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Slowing the Proliferation of Major Conventional Weapons: The Virtues of an Uncompetitive Market

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 December 2017


Proliferation of major conventional weapons (MCW) in larger numbers, at greater levels of sophistication, and to more actors is at best a waste of valuable resources and at worst fuel for more and bloodier conflicts. Given a track record of violence, repression, and corruption, norms against exporting weapons to active conflicts and human rights abusers, as well as norms in favor of transparency in weapons transfers, have grown more salient in recent years. Yet international efforts such as the UN Conventional Arms Trade Treaty show little promise for mitigating these ills. This article finds an alternate route toward moderating global arms transfers. It shows, with supporting data, how the United States, pursuing its own political interests, leverages its massive market power to slow the proliferation of dangerous technology, reduce resources spent in the developing world on weapons, stymie the deadweight losses of corruption in the arms industry, and lower the rewards for human rights abusers.

Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2017 

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1 Compared to major conventional weapons, the political economy of producing and transferring either small arms or nuclear weapons differs greatly and will not be considered here.

2 Brzoska, Michael and Pearson, Frederic S., Arms and Warfare: Escalation, De-escalation, and Negotiation (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1994)Google Scholar; and Smith, Ron P. and Tasiran, Ali, “The Demand for Arms Imports,” Journal of Peace Research 42, no. 2 (2005), pp. 167–81, doi:10.1177/0022343305050689 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Blanton, Shannon Lindsey, “Instruments of Security or Tools of Repression? Arms Imports and Human Rights Conditions in Developing Countries,” Journal of Peace Research 36, no. 2 (1999), pp. 233–44, doi:10.1177/0022343399036002006 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Andrew Chuter, “Report: Anti-Corruption Programs Lacking,” Defense News, Washington, D.C., April 27, 2015,

5 Aude Fleurant, “Declining Transparency in Reporting on Arms Trade and Military Spending: Some Observations,” Forum on the Arms Trade, May 17, 2016,

6 Sam Perlo-Freeman et al., “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2015,” Sipri Fact Sheet, April 2016, pp. 1–8.

7 World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers (WMEAT), “WMEAT 2016 Introduction and Overview,” Washington, D.C., December 2016.

8 Andrea Gilli and Mauro Gilli, “The Diffusion of Drone Warfare? Industrial, Organizational, and Infrastructural Constraints,” Security Studies 25, no. 1 (2016), pp. 50–84, doi:10.1080/09636412.2016.1134189.

9 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “SIPRI Arms Transfers Database” (2016). For more information on how SIPRI calculates the trend indicator value, visit

10 Krause, Keith, Arms and the State: Patterns of Military Production and Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 179CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 “SIPRI Arms Transfers Database” (2016).

12 Ibid.

13 Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, “Russian Defense Industry and Arms Trade: Facts and Figures,” Moscow (2016),

14 Dominique Gallois, “Ventes d'Armes: La Stratégie Gagnante de La France,” Le Monde, August 21, 2015,

15 Krause, Arms and the State, pp. 29–32.

16 Sixty-eight percent of U.S. exports are to the “developing world.” Compared to all other countries, Germany exports the next smallest percentage at 82 percent. Catherine A. Theohary, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2008–2015,” Congressional Research Service (CRS), Washington, D.C., December 19, 2016. Several econometric articles link U.S. arms exports to human rights observance and democracy. See Blanton, Shannon Lindsey, “Foreign Policy in Transition? Human Rights, Democracy, and U.S. Arms Exports,” International Studies Quarterly 49, no. 4 (2005), pp. 647–67, doi:10.1111/j.1468-2478.2005.00382.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Blanton, Shannon Lindsey, “Promoting Human Rights and Democracy in the Developing World: U.S. Rhetoric versus U.S. Arms Exports,” American Journal of Political Science 44, no. 1 (2000), pp. 123–31, doi:10.2307/2669298 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Jennifer L. Erickson on the other hand finds little statistical linkage between U.S. exports and human rights. Erickson also finds that for the leading European exporters, “poor human rights are associated with increased arms transfers.” Erickson, Jennifer L., “Market Imperative Meets Normative Power: Human Rights and European Arms Transfer Policy,” European Journal of International Relations 19, no. 2 (2013), pp. 209–34, doi:10.1177/1354066111415883CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Transparency International (TI), “Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index” (2016), TI employs a peer-reviewed 77-question questionnaire to measure “levels of corruption risk in national defence establishments.” Countries received a “C” or better if they scored above 50 percent of all the possible points in the assessment. It must be noted that TI “considers a lack of transparency in the defence structures to pose as significant a corruption risk as the lack of structure itself.” For a description of its methodology, see

18 Mark Gibney et al., “The Political Terror Scale 1976–2015” (2016), The Political Terror Scale (PTS) measures levels of political violence and terror that a country experiences in a particular year based on a 5-level “terror scale” derived from three different sources: the yearly country reports of Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department, and Human Rights Watch. According to PTS, states that score a “2” have a “limited amount of imprisonment for nonviolent political activity . . . torture and beatings are exceptional . . . political murder is rare.” States coded as a “3” have “extensive political imprisonment or a recent history of such imprisonment. Execution or other political murders and brutality may be common. Unlimited detention, with or without a trial, for political views is accepted.” Note that PTS distinguishes between Israel's human rights record in the occupied territories and in its pre-1967 borders. Coding for Israel, given the vastness of U.S. markets, does little to change the overall percentages between the two categories.

19 While some middle-level exporters in Europe look better than the United States in 2(b) and 3(b), this is an artifact of the tightly regional nature of their clients. For this time period, some 39 percent of Germany's arms exports and 38 percent of Italy's go to Europe or the United States; 27 percent of Spain's exports went to Australia alone.

