US Foreign Policy

Trump’s Opportunity to Support Transparency, Accountability on the Conventional Arms Trade

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Editor’s note: This analysis is part of 2017 Presidential Inbox — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the Trump administration faces during its first 100 days in office. Click here to read the full series

By Rachel Stohl

THE CHALLENGE: As President Trump takes office, there has been a renewed focus on nuclear weapons — particularly with regard to their potential use and modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad. However, Trump will also inherit challenges with regard to numerous conventional conflicts around the world — most notably in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. In the coming months, President Trump will have to determine the level of U.S. engagement in existing and emerging crises. Thus, in short order the Trump administration will have to determine its own views and policies concerning conventional arms transfers.

THE CONTEXT: Trump officials may look to the Obama administration’s record on conventional arms issues to inform their own policies. Arms sales were increasingly used as a tool of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, where U.S. weapons were sent to countries to support allies or influence behavior (though there is clear academic work indicating that arms sales are rarely effective in changing recipient government behavior). Indeed, the Obama administration completed the highest value of Foreign Military Sales agreements since World War II. From 2009-2015, the United States made approximately $245 billion worth of arms agreements. That is more than double the amount of agreements made by the George W. Bush administration, which approved approximately $126.5 billion in arms agreements throughout its tenure. The volume of arms sales was not the only noteworthy aspect of the Obama administration’s policies and practices, but also the continued provision of weapons to recipients with questionable human rights records and poor governance, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain.

The Obama administration also completed the first review of U.S. arms export policy in January 2014 — the first time such a review had taken place in 19 years. Presidential Policy Directive 27 (PPD-27) articulates U.S. conventional arms transfer policy goals, outlines the process and criteria that guide U.S. arms transfer decisions, clarifies the ways in which U.S. policy on conventional arms transfers supports arms control and arms transfer restraint, and explains how the United States supports responsible arms transfers around the globe. The Obama administration also took on reform of the export control process, reviewing the contents of the U.S. Munitions List, moving items to the Commerce Control List, and restructuring some of the bureaucratic machinery surrounding arms sales, amongst other reforms.

So, what will the conventional arms landscape look like under the Trump administration? Thus far, it is unclear what Trump’s view towards arms sales may be, as little was articulated on the subject during the campaign or transition. However, we can draw some prognostications based on Trump’s personal and his appointees’ attitudes and with regard to relations with allies and national security priorities.

For example, it is unlikely that President Trump will call for a review and revamping of the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy. It took 19 years to update the policy, and the new policy reflects the current security environment — with a focus on counterterrorism. Indeed, the policy provides enough flexibility to support Trump’s economically focused interests, and given that Trump has expressed other, more pressing priorities, the administration likely will not find it necessary to spend time and resources on a comprehensive review. However, Trump may move to streamline some of the bureaucracy responsible for arms transfer decisions and eliminate key offices or positions within the State Department.

Additionally, given Trump’s views on job creation and the importance of supporting U.S. industry, it is likely that the new administration will continue the practice of sending arms to U.S. allies to support U.S. interests. But, he also could make such sales contingent on certain behaviors or actions and challenge the reliability of the United States as a supplier. Some U.S. customers are concerned about a transactional approach to arms sales under the Trump administration, which could undermine defense relationships and reliability. Signs also point to the continuation of the export control reform process under Trump, particularly with regard to Foreign Military Sales and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). This could be a positive sign for industry, which has favored a more streamlined and predictable approach to arms sales, though critics argue current export control reform efforts have undermined oversight, transparency, and accountability.

Overall, in the short-term, arms sales are likely to continue at the high levels seen in the Obama administration. This could be particularly true with regard to countries in the Middle East, which have historically been major purchasers of U.S. weapons. Indeed, the Obama administration made over $115 billion worth of arms sales agreements to Saudi Arabia alone, as part of 42 separate deals, since 2009, which according to expert William Hartung is “more than any U.S. administration in the history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.” One could also argue U.S. arms sales could go down, as Trump has repeatedly expressed disinterest in getting involved in Middle East affairs, and his call to governments to take the lead in attending to their own security concerns, and not always relying on the United States. However, on the flipside those same words could indicate a possible increase in U.S. arms sales, as Trump could trade the provision of weapons for minimal political engagement.

Based on Trump’s past statements, including support for known dictators and human rights abusers such as Russia’s Vladmir Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s testimony during his confirmation hearing, human rights violations are unlikely to be major criteria in determining arms sales authorizations. Allowing weapons to flow unimpeded to human rights abusers opens the door for U.S. arms sales to human rights abusing governments in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, and allows the United States to compete with Russia and Iran for arms sales to the world’s worst dictators. The Trump administration will have to decide if that is the legacy it wants to leave at the end of its term.

PRAGMATIC STEPS: The Obama administration had a proven track record of using conventional arms sales to support national security and foreign policy priorities, including counterterrorism interests. The Trump administration will need to decide to what extent it will use conventional arms sales to achieve its objectives. During its first 100 days in office, the Trump administration would do well to take the following steps on the conventional arms trade:

  1. Review all pending and future arms sales to consider potential human rights risks. Although considering the human rights impact of U.S. arms sales is mandated by U.S. law, human rights often take a back seat to other policy considerations when determining whether to authorize an arms sale. Indeed current Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker, announced recently that human rights concerns do not belong in arms transfer decisions and could be dealt with in other ways. However, conditioning arms sales to ensure that human rights are protected helps uphold U.S. foreign policy values, protects U.S. industry from complicity in human rights abuses, and ultimately serves key strategic interests.
  2. Consider long(er)-term regional/international stability implications of potential arms sales in addition to short-term economic benefits. President Trump has thus far demonstrated and economic cost/benefit analysis to policy decisions. However, arms sales, while potentially providing an economic benefit in the short-term, can result in longer-term costs in terms of risks to U.S. soldiers on the ground — through blowblack — as well as risks in exacerbating and prolonging armed conflicts, and potentially contributing to a need for U.S. intervention. It is wise to look at the full potential impact of a U.S. arm sale, ensuring it is fully compliant with existing U.S. policy and regulations — and makes good business sense. 
  3. Support transparency and accountability of global arms transfers. Although the United States has a robust arms transfer system, including public reporting of U.S. arms sales and security assistance, other countries are less transparent. The United States should be concerned with the global trends in the arms trade — to identify potentially destabilizing build-ups or increased transfers to/from a particular country and/or region. The Trump administration cannot simply take a transactional approach to arms sales, but rather must examine arms sales in context. To acquire this global picture, the United States must ensure that it provides information and data to global arms transfer transparency instruments and encourage other governments to participate as well. 

Rachel Stohl is a Senior Associate and Director of the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center.

Photo credit: U.S. Government Work via Flickr
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