Arms for the poor
CONSIDERING THE INESCAPABLY MORBID NATURE OF THE TRADE HE REPRESENTS, Joel Johnson, a lobbyist for an arms export manufacturers' association, is a remarkably jovial guy, sharp of mind, speedy of tongue, and pretty darn busy these days. "I can't talk with you today," Johnson said one morning last December. "I've got a lunch meeting with the Indians, an economic minister, I think. I don't know what they want from me. We haven't sold them anything for years."
Turns out what the Indians wanted from Johnson—poised, as they were that week, on the verge of war with Pakistan—was some advice on arms importing and production licensing now that some pesky arms export controls had been lifted by the Bush administration. Bush wanted to reward Pakistan for its cooperation in the hunt for Osama bin Laden by lifting an arms export ban on Pakistan. To maintain the balance of power in the region, he had to do the same for India. Now some analysts worry that the two nuclear powers are on the verge of a potentially costly and destabilizing arms race, if not outright war.
It's just another day at the office for Johnson, who represents the Aerospace Industries Association of America in the press and before Congress.
America's defense industry is clearly big business at home—the 2003 budget of $360 billion represents nearly half the total of all world military procurement spending. While such a sizable outlay naturally draws its share of critics, it is America's comparatively smaller arms-for-export industry that can generate even more controversy.
To arms-control advocates, the arms-export trade represents a destabilizing waste of resources in the already impoverished developing world; to Pentagon and State Department planners, it is the occasionally troublesome prerequisite of a domestic industry they rely upon to maintain America's military dominance; to workers across the United States, it is a guarantor of job security and a decent income; but to Pope John Paul II, the international arms-export business is a "scandalous" free market free-for-all that has to be restrained.
Echoing the pope's condemnation of the arms trade in his 1987 encyclical on social concern, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, the U.S. bishops in 1995 wrote the pastoral reflection Sowing Weapons of War. In this document they state bluntly: "That weapons of war are bought and sold almost as if they were simply another commodity like appliances or industrial machinery is a serious moral disorder in today's world."
If the bishops are correct, then the principal leader of that serious moral disorder is the United States. U.S. arms manufacturers over the past decade have achieved the undisputed lead in the global arms trade, claiming as much as two thirds of the overall market in advanced weaponry sales and nearly half of the market share in all weapons sales to the developing world.
The U.S. bishops comment, "The predominant role of our own country in sustaining and even promoting the arms trade, sometimes for economic reasons, is a moral challenge for our nation. Jobs at home cannot justify exporting the means of war abroad."
Sowing Weapons of War details a set of criteria under which arms transfers could be acceptable—primarily when they are strictly conducted in the interests of self-defense and only within an overarching framework aimed, ironically, at ultimately reducing violence in the world. The bishops argue that purely economic goals can never provide moral cover for arms exports. In the nearly seven years since he helped write that document, Gerard Powers, the director of the International Justice and Peace Office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), says the criteria still apply—even in our post-9/11 world. "And frankly the basic problem still persists."
Powers is not persuaded that the developed world, following the lead of the United States, was seriously interested in reevaluating the arms export industry even before September 11; it is even less so now in its wake. That's despite the fact that as much as $2 billion in direct arms shipments from the United States flooded into Afghanistan and Pakistan during the 1980s, arming the Taliban and arguably contributing to this previously obscure group of Islamic radicals seizing power in 1994.
"There are new pressures now to control the weapons of mass destruction, which is good," says Powers, "but there will also be new pressures to ease restrictions on weapons sales and lift human rights constraints given the need to build a coalition against terrorism." Powers cites Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines as probable immediate beneficiaries of any loosening of arms sales restrictions.
This is likely to be good news for U.S. arms manufacturers. At approximately $800 billion annually, the military procurement industry is, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, perhaps the world's single largest market; the $400 billion global trade in illicit drugs is a distant second. In recent years, U.S. arms manufacturers have reached a market dominance that would be the envy of other manufacturing sector leaders. Twelve of the world's top 20 arms-producing companies are located in the United States.
We're No. 1!
In 1989, the then Soviet Union was the planet's major weapons supplier, exporting nearly $20 billion in arms to Warsaw Pact and other client states—most in the developing world. That year, the United States delivered just $17.3 billion in arms exports. The lion share of its exports—$12.2 billion—went to its NATO allies in the economically developed world. But with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, a noisy queue of new customers, no longer required to hand over company script for inferior weaponry at the Soviet Union's threadbare commissary, has been lining up at "Arms 'R U.S." to purchase more sophisticated—and expensive—American-made weapons packages.
