Letter to Editor: Arms Sales - A Challenge for Obama

By Joseph P. Smaldone

Jeff Abramson 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 policy.

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Greg Suchan said...

I've known Joe Smaldone for many years, and we have frequently disagreed on arms transfer policy. Joe's article contains a significant error of fact when he says in the article that the State Department is "chronically unable to generate meaninful, reliable data" on commercial arms sales. In fact, the State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC, which I used to head until I retired from the Foreign Service two years ago) publishes annually what is called the 655 report, which lists all approvals of permanent exports of defense articles and services. The most recent report (for FY07) can be accessed at http://www.pmddtc.state.gov/reports/documents/rpt655_FY07.pdf.

I do agree with Joe that the US dominates the international arms transfer market, although I suspect the US share of the market is significantly greater than the 38% that he references in the article. The reasons for that dominance, which Joe does not dwell upon, are that the US expends much more on defense R&D than any other country and builds more and better weapons for its own use. This should not surprise anyone in the (unfortunately shrinking) share of the populace who recalls that the United States remains a country at war. As a result, US defense equipment is almost invariably more capable and generally more economical than other countries' weapons.

Joe recommends that the Obama Administration undertake an urgent review of conventional arms transfer policy. That is of course up to the new Administration, and I'm unlikely to be asked for my opinion. However, the reason the Bush Administration did not change the Clinton Administration's policy, PDD-34 (http://www.fas.org/asmp/atwg/clinton/pdd-34.html), was that it provided a flexible means for addressing arms transfer issues within the broad context of foreign and defense policy. That, I suspect, is the problem Joe and others have with the policy.

Joe's recommendations include serious engagement with the EU on an arms transfer code of conduct patterned on the normative criteria of the EU's existing code. This is strange, considering that a few years ago the EU was actively marching toward lifting its arms embargo on China and pointed to the Code of Conduct as a more than adequate substitute. The EU stopped for a breather only because of skillful US diplomacy (in which I played a modest role) and Beijing's passage of the anti-secession law, which threatened the use of force against Taiwan and embarrrassed even the EU supporters of lifting the embargo. Moreove, it is worth noting that under the existing Code, EU member states have authorized arms transfers not only to the PRC (despite the Code + embargo) but also to Iran, Sudan and many other pariah states.

The point is that the Code of Conduct, like the proposed Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), is a feel-good measure that causes the high-minded to swoon but earns nothing but sniggers from the people who actually regulate their governments' arms transfers.

Let's talk about the Arms Trade Treaty, which is another of Joe's recommendations. As the proponents of the ATT recognize, all significant arms exporting countries would have to sign on to the ATT and comply with its terms if it is to have anything like the desired effect. Russia is the main arms exporter to Iran (and China). China routinely exports arms to Sudan and Burma. They do so not only to support their respective defense industrial bases (a part of PDD-34 that Joe makes clear he would like to see go away) but also to advance the political and economic objectives of the Russian and Chinese governments. Does any reasonable person believe that Moscow and Beijing would sign on to an ATT that would require them to reverse those policies? And is there any ATT supporter who thinks that a treaty that does NOT block arms transfers to such pariahs is worthy of support?

The inevitable outcome of the international effort to build an ATT would be the familiar result of most multilateral negotiations, an inexorable dive toward the bottom in a search for a lowest common demoninator -- something that the United States and other responsible arms exporting countries would not recognize as restraint.

It would even have a pernicious effect on the arms transfer policies of the US and other responsible countries. Many times, when I was still at the State Department, I would confront other governments on their arms transfers to hostile states that oppressed human rights and posed a military threat to their neighbors. Often I was met with a shrug and a question: "Is such a transfer prohibited by any international regime (e.g., the Wassenaar Arrangement)? No? Then obviously it has the international good housekeeping seal of approval. Have a nice day." I predict that any ATT that might win the grudging acceptance of Moscow, Beijing or even the governments of some of our Allies (no need to name nommes) will inevitably be invoked as a justificaation for arms transfers that Joe, I and most reasonable people would agree to be odious.

