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"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
New U.S. Arms Policy Calls for ‘Restraint’
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Jefferson Morley

The Obama administration in January announced a new policy on conventional arms transfers that emphasizes the need for restraint in considering transfers that might endanger regional security or human rights.

President Barack Obama declared in a Jan. 15 directive that the new policy “supports transfers that meet legitimate security requirements of our allies and partners in support of our national security and foreign policy interests” and “promotes restraint” in those “that may be destabilizing or dangerous to international peace and security.”

The policy, which replaces a 1995 directive issued by President Bill Clinton, follows the administration’s announcement last October that it was loosening rules on the sale of U.S.-made weapons overseas. The reforms announced last fall are part of an effort that the administration says will tighten controls on the sale of the most dangerous arms while enhancing commerce in defense material and services that are not threatening. (See ACT, November 2013.)

Obama’s new policy, in combination with changes in State and Commerce department regulations announced in October and Secretary of State John Kerry’s signing of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) last September, marks a significant evolution in the U.S. approach to the global conventional arms trade, worth tens of billions of dollars a year to U.S. manufacturers.

“A lot has happened since 1995,” Tom Kelly, acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, wrote in a Feb. 3 posting on the State Department’s blog. Kelly cited “the spread of globalized terrorism epitomized in the September 11, 2001, attacks” and “the development of regional security partnerships to combat emerging threats, such as those arising from ungoverned territories and transnational crime.”

“Events in the Middle East and Africa during the past three years also provided a major impetus to this review,” Kelly wrote.

Obama’s directive reiterates the goal of the 1995 arms sales guidance—to make sure the United States “continues to enjoy technological superiority”—but adds a more explicit commitment to “ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.”

The new policy also requires officials to consider “the risk that significant change in the political or security situation of the recipient country could lead to inappropriate end-use or transfer of defense articles.”

In Jan. 15 summary of the directive, the White House said “the scope of the policy has also broadened to include not only transfers of arms, but also the provision of related services and the transfer of technical data related to arms.” The 1995 policy dealt with these issues in general terms. The new policy addresses them directly.

Obama pledged to continue U.S. participation in multilateral arms control efforts, including the UN Register of Conventional Arms and the UN Standardized Instrument for Reporting Military Spending. The directive restated the U.S. commitment to the Wassenaar Arrangement, a voluntary international effort launched in 1996 to prevent destabilizing buildups of conventional arms.

“We will continue to use the Wassenaar Arrangement to promote shared national policies of restraint against the acquisition of armaments and sensitive dual-use goods and technologies for military end-uses by states whose behavior is a cause for serious concern,” the directive states.

Although the new directive did not mention the ATT, analysts noted that some of its language matches the text of the treaty. The ATT faces an uphill battle for Senate approval. (See ACT, December 2013.)

Obama declared that the United States would not approve arms transfers that might be politically destabilizing or lead to human rights abuses. The United States will “exercise unilateral restraint in the export of arms in cases where such restraint will be effective or is necessitated by overriding national interests,” the directive states.

One industry leader questioned the U.S. approach. During a Jan.15 event at the Atlantic Council, Textron CEO Ellen Lord said there is a “fear of risk” in the U.S. approval process, according to Defense News.

“We’re trying to enable our partners around the world to have the security that they can get by buying our products, and yet we’re inhibiting them getting those products,” said Lord, whose company is a major defense contractor.

Arms control advocates applauded Obama’s initiative. The directive “holds out hope that human rights will be restored to a central place in arms transfer decision making after years of being subordinated to other concerns,” wrote defense analyst William Hartung in The Hill.

Click here for an analysis of the new arms transfer policy.