Letter to the Editor: Arms Sales- A Challenge for Obama

Joseph P. Smaldone

Jeff Abramson's article "U.S. Atop Expanding Global Arms Market" in the December 2008 issue of Arms Control Today highlighted recent trends but did not point out a major challenge for the Obama administration: the urgent need to change U.S. conventional arms transfer (CAT) policy.

As noted in the article and the Congressional Research Service report it summarized, in 2007 the world arms market was about $60 billion, of which the United States accounted for $25 billion, more than 40 percent of the total. During 2000-2007, the annual value of U.S. arms supply agreements averaged $17 billion, and the United States captured 38 percent of the global market. Developing countries made two-thirds of worldwide arms buys during the first eight years of this century, $42 billion in 2007 alone. Since 2000, developing countries have accounted for 50-70 percent of total U.S. arms export agreements annually, whereas for Russia, developing countries are virtually its only arms market. The United States and Russia together control more than 60 percent of the developing world market. In truth, U.S. arms sales far exceed these levels because they exclude many billions of direct commercial sales licensed by the State Department, which is chronically unable to generate meaningful, reliable data.

These patterns are significant not only in terms of trade and economics. Their political, security, development, and humanitarian implications are of greater import. Since World War II, there have been fundamental shifts in the nature and locus of wars. International wars are rare, but the incidence of civil wars in the developing world has become rife. Depending on how they are defined and measured, some 20-40 internal conflicts are raging in any given year.

The nexus between arms and developing world conflicts is obvious. To be sure, people, not guns, start and fight wars, but weapons are essential ingredients in the recipe for wars. The availability of arms is a critical factor affecting decisions and behavior in situations where tensions, instability, and war risks are high. In these dangerous conditions, arms supplies raise the probability of war, prolong conflicts, and contribute to economic devastation and human suffering.

If guns matter, so do weapons export policies. Whereas President Jimmy Carter tried to restrain arms transfers, President Ronald Reagan promoted them. Reagan's CAT policy remained intact under President George H. W. Bush. Bill Clinton won the presidency largely on domestic economic issues. His CAT policy was not issued until February 1995, two full years after he took office. It was a mixed bag and largely formalized policies and practices that had been evolving. Decision-making criteria were more a recipe for dispute than useful guidance for bureaucrats. Arms control and human rights considerations were downplayed, and for the first time, the "impact on U.S. industry and the defense industrial base" as well as "foreign availability of comparable systems" were taken into account.

The George W. Bush administration overturned many of its predecessor's policies, notably regarding arms control and nonproliferation, but amazingly made a conscious decision to embrace Clinton's CAT policy untouched! Apparently, when it came to arms exports, there was little or no daylight between Democrats and Republicans. Reagonomics, Clintonomics, and Bushomics all meant the same thing: sell more arms, beat the competition, and oppose anything that might stand in the way.

Sadly, President Barack Obama may be succumbing to this same old routine. CAT issues were utterly absent in the recent presidential campaign. The one legislative initiative Obama trumpeted most was joining Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) to co-sponsor a measure expanding efforts started by the Clinton administration: paying to collect and destroy excess arms held by other countries, but making no effort to address the supply side of the market. Ever since Clinton opted out of the Mine Ban Convention, U.S. programs to remove and destroy excess stockpiles or weapons left behind in conflict zones have served as a thinly veiled substitute for meaningful action to address world arms flows, especially the huge portion supplied by the United States.

If Obama wants to do something more than conduct business as usual by continuing the CAT policy of his predecessors, here are some starters.


  • Engage seriously with the European Union (EU) to develop and promote a global code of conduct on arms transfers, incorporating the stronger normative criteria of the EU Code and the wider regulatory scope of U.S. policies and practices.
  • Work bilaterally with Russia to explore mutual or reciprocal restraints in supplying weapons to developing world hotspots and to find areas of possible cooperation on multilateral and global CAT issues.
  • Reverse U.S. obstructionism and engage seriously in the effort to negotiate the arms trade treaty, a process that has been endorsed by the United Nations.
  • Put diplomatic muscle and resources into strengthening enforcement of mandatory UN arms embargoes.


  • Inaugurate a long-overdue review of U.S. CAT policy, with a view toward adopting the more restrictive and prescriptive criteria employed by the EU.
  • Revamp the interagency CAT decision-making system by including the U.S. Agency for International Development fully in the process, from policymaking to review of export decisions.
  • Within the State Department, subject arms transfer decisions to an undiluted arms control-nonproliferation review by a bureau separate from Political-Military Affairs, which administers defense export programs.
  • Press the Senate to ratify the 1997 Organization of American States (OAS) Firearms Convention and the 1999 OAS Conventional Arms Transparency Convention, each of which is the fruit of U.S. leadership in promoting regional security cooperation in this hemisphere.

Joseph P. Smaldone, formerly director of conventional arms nonproliferation policy at the State Department, is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.