I should end on a lighter note. Joe recommends that US arms transfers be subject to the approval of the Agency for Internaional Development (AID). AID is no doubt because the CRS report that stimulated the Abramson article and Joe's letter focuses on arms transfers to "developing countries," which the CRS defines as all countries EXCEPT the US, Russia, Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. it therefore includes many countries with deep pockets, such as China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, etc. In fact, review the State Department's 655 report and you won't find many major arms transfers to countries that receive assistance from AID. The exceptions include Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, which are key partners in what a dinosaur like me still considers to be a War on Terror. If somebody bothers to ask AID, I doubt that they would consider it worth their while to review tens of thousands of potential arms transfers each year.

joesmaldone said...

I am pleased that my letter provoked a response from Greg Suchan, whom I succeeded in 1999 as director of conventional arms nonproliferation policy at State, and for whom I have high regard personally and professionally. Greg went on to bigger and hopefully better things before his retirement, and his commentary echoes views heard often “in the building.” They deserve a considered reply, and I welcome the opportunity to address them in this public forum.

Being an optimist (part of why I support “feel-good measures”), I’m hoping the fact that Greg did not dispute everything I stated or proposed means that we share at least some common ground. But our differences are many and important, so I’ll take them one-by-one.

First, my characterization of State Department’s reports on commercial arms sales as being neither “meaningful” nor “reliable” is not dismissed by Greg’s reference to the annual “655 report” of which I am well aware. In fact, I was referring to that very report without naming it! It would take a detailed exegesis of that bulky document to explain what it includes and excludes, and what its definitions and dollar values mean. This is not the place for such an exercise, but here’s a canonical example: rather than identifying specific types of items licensed for export (much less their “make and model”), the report lumps together various unspecified items into categories, some of which are exceedingly broad, e.g., “Rockets, bombs, grenades, torpedoes, depth charges, land and naval mines, launchers for such defense articles, and demolition blocks and blasting caps.” Needless to say, it makes a big difference whether we’re talking about hand grenades, naval weapons, or rockets! We’ll never know. Don’t get me wrong: the 655 report is better than no report at all, and represents a level of transparency that other arms exporters would do well to emulate. But it raises more questions than it answers, and that’s not meaningful or reliable.

Even recognizing the uncertainties of the 655 report, it is astounding to note the value of defense trade authorizations for 2007 was $90 billion, yes, that’s BILLION. Taken together with the huge spike in government-to-government sales that the Pentagon notified to Congress in 2008 – $75 billion – as Jeff Abramson reported in this month’s ACT, these levels of U.S. arms exports only reinforce the importance of a credible CAT policy. (To add a rich icing to this already huge cake, that $75 billion does not include sales that fell below the statutory notification thresholds.)

Greg is right that one of the problems I and others have with the Clinton-Bush CAT policy is that its 12 criteria for deciding whether to approve or deny arms exports are merely a list of factors to consider. These criteria are a hodge-podge, with no indication of which are deemed more important, and some are a mélange of unrelated factors (e.g., taking account of “the human rights, terrorism, and proliferation record of the recipient …”). For the record, I do not object to taking account of the “impact on U.S. industry and the defense industrial base” or “foreign availability of comparable systems.” My concern is that they were added as separate factors, while arms control, human rights, and terrorism were compacted together, literally reducing their visibility. And of course, since any arms sale benefits U.S. industry and the industrial base, it goes without saying that it always scores points “for” as opposed to “against.”

