November 14, 2006

The Way of the Gun

Here's a new report: "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1998-2005." Normally I assume that pulling fingernails is a more enjoyable activity than reading anything with a title like that, but it's actually fairly fascinating. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States sold $33.3 billion worth of arms to developing countries between 2002 and 2005, or a third of the world's total. Russia and France were the other leading suppliers. Last year, the United States delivered $8.1 billion in weapons to poorer countries—more than any other nation.

What's noteworthy here is what the CRS concludes: Whereas most arms deals during the Cold War were inked to help bolster various foreign policy objectives, many arms deals today are motivated more by "economic considerations"—that is, to help support weapons manufacturers at home. Arms are being sold in bulk to developing countries in large part to help defense contractors stay afloat. Good deal. There's just one itsy bitsy problem: Many of those surplus weapons tend to find their way to the black market, and from there, it's on to conflict-ridden regions, where lots of people end up getting gunned down and killed.

After the Gulf War in 1991, various countries talked about trying to limit sales of weapons to the Middle East, seeing as how it was such a volatile region. So much for that. Last year, CRS found, the United States signed $6.2 billion worth of arms deals to countries such as Pakistan, Israel, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. And an earlier report by the World Policy Institute found that, in 2003, the United States transferred $1 billion worth of weapons to 18 of 25 countries involved in an ongoing war—including Ethiopia, Chad, Angola, the Philippines, and Colombia. Not exactly a recipe for world peace and stability. And yes, Russia—whose arms industry is really hurting—Europe, and especially China are often even worse offenders.

The connection between arms deals and Third World conflict isn't always so straightforward. It's not as if the United States sells arms to Chad and instantly they find their way into the hands of the general public, though that sort of leakage does occur quite frequently. More importantly, as an Amnesty International study earlier this year detailed, the network of dealers and middlemen that has emerged as a result of the massive legal arms trade has morphed into a network that also sustains the illegal weapons trade. That's what helps fuel all the minor conflicts that get people killed—some 300,000 a year. It's all quite murky. One could write whole books, etc.

Meanwhile, the United States and Europe are fond of selling weapons to non-democracies with histories of human rights abuses, and the United States has opposed efforts at arms control in the United Nations. But contractors are happy. I guess I've done this rant a few times before, and it's depressing, so I'll stop. I do wish I could say there was a major political party in this country that was "good" on this issue, but that's not really the case.
-- Brad Plumer 11:45 PM || ||