for peace and opportunities for the less fortunate. We can no longer afford to ignore the long-term cost to human security. The time to act is now.