These are not just petty quibbles about words and their visibility. What I didn’t say in the Letter to the Editor due to space limitations, but which bears stating here, is that this policy became all the more disturbing in the context of an increasingly warped decision-making apparatus and process. After the Cold War, a concatenation of external changes drove a significant realignment of bureaucratic forces. Lacking an avowed enemy, Defense became a strong proponent of arms exports to establish and solidify security ties with an expanding network of “partners.” Shrinking defense budgets and contraction of the defense industry made the Pentagon more dependent on fewer and bigger contractors, and it viewed more arms sales as a means to offset falling domestic procurement, keep the defense industrial base warm, and lower per unit costs for itself and allied buyers. Second, the Commerce Department, whose main mission is trade promotion and which heretofore had no voice in arms transfer issues, now took a seat at the table. Third, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), a favorite whipping boy of then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC), was abolished in 1999 and merged into the State Department as a sacrifice to Helms’ political extortion. Fourth, heightened concerns about WMD proliferation magnified the already gross disparity between the substantial attention and resources devoted to these weapons that have rarely been used, and the scant efforts to regulate conventional weapons that are used all too often. Finally, since the 1990s, many NGOs and academics who had traditionally followed CAT policy have pursued niche issues like landmines, small arms and light weapons, and cluster weapons. In short, during the Clinton years the long-standing interagency balance was upset, as agencies that were inclined to promote arms exports rose to ascendance, the one voice for arms control was silenced, and the civil society watchdogs were otherwise preoccupied.

Moving on, Greg obviously doesn’t think much of the EU Code of Conduct on arms transfers, and sees only “feel-good” value in US-EU cooperation to promote even stronger global standards. The US-EU Summit of December 2000 issued a joint statement stating their determination to do just this, but there was no follow-up. Greg cites especially the proposed lifting of the EU arms embargo on China as an indication of its flawed Code of Conduct, and “skillful US diplomacy” in averting that action. Arguably, however, “US diplomacy” was as heavy-handed as it was “skillful.” But more to the point: the U.S. and EU embargoes date back to the bloody Tiananmen Square incident 20 years ago, and their purpose was to register strong disapproval of Beijing’s behavior. After two decades, the EU felt that they had made their point and it was time to move on, but the US wanted an indefinite continuation of the embargo on new grounds – fears of China’s defense modernization and occasionally aggressive behavior. Both the EU and US need a more realistic approach to China, and even if differences persist, they should not stand in the way of jointly building a more disciplined approach to arms transfers.

Greg also dismisses the Arms Trade Treaty as “an inexorable dive toward the bottom in a search for a lowest common denominator.” A cynic would say this is true of every interagency committee and every international agreement, but the real questions are: how high can we set the bar, and is something better than nothing? Building global norms is a critical precondition for building global cooperation: nations that agree on the basics find it easier to reach agreement on the details. The US, which enjoys overwhelming if not overweening dominance in the world arms market and whose domestic arms export regulatory system (despite its shortcomings) is second to none, is well-placed to exert leadership in efforts to promote higher standards in arms export policies and practices. That would serve U.S. interests. Had the US taken the ATT initiative seriously and joined in efforts to develop it, as opposed to ignoring or dismissing it, the ATT and the US would be better for it. Late last year, the US distinguished itself by being one of only two countries voting against the ATT in the UN General Assembly; the other was Zimbabwe, whose tyrannical leader then-President Bush had called upon to step down. Strange bedfellows indeed! At this point, it will be difficult for the US to overcome this history and to shape the emerging ATT, but better late than never.

Finally, as for AID having a role in the CAT policy process, I don’t presume to speak for that agency, but I do believe it should be offered the opportunity, regardless of whether the beneficiaries of its programs are the intended recipients of arms. It makes sense to me that the agency concerned with development, disaster relief, and good governance should have a say in decisions that affect realization of those goals. Together with subjecting arms transfer proposals (both commercial and government-to-government) to an independent arm control-nonproliferation review outside of the Political-Military Affairs bureau, AID’s participation would help restore a balanced decision-making process. Greg need not worry that AID will get bogged down reviewing “tens of thousands” of arms transfer transactions annually – AID could specify which countries or types of transfers are of greatest concern, effectively ensuring that its views are sought and heard only in cases of particular interest. That in fact is the basic principle upon which interagency (and within State, interbureau) consultation and coordination are conducted.

Greg and I, as well as many other people interested in CAT issues, could continue this dialogue and debate in this forum for some time to come. But it is more important that it move into the halls of government. Given the bureaucratic inertia and disequilibrium that have characterized CAT policy for so long, I believe that “real change” will come only if directed from the highest levels of the new administration. Barack and Joe . . . it’s up to you!