U.S. top-ranked in global arms sales
August 28, 2001
We're number one, but it's hardly something we should be proud of.
I'm referring to the U.S. ranking in international arms sales.
The United States is first in arms sales to developing countries, capturing a full 50 percent of that market in 2000, according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service. The United States was also first in arms exports to the world during a year when total arms sales were the highest they have been since 1993.
The United States made more than $18 billion in sales in 2000. Russia, France and Germany were the runners up, with China -- often accused of arms proliferation by U.S. officials -- in fifth place with a meager $400 million worth of new sales.
The United States hawks its military wares worldwide with too little consideration for the possible damaging side effects of such sales. From fueling arms races in the Middle East to arming abusive forces in Indonesia and Colombia, U.S. weapons exports often fly in the face of our government's efforts to promote regional stability and democracy.
What's more, with almost 70 percent of U.S. arms exports going to developing countries last year, we may be encouraging poor nations to spend money on fancy weapons they can ill afford. U.S. arms manufacturers are now salivating over the market potential in Latin America, which was cut off to high-tech U.S. arms exports from 1976 to 1997 because of repressive military regimes in the region. Chile and Brazil are currently planning fighter jet purchases worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- money that could serve their citizens better if invested in education, health care and public infrastructure.
The top U.S. customers are in the Middle East and Asia.
Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are in a quasi-permanent arms race, each needing to one-up the other with the latest purchase of high-tech fighter jets, attack helicopters and missiles. While technically at peace with each other, these states could easily aggravate tensions in the region with the purchase of such high-powered arms.
In Asia, the Pentagon justifies large quantities of arms shipments to South Korea and Taiwan by emphasizing that the sales are for defensive purposes. But major high-tech weapons purchases cannot help diminish simmering tensions between Taiwan and mainland China or stabilize the rocky peace process between North and South Korea.
U.S. arms manufacturers constantly whine about the bureaucracy behind the arms export licensing process. They claim that all the "red tape" -- a vetting process designed to protect U.S. national security and other interests -- hinders their ability to compete in the global marketplace. But now that the report reveals that they control 50 percent of the global market, it's obvious U.S. arms manufacturers never had much reason to complain.
The United States has criticized Russia for selling high-tech weapons to Iran, and China for selling missile components to Pakistan. But the United States is just as guilty of putting profits before prudence when authorizing arms exports.
If Washington is really concerned about the risks of conventional arms proliferation, it should act quickly to implement the International Code of Conduct Act that Congress passed into law in 1999. The act would require U.S. administrations to negotiate with other arms exporters to establish a common set of criteria that would make sales conditional on the buying nation's respect for human rights and its promotion of international peace and security. The United States could help start the ball rolling in this effort by unilaterally applying such stringent export criteria.
By restricting its own sales, the United States could make a strong case to other exporters that the more arms deals are sealed, the more dangerous the world becomes.
Tamar Gabelnick is director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project with the Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org), which is based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.