By 1999, according to the most recent data released by the U.S. State Department's World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers (WMEAT) report, the arms-export market experienced a sharp reversal. Economically beleaguered Russia exported only $3.1 billion in arms while the U.S. shipped $33 billion in weaponry—half of the world exports of supersonic combat fighters, more than one third of all land armaments. The U.S. in 1999 managed to control an eye-popping 64 percent of the global total of $51.6 billion in arms exports.
But to Joel Johnson, what's unusual about that percentage is not how large a share of the global market the U.S. maintains, but that its share isn't even larger.
Given the substantial investment of U.S. taxpayer wealth into defense research and development and the comparative advantages it enjoys as a result, Americans simply produce the best weapons systems, he says. "And for a lot of these weapons, there isn't any source but us."
What the Church Teaches
"[T]he scandalous arms trade. . .spawns the many armed conflicts which stain our world with blood."—Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995)
"If arms production is a serious disorder in the present world with regard to true human needs and the employment of the means capable of satisfying those needs, the arms trade is equally to blame."—Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern, 1987)
Excerpts from the U.S. Catholic bishops' pastoral reflection Sowing Weapons of War (1995):
"That weapons of war are bought and sold almost as if they were simply another commodity like appliances or industrial machinery is a serious moral disorder in today's world."
"In too many cases, the global arms trade has brought not security, but aggression, repression and long-term instability. Starving Somali children, destroyed Angolan villages, Cambodian lands rendered uninhabitable by land-mines, and seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan are the fruits of this deadly trade. 'By their fruits you will know them' (Matt. 7:20)."
"The arms trade is an integral part of 'the culture of violence' . . . . Curbing the arms trade is now an essential part of the peacemaking vocation."
"That our own country should be the leader in this deadly market in arms is a source of shame, not pride. As a nation, we should seek to market our ideals, not our weapons. We must 'seek peace and pursue it' (Ps 34:15). In the name of peace, development, and human rights, we need an ethic of responsibility and a policy of effective restraint to control the trade in arms."
"Spreading weapons of war around the world undermines our efforts to build ... an authentic peace that is based on respect for human dignity and a commitment to the common good."
Johnson thinks the U.S. could easily command an even larger share of the total global market if it weren't for State Department and congressional restraints already in place. According to Johnson, the United States is second only to Japan as the "most controlled [arms] market in the world."
Lowballing a bit, he says, "We've got, what, 50 percent of the market, but I think our natural market is closer to 80 percent, and the reason we don't have that other 30 percent is we're not allowed to ship to people that other countries are shipping to.
"I'm not saying we should ship [to those countries]," he quickly adds. The fainthearted in the U.S. can feel "morally good" by insisting on tighter restrictions, but simply cutting American manufacturers out of a market will not prevent other suppliers from stepping in, he says.
When the Carter administration unilaterally renounced major weapons systems sales to South America—because most of the region's nations were run by brutal military juntas—European weapons merchants were happy to step in. "We never denied [the South Americans] the military capability," complains Johnson. "We just made sure it wasn't American."
Powers agrees to a point. "The main objective certainly is to reduce the arms trade worldwide. If production gets cut back in one country and then two other countries increase production to fill that void, you haven't reduced the overall market of arms.
"On the other hand, we want to avoid a least-common-denominator approach that says, 'Everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn't we.' That's not a leadership role." The U.S., says Powers, should be trying to set a different standard rather than inaugurate a moral laissez-faire that relies on the economic bottom line as the primary ethical measure of arms transfers.
Besides, the "someone else would get the sale" approach represents a thorough abandonment of any concept of moral responsibility, says Powers. Regardless of how other nations behave, he says, "We are responsible for what we have control over, and what we have control over is how we contribute to this problem."
While Johnson chafes at U.S. restraints that he sees as too stringent, the State Department and the Pentagon have actually taken a very active role in promoting arms sales. The syndrome became acute during the Clinton administration—when arms exports—doubled but shows no sign of diminishing now.
A brief White House exchange in response to a query about a recent arms deal with two other NATO members helps illustrate the phenomenon: "[Secretary of State Colin Powell] has been a staunch supporter of American aircraft sales," a State Department spokesman assures a reporter, "and in his meetings from the very beginning of the administration, he has raised the fortunes of American companies and the fact that we make the best airplanes in the world. He has pressed that in a variety of meetings....He has always said if you're going to buy airplanes, you ought to buy American ones."