20 Theohary, “Conventional Arms Transfers.” CRS includes Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa into the “Near East” region. Note that the report only breaks out Near East countries by supplier.

21 Counterterrorism assistance, military training, and the provision of spare parts continued.

22 Theohary, “Conventional Arms Transfers.”

23 Amnesty International, “EU: Halt Arms Transfers to Egypt to Stop Fuelling Killings and Torture,” May 25, 2016,

24 Pierre Tran, “Group Wants Tech Transfer to Define Strategies of French Arms Companies,” Defense News, April 8, 2016.

25 Kerry Herschelman, “Finalising S-400 Agreement with Russia, Turkey Rejects NATO Interoperability Argument,” Jane's Defence Weekly, July 31, 2017.

26 Bağcı, Hüseyin and Kurç, Çağlar, “Turkey's Strategic Choice: Buy or Make Weapons?Defence Studies 17, no. 1 (2017), pp. 3862, doi:10.1080/14702436.2016.1262742 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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28 Hasnain Kazim, “German Arms Firms Seek Cooperation with India,” Der Spiegel, July 18, 2012,

29 Wiltz, John Edward, “The Nye Munitions Committee, 1934,” in Schlesinger, Arthur M. and Bruns, Roger, eds., Congress Investigates: A Documented History, 1792–1974 (New York: Chelsea House, 1975), pp. 27352922 Google Scholar.

30 International treaties and cooperation have moderated the spread of nuclear weapons, but I argue that this is due to these weapons’ unique economic and destructive qualities. Small arms and light weapons, due to their economic nature, are unlikely to be moderated either by treaty or by making the market less competitive.

31 Caverley, Jonathan and Kapstein, Ethan, “Arms Away,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 5 (2012)Google Scholar; and Kapstein, Ethan, “America's Arms-Trade Monopoly: Lagging Sales Will Starve Lesser Suppliers,” Foreign Affairs 73, no. 3 (1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Srdjan Vucetic, “A Nation of Feminist Arms Dealers? Canada and Military Exports,” International Journal (forthcoming).

33 Association, Arms Control, “Three Asian Countries to Get U.S. Missiles,” Arms Control Today 33, no. 7 (September 2003)Google Scholar. For a recent restatement of this policy, see Gregory M. Kausner, “Conventional Arms Transfer Policy: Advancing American National Security through Security Cooperation” (Remarks, IISS-US Policymakers Series, Washington, D.C., April 23, 2014).

34 Barack Obama, “Presidential Policy Directive: United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy,” Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-27, Washington, D.C., January 15, 2014.

35 Derek Gilman et al., “Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales,” Washington, D.C., September 30, 2014,

36 Gilman et al., “Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales.”

37 Partial exceptions are made for Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Yemen. Gilman et al., “Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales.” Note that the Trump administration is threatening to cut the Foreign Military Financing program that funds some of these foreign purchasers. Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould, “Trump Budget to Cut Foreign Military Financing, with Loan Option Looming,” Defense News, May 19, 2017.

38 Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “Fiscal Year 2016 Sales Total $ 33.6B,” News Release, November 8, 2016,

39 Vadim Kozyulin, “Transfer of Defense Technologies: Should They Be Included in the ATT?,” UNIDIR Background Paper, Geneva, January 17, 2013.

40 U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Export Controls: U.S. Agencies Need to Assess Control List Reform's Impact on Compliance Activities,” April 23, 2012,

41 Obama, “Presidential Policy Directive: United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy” (2014).

42 “SIPRI Arms Transfers Database” (2016).

43 “The limitations the US has imposed on itself is what led to the rise of Chinese strike UAVs in the world,” notes Barbara Opall-Rome, quoting Tal Inbar, head of UAV and Space Programs at Israel's Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies. See Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israel Wary of US Armed Drone Initiative,” Defense News, September 1, 2016, This statement is a bit cute, of course; Israel is the world's dominant exporter of drones, largely thanks to U.S. restraint. For an overview of U.S. unmanned systems, see Elisa Catalano Ewers et al., “Drone Proliferation: Policy Choices for the Trump Administration,” Center for a New American Security, June 2017. This is a useful primer, albeit one that criticizes the United States for “overly prioritiz[ing] limiting proliferation at the expense of other U.S. interests.”

44 Caverley, Jonathan D. and Kapstein, Ethan B., “Who's Arming Asia?Survival 58, no. 2 (2016), pp. 167–84, doi:10.1080/00396338.2016.1161911 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 Ibid.

46 For a broad overview of U.S. hierarchy, see Lake, David A., Hierarchy in International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

47 Miles A. Pomper, “U.S., Israel Reach China Arms Deal,” Arms Control Today, September 1, 2005.

48 Kang Seung-Woo, “US strikes down T-50 exports to Uzbekistan,” Korea Times, October 2015.

49 Devore, Marc R., “Arms Production in the Global Village: Options for Adapting to Defense-Industrial Globalization,” Security Studies 22, no. 3 (2013), pp. 532–72, doi:10.1080/09636412.2013.816118 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 Kapstein, “America's Arms-Trade Monopoly.”

51 Stavrianakis, Anna, “Legitimising Liberal Militarism: Politics, Law and War in the Arms Trade Treaty,” Third World Quarterly 37, no. 5 (2016), pp. 840–65, doi:10.1080/01436597.2015.1113867 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Erickson, Jennifer L., “Saint or Sinner? Human Rights and U.S. Support for the Arms Trade Treaty,” Political Science Quarterly 130, no. 3 (2015), pp. 449–74, doi:10.1002/polq.12361 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Stavrianakis, “Legitimising Liberal Militarism.”

54 Krause, Arms and the State.