In less than 100 days, President Donald J. Trump’s approach toward arms sales is slowly coming into focus. The Trump administration’s preliminary 2018 budget proposal – which includes a 28 percent cut in funding for the Department of State and proposed changes to the foreign military financing program – lends some clues to the direction of U.S. arms sales. Based on these initial actions, one thing does appear certain: Trump does not understand arms sales.
The Trump administration seems to think that U.S. arms sales can be used to fundamentally change the behavior of particular governments. Although it sounds good in practice, arms for influence does not have a notable record of success. One need only think of U.S. arms transfers to countries such as Egypt, Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia, where U.S. weapons have been used in direct contravention of U.S. policies, priorities and values.
Research on the ways in which arms sales can influence behavior identifies four elements that suggest when arms sales are more likely to influence foreign governments.
First, the recipient must be dependent on arms imports. If a country does not have a domestic industry to fulfill its weapons procurement needs, the level of dependency, and thus influence, may be higher. In practice, this means the United States may have an opportunity to influence countries from Latin America to Asia which rely on imports to meet their acquisition needs.
Second, the supplier must be either the sole or one of very few arms providers to the country in question. (Influence is inversely related to the number of current or potential suppliers.) India, which purchases significant quantities of weapons from the United States, for example, may not be as susceptible to U.S. influence because it also buys considerable armaments from Russia and China.
Third, gifts and grants allow for more influence than cash purchases, because they underscore the dependency of the recipient state. Many African countries benefit from generous U.S. weapons programs that offer free or reduced costs weapons to modernize and professionalize their militaries. In these cases, the United States tries to use arms as leverage for particular policies and practice, swaying behavior to align with U.S. standards and objectives.
Fourth, arms sales are more likely to affect foreign policy instead of domestic policy, and interstate conflicts rather than internal conflicts. Arms are more likely to influence how countries engage with other governments, rather than how they treat their own citizens. Thus, authoritarian rulers are less likely to be influenced by arms sales in ways that lead them to change their behavior towards dissidents or opponents within their own countries.
Indeed, the leverage gained from weapon transfers is often overstated, non-existent, or representative of a reverse influence where the recipient actually exerts leverage over the supplier by placing their own demands and conditions on the weapons provider.
Irrespective of the facts, Trump is not the first president to be enamored with the idea of arms for influence. The Obama administration readily turned to arms sales as a means to try and exert influence and control over government action and conflict dynamics. Yet the Obama administration did recognize that some human rights conditions warranted a pause in arms sales, such as to Egypt and Bahrain. The Trump administration has already pushed forward sales to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Nigeria due to their importance in the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign, despite significant track records of consistent abuses.
With the lifting of these holds, the Trump administration has effectively rewarded (or at the very least ignored) dismal human rights records of numerous recipient governments. In larger terms, the White House’s advancement of these sales sheds a bright light on the Trump administration’s approach to U.S. arms sales globally – that is, the prioritization of short-term strategic objectives over long-term democratic governance and protection of human rights. Such an approach effectively undermines U.S. doctrine and values and fosters impunity. In the long-term, this approach can fundamentally work against U.S. strategic interests.
The Trump administration also seems not to understand the utility of some U.S. arms transfer programs. Reportedly, the Trump administration is considering replacing foreign military financing grants with loans, under the presumption that such a move will save the United States money in the long run. However, such thinking misconstrues the intent and indeed the effects of the financing program, which enables foreign governments to receive U.S. weapons and associated military training via grants from the U.S. government. These grants are largely used to purchase U.S. weapons through foreign military sales – or government-to-government arms transfers – though a limited number of countries may use the funds to finance commercial arms sales with private industry as well.
Converting grants to loans could actually harm U.S. industry. First, having repayments would make U.S. arms sales more expensive and could lead purchasers to buy in cheaper markets, such as those in Russia and China. Why would buyers pay for systems they used to get for free, and in fact pay more than if they were to seek military equipment from other vendors? Second, the foreignm military financing program is intended to support the industrial base by lowering the domestic cost for weapons in the United States, which would only increase if exports decrease. Third, if exports lesson, U.S. jobs would be negatively impacted, as production lines would have to close.
The first 100 days do not indicate the Trump administration understands how it can and should use arms sales as a tool of foreign policy to promote broader U.S. interests. To place U.S. arms transfers on firmer footing, the Trump administration should recognize the limitations of using arms for influence – and use diplomatic means to underscore the importance of, and U.S. commitment to, minimizing civilian harm that will likely arise from risky arms transfers.