U.S. officials fall back on a number of arguments to justify such heavy-handed sales tactics: Arms exports help maintain a healthy defense industry vital to American national security; they ensure that U.S. allies share the military edge of America's advanced weaponry and enhance "interoperability" on combined transnational missions; and they are quietly or directly used to enhance America's influence, rewarding friends and punishing miscreants.
Selling arms sales at home
At some point, however, the push for expanding arms-export trade falls back on strictly parochial political and economic concerns: providing good paying—usually union—jobs, supporting regional economies, and growing corporate profits here at home. Missile components in Missouri, Georgia, and Texas; helicopter engines in Cincinnati; advanced fighters out of California and Washington; destroyers out of Connecticut; even "engineering services" from New Jersey—there are few states that are not home to at least a handful of major and minor contractors in the global arms trade.
That geographic dispersal of arms manufacturers is one reason raising a greater wall of resistance to the arms-export industry proves so difficult. Industrial unions have been known to lobby as hard as industry flacks during annual State Department reviews of arms-export policy. There is a little pork in everyone's gun barrel, and even dovish U.S. Congress members find themselves reluctant to contain the trade when it could cost jobs back at home.
But Tamar Gabelnick thinks the impact of the arms-export industry on America's economic well-being is at best a little overemphasized. Gabelnick is the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Arms Sales Monitoring Project.
Though the arms-export trade can mean billions of dollars in sales to specific companies, Gabelnick points out that, in the final analysis, the entire arms-export industry represents only a tiny fraction of total U.S. export trade—some $30 billion in annual sales out of a total export volume that typically approaches or exceeds $1 trillion each year. She adds that in terms of creating new jobs or an overall multiplier effect throughout the economy, federal dollars invested in the arms industry—which has become synonymous with waste and redundancy—realize fewer gains than they would if directed at propping up or energizing virtually any other U.S. manufacturing sector. "[Arms sales] don't represent that many jobs or that big a boon to U.S. industry," Gabelnick says.
Arms for the poor
One of the most troubling aspects of the arms-export industry is the impact it has on particularly vulnerable societies in the developing world. Between 1993 and 2000, arms deliveries to developing nations comprised 68 percent of all such deliveries worldwide. In 2000, the United States ranked first in arms exports to developing nations, accounting for almost half of all such deliveries.
Though Johnson argues that U.S. contractors don't sell weapons to countries that are "really poor," a quick review of materials-delivery lists indicates that there are few countries, regardless of GDP, that the U.S. doesn't sell some kind of armament package to—from artillery and small arms on up to expensive supersonic fighters, missile systems, and destroyers.
Critics worry that expensive—and in their eyes—often unnecessary arms purchases are one reason many developing nations are prevented from improving domestic living standards through "human capital" investments in education, drinking water, health care, and nutrition.
A recently approved $550 million sale of F-16 fighters to Chile—the first such advanced weaponry sale to the region in almost three decades—dramatizes the conflict. Proponents argue that the aging Chilean air force is in serious need of the tactical upgrade the F-16s offer. Besides, they argue, the U.S. State Department shouldn't be making decisions for another nation's defense needs. That would smack of an imperial paternalism that would be unthinkable in other arenas.
Critics of the deal say the fighters are costly, unnecessary, and likely to threaten neighbors or provoke a regional arms race among some of the continent's poorest nations. They also charge the deal is not in the long-term strategic interest of the United States. "We have an interest in a stable and prosperous Chile," says Gabelnick, "and the more it invests in education and health care and other social services, the more happy and stable it can be."
Eric Floden of the Council for a Livable World's Arms Trade Oversight Project says many U.S. arms transfers could be criticized along similar lines. "The U.S. government does not think long-term about these things." The U.S has every right, even the strategic responsibility, to evaluate the social conditions in other countries, he says. "Do they have a legitimate need [for advanced weapons systems] or are we more concerned about the health of the U.S. defense industry?"
"We're not saying that all weapons transfers are problematic," says the USCCB's Powers. "In some cases [State Department-reviewed sales] can be better than no arms transfers at all because then you retain some control over a country's military buildup. That can provide helpful leverage sometimes and keep that country from developing an indigenous military industrial capacity. The question is: To what extent do we use that leverage in a constructive way?"
Gabelnick says, "Arms sales to reliable and close allies within limits are fine." But she worries that in most arms exports "there's not enough attention being paid to human rights issues or the potential for [arms] diversions." Gabelnick cites customers such as Turkey—which has used U.S.-supplied arms in an often brutal suppression of Kurdish nationalism—Indonesia, and Israel as nations that raise concerns over human rights violations and the legitimacy of their use of U.S. weaponry.
