Technology & Trade

Regulating the International Arms Trade

in Program

When the Stimson Center was founded twenty-five years ago, the global security environment was undergoing a major shift, generating new worries created by the end of the bi-polar world. As the Soviet Union dissolved and the proxy wars of the Cold War ended, countries around the world became increasingly concerned with the threat posed by the destabilizing accumulations of conventional weapons.

Stimson researchers sought to address this issue in tandem with discussions on the proliferation risks of other sensitive technologies, and identify pragmatic and actionable responses to best address these challenges. One fundamental concern was the negative impact of discordant arms export and regulatory controls and the deadly effects that poorly regulated flows of conventional weapons could have on stability, security, and perhaps most immediately, on civilian populations worldwide.

Initially Stimson’s work on the conventional arms trade reflected concerns of the time, namely how the potential for large accumulations of conventional weapons and sensitive weapons technologies by national governments could threaten international stability and prompt costly wars. Stimson brought together a variety of key stakeholders from government, industry, and other research institutes to provide insights into ways in which multilateral export controls could strengthen international security.

Stimson’s early research on conventional weapons looked at regions adversely affected by scourges of conventional arms and ways to enhance multilateral approaches to address such challenges. For example a 1992 report looked into the costs and benefits of establishing a multilateral arms transfer control agreement between major arms exporting countries of the time (which resemble the major arms exporting countries of today) to regulate weapons flows in the Middle East. A 1993 report looked at the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) – which today has been replaced by the Wassenaar Arrangement – to underscore “the dangers of the politicization of export controls, the futility of unilateral controls, and the importance of common goals in the imposition of export controls.” And, in 1999 Congress established a Study Group on Enhancing Multilateral Export Controls for US national Security, consisting of Members of Congress, senior US government officials and independent experts from industry and civil society, staffed by Stimson and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to provide recommendations for short and long term improvements to existing multilateral export regimes.

Stimson’s contribution leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks focused on the state system, looking at the ways in which governments could collectively address conventional weapons proliferation. However, as the security and threat environment changed in the post 9-11 world, so too has Stimson’s focus on conventional weapons proliferation. Stimson is no longer solely focused on government accumulations of conventional weapons, but is also concerned by possession and trafficking of weapons to illicit/non-state actors, organized criminal networks, and terrorist organizations. Stimson highlights the risk that inadequate arms transfer controls and security measures pose to regional and global stability and development, as well as to humanitarian and human rights concerns.

Stimson’s current work on the international arms trade focuses on this evolved version of the threat environment. Stimson seeks to assist the international community in establishing robust regulatory mechanisms to stem the irresponsible and illicit arms trade, and help better protect the legal arms trade to ensure weapons are not diverted to unscrupulous actors.

Stimson has worked intimately on the groundbreaking Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to address many of these concerns. The ATT represents the world’s first legally binding agreement that establishes global standards to better manage the international arms trade, and provides criteria for countries to consider when making conventional arms transfer decisions so as to limit the risk that weapons will fall into the wrong hands, often times at the expense of civilian populations. Stimson is currently leading a project – the ATT-Baseline Assessment Project ( – to help states understand their treaty obligations, catalogue national capabilities, and identify gaps and needs for effective treaty implementation. When successfully implemented, the treaty will increase global transparency, promote greater accountability for global arms transfers, and hold states responsible for suspect or potentially irresponsible transfer decisions.

Stimson’s work highlights how global peace and security is threatened every day by the uncontrolled trading of conventional arms. Stimson features the regional dynamics of the arms trade and how the flow of weapons can impact countries in conflict or fuel the ugly business of child soldiering. These risks are compounded by the constant evolution of conventional weapons technology, which outpaces the development of regulations and legal frameworks – as is evidenced by the rapid advancement of drone technology. In June 2014, Stimson released a report of the Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, which highlighted eight recommendations for a comprehensive and holistic approach to consider a pragmatic U.S. drone policy that takes into account U.S. national security goals, foreign policy ideals, and commercial interests.

Stimson has spent a quarter century addressing the concerns raised by a burgeoning arms trade and the threats posed by patchwork regulatory mechanisms. Stimson will continue to work with governments, regional and international partners, civil society, and the private sector to help ensure effective implementation of existing agreements and lay the foundation for new agreements as they emerge. Stimson will remain a leader in creating innovative and pragmatic responses to conventional arms proliferation challenges in order to promote international security and stability.

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