Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Chris Coyne (whose excellent book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails was reviewed on this blog) and Abigail R. Hall, a second year Mercatus PhD Fellow, have come up with original research that shows the dangers of America’s unfettered global arms sales:
– Policymakers cannot know the outcome of supplying new arms in an attempt to influence foreign affairs in one manner or another because there are a series of unpredictable consequences that emerge from any single intervention in a complex system.
– It is nearly impossible for the U.S. government to monitor how arms it has sold for a particular purpose are later used or transferred. These weapons may ultimately be used to achieve ends which may be at odds with the original goal.
– An expansion in the global arms market creates new profit opportunities funded by international political entities leading domestic arms producers to direct additional resources to lobbying both domestic and foreign governments. An increase in the size and scope of the global arms market for domestic producers increases this lobbying and the associated deadweight loss brought about by rent seeking.
– It is unclear if the U.S. government were to scale back its control of the global arms market, the result would be more total global arms. This is because a decrease in U.S. subsidies of weapons to other countries would increase the price of weapons and decrease the quantity demanded by foreign governments; a sharp decrease in the supply of arms would drive the price of weapons upward; many foreign governments face diseconomies of scale leading to a lower overall volume of arms.
U.S. Dramatically Leads in Global Arms Sales
Coyne and Hall explain just how big a player the U.S. is in the world arms market: Between 1970 and 1979 the U.S. arranged more than $74 billion in weapons sales. Between 1980 and 1989 the U.S. would agree to sell over $97 billion in arms to nations abroad. This number would rise again between 1990 and 1999 to $128 billion. Between 2000 and 2010 the U.S. arranged to send more than $192 billion in arms to countries all over the globe.
That makes America responsible for at least 68.4 percent of all global arms trade today. The next highest countries, Russia and Italy, account for only nine percent each. U.S. share in the arms market to developing nations is even higher, 78 percent. Russia, number two, accounts for just under six percent.
Do Arms Sales Facilitate Diplomacy and Secure National Security Objectives?
The most prominent U.S. government argument in favor of all these arms sales is that they facilitate diplomacy and secure national security objectives. For example, the line goes, countries that receive U.S. weapons want better all-around ties with the U.S. As for national security objectives, the idea is supposedly, as in Iraq at present, weapons sold allow some other country to fight for what the U.S. supports. But is any of that actually true?
Well, no, not really, according to Coyne and Hall. Successes in foreign policy bought with weapons sales assumes U.S. policymakers can determine the correct mix of weapons and recipients needed to achieve these goals. But the real world is messy; send arms to the Mujahedin in Afghanistan to kill occupying Russians in the 1980s and inadvertently help create al Qaeda in the 1990s, that kind of thing. Influence one thug leader somewhere with shiny weapons, and then hope like hell he stays within U.S. boundaries, does not transfer the weapons for his own purposes (illicit small-arms sales are a big business for some governments, constituting more than an estimated $1 billion in annual revenues), and does not lose control of the weapons entirely in some future coup, revolt or invasion. In short, as the report puts it, “system-type thinking matters because it implies that attempts to influence foreign affairs through arms sales can never simply do one thing, even if this is the intention, because there are a series of unpredictable consequences over time and space that emerge from any single intervention in a complex system.”
And Then There’s Iraq
Professor Coyne, in an interview with me, brought the whole academic point down to the very practical in applying his and Ms. Hall’s work to the current situation in Iraq:
“The situation in Iraq provides an excellent, albeit sad, illustration of some of our main points. The U.S. government provided significant amounts of military hardware to the Iraqi government with the intention that it would be used for good (national security, policing, etc.). However, during the ISIS offensive many of the Iraqis turned and ran, leaving behind the U.S.-supplied hardware (Humvees, trucks, rifles, ammunition.) ISIS promptly picked up this equipment and are now using it as part of their broader offensive effort. This weapons windfall may further alter the dynamics in Syria.
“Now the U.S. government wants to provide more military supplies to the Iraqi government to combat ISIS. But I haven’t heard many people recognizing, let alone discussing, the potential negative unintended consequences of doing so. How do we know how the weapons and supplies will be used as desired? What if the recipients turn and run as they have recently and leave behind the weapons? What if the weapons are stolen? In sum, why should we have any confidence that supplying more military hardware into a country with a dysfunctional and ineffective government will lead to a good outcome either in Iraq or in the broader region?”
There are many more well-argued such examples in a report that should cause U.S. policymakers to rethink their global arm sales policies, but likely won’t. The U.S. remains committed to a chess-board based view of foreign policy in general, and arms sales in particular. We make a move that we think affects only one square on the board, or maybe one piece or at the most one opponent. That opponent then makes a counter move. The U.S. plays multiple boards at once– Iraq, China, Venezuela– under the illusion that the games are not fully interconnected. Coyne’s and Hall’s work shows, in the specific case of global arms sales, how very wrong such a thought process is.
The world is complex. Countries’ interests intertwine, alliances are multi-dimensional, and you can’t assume a move on one board won’t affect another, or all of the others. That is why in lay terms, as Coyne and Hall demonstrate academically, in anything but the shortest term thinking U.S. global arms sales are doomed to neither facilitate diplomacy nor secure national security objectives.
The whole report is worth your time. Download a copy here.