"We need to make sure controls have been tight even with our allies." It does matter who the U.S. sells weapons to, she argues, because any such sales suggest an American endorsement of importing regimes. Indonesia, a longtime importer of U.S. weaponry, has frequently embarrassed its patron because of loose constraints on its military, an overly enthusiastic use of imported weaponry against its own citizenry, and, certainly not least of all, its decades-long brutalization of the East Timorese.
To Johnson, a good question to ponder is: If not the U.S., then who? One of the by-products of a vibrant trade in arms, he says, is a stronger relationship between the U.S. military and their counterparts in other nations and a potential diplomatic pressure point for the U.S. State Department.
Preventing helicopter gunship sales to Turkey because of human rights worries won't prevent the Turkish military from buying a gunship from another weapons provider, he says. Allowing that the U.S. has had its own human rights lapses in the past, Johnson still believes it would be better if American interests and influence on foreign militaries and governments were deepened through an arms trade.
"Do you think the French are better at pushing the military on human rights than America? Do you think buying an Israeli or Russian or British weapon makes the world a safer place? Who do you think is going to do better than the U.S. on human rights? Russia? Israel?"
The human rights issue aside, U.S. weapons transfers have also backfired strategically—perhaps most spectacularly after the sudden overthrow of the Shah of Iran left millions of dollars of advanced U.S. weaponry in the hands of Iran's Islamic radicals. Floden wonders if the U.S. is not repeating this mistake through its continuing sales of advanced materials to potentially unstable Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Egypt.
Meanwhile, Israel's use of American-supplied F-16 fighters and M-1 tanks in its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, arguably in violation of the "defense only" terms of these arms transfers, has contributed to the deterioration of the U.S. position in the Arab and unaligned world.
The 9/11 effect
Most analysts agree that in a post-9/11 world, arms-export limitations are most likely to slacken and more arms sales overall are likely to take place. Though reasonably content with the current legislative and executive oversight of arms exports, Johnson says he would like to see most arms-export controls lifted within an "internal market" of select U.S. industrial allies and a reduced control for most minor component and "dual purpose" technology sales. But he does believe stronger external market controls can be a part of the export trade's future.
"The U.S. should take the lead role in promoting multilateral controls that are real and effective," he says. "We need to get better at establishing [such] controls with core European markets."
Currently the U.S. Is not engaged in an ongoing export-controls negotiation being conducted among the world's other arms manufacturing heavyweights: Germany, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Italy, and Spain. Johnson thinks the U.S. Should more enthusiastically join such negotiations, partly, he admits, so U.S. manufacturers don't end up cut out of specific markets altogether.
Ultimately, though, Johnson believes the U.S. can continue to go it alone and establish its own code of conduct. He's not convinced European nations set higher standards than the U.S. and wonders how long their commitments on paper survive in the messier reality of the arms market. WMEAT backs him up. In 1999, 80 percent of the arms exports out of Great Britain and France went to developing nations.
For his part, Powers wonders how serious any U.S. weapons manufacturer may ultimately be about international protocols and multilateral constraints. The European Community's effort to establish a code of conduct has generated little interest in the United States, and last summer the U.S. single-handedly torpedoed a U.N.-sponsored forum on the particularly lethal small arms trade.
Ultimately Gabelnick would like to draw a common-sense line in the sand that may even be apparent to Washington bureaucrats. "I think it's morally unacceptable for the U.S. to provide weapons to countries where they might be used against their own citizens or used aggressively against other countries," she says.
"We really need to be more careful whom we sell weapons to," agrees Floden. "During the 1980s, it did us good in the short term to support Afghan resistance." In hindsight, though, "encouraging radical Islamic fundamentalism may not have been the best policy."
Dealing with the tragic aftermath of those decisions today, Floden has been frustrated by decisions to lift arms sanctions against India and Pakistan and Azerbaijan and Armenia—two sets of countries likely to find themselves at war in the near future. Though he'd like to think U.S. Arms-export policy might begin to reflect a new wisdom that would discourage such a bloody outcome, "In the long term," Floden says somewhat hopelessly, "I don't think we're going to learn these lessons."
Kevin Clarke is managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago. This article appeared in the March 2002 (Volume 67, Number 3) issue of U.S. Catholic.
For more information:
Aerospace Industries Association of America
Council for a Livable World
Arms Trade Oversight Project
Federation of American Scientists
U.S. State Department's Office of Defense Trade Controls
U.S. Arms Export and Military Assistance Policies
Pax Christi USA
Center for Defense Information
Fr. John Dear, S.J., noted peace activist