Until 1990 U.S. arms exports were largely governed by Cold War priorities and a desire to reap the economic benefits of military sales. During all the years in which the United States and the Soviet Union competed for political influence in Third World areas, arms transfers were viewed in Washington as an indispensable tool of foreign policy—-thus making reductions of the sort envisioned by President Carter nearly impossible to implement. With the end of the Cold War, however, the national security justification for arms transfers lost some of its persuasiveness, and greater emphasis was placed on the economic justification for export sales. This, however, exposedU.S. arms sales to objections of a moral nature, like those articulated after World War I. And, indeed, international events were to lend fresh vigor to these sorts of concerns.
The Cold War was still winding down in August 1990 when Iraqi forces commenced their invasion of Kuwait. Observers were initially struck by the speed and brazenness of the invasion, which could only be viewed as a willful violation of international law. But another aspect of the invasion also sparked international attention: the fact that Iraqi forces were equipped with very large numbers of sophisticated weapons that had been obtained from foreign suppliers. During the previous eight years Iraq had spent an estimated $43 billion on imported weapons, giving it the most modern and powerful arsenal of any nation in the developing world. Many of these arms were supplied by the Soviet Union (long Iraq's major supplier), but others were acquired from France and other Western countries. This led to widespread charges that the major suppliers bore some degree of responsibility for Iraq's aggressive behavior, in that they had provided the means for mounting the 1990 invasion. Thus, when the Gulf War concluded in late February 1991, many international figures called for the adoption of new multilateral restraints on the transfer of arms to areas of conflict.
In response to these pressures, representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P-5 powers) met in Paris in July 1991 to address the problem of conventional arms transfers—the first multilateral discussions of this sort since the failed CATT negotiations of the 1970s. At the end of the meeting, the P-5 delegates issued a communiqué in which they pledged to develop new controls on the arms trade. For the first time these countries acknowledged that "indiscriminate transfers of military weapons and technology contribute to regional instability," and that, as the world's leading suppliers of such items, they bore "special responsibilities" to practice restraint. With this in mind they promised to develop a set of "agreed guidelines" for a regime of mutual restraint.
At a second meeting of the P-5 nations, held in London on 17–18 October 1991, the delegates adopted a formal set of guidelines for conventional arms restraint. While reserving the right to provide arms to established states for the purpose of legitimate self-defense, they agreed to avoid transfers that would be likely to "(a) prolong or aggravate an existing armed conflict; (b) increase tension in a region or contribute to regional instability; (c) introduce destabilizing military capabilities in a region." But, although they were united on these basic points, the P-5 states still had to establish formal criteria and procedures for their effective implementation. This task was left to subsequent meetings, to be held in 1992.
Before the P-5 states could meet again, however, domestic politics in the United States intruded into the process. As the November 1992 presidential election approached, President George H. W. Bush (then trailing in the national polls) agreed to sell 150 F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan, thus providing a significant economic boon to Texas (where the planes would be built). Although of dubious political benefit to Bush (who subsequently lost the election), the F-16 sale to Taiwan greatly angered China, which immediately withdrew from the P-5 negotiations. With China out of the picture, the other participating states saw no reason to proceed on their own, and the talks were suspended—never to be revived.
In his final months in office, Bush approved a number of major military sales abroad, claiming they served to enhance U.S. security by bolstering the forces of friendly nations in strategic areas, especially the Middle East. Arguing that the United States would need to rely on the support of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in any future encounter with Iraq, he authorized the sale of billions of dollars' worth of advanced aircraft, missiles, and armored vehicles to these three countries. In justifying these sales, Bush was not inhibited about touting the economic advantages of such transactions; at the same time, however, he sought to breathe new life into the national security arguments of the Cold War period by emphasizing their application to the new realities of the post–Cold War era.
Many of these sales were announced during the 1992 presidential campaign, and so it is hardly surprising that Democratic candidate Bill Clinton expressed concern over the magnitude of U.S. arms exports. Moreover, after winning the election, Clinton indicated that he would take a fresh look at American arms transfer policies. This suggested to some that he would resurrect some of the restrictive policies of the Carter administration. Once in office, however, Clinton followed essentially the same path as his predecessor—approving major sales that benefited American arms manufacturers while supporting U.S. security objectives in vital areas, such as the Middle East and the Pacific Rim.
To provide greater coherence to U.S. policy in this area, Clinton appointed a special commission on conventional arms exports. On the basis of this review, he announced a new conventional arms transfer policy on 17 February 1995. Reiterating many of the arguments made by previous administrations, the Clinton policy embraced both the security and the economic justifications for military sales. With respect to the latter, the policy specifically mandated that "the impact on U.S. industry" of pending sales was to be taken into account when deciding on future transactions.
In line with this policy, Clinton approved a series of major arms sales to friendly nations in the Persian Gulf area. Arguing that the United States had vital security interests in this region—notably the free flow of oil—and that these countries would be called on to assist U.S. forces in the event of an attack by Iran or Iraq, Clinton authorized the transfer of $46.5 billion worth of military hardware to the Middle East in 1993–2000—an amount that represented about three-fourths of the total value of all U.S. military transfers to the developing world. Saudi Arabia was the principal beneficiary of this largess, obtaining 72 advanced F-15XP Eagle jet fighters, 150 M-1A2 Abrams tanks, 12 Patriot air-defense missile batteries, and thousands of missiles of various types; Kuwait obtained 6 Patriot missile units, 256 M-1A2 Abrams tanks, and 16 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters; and the UAE obtained 10 AH-64s and 80 F-16 fighters.
By the time Clinton left office in early 2001, arms transfers had come to be seen in Washington as a normal, legitimate aspect of U.S. foreign policy. The United States completely dominated the international market, providing about two-fifths of all weapons transferred to developing countries in the 1992–1999 period (measured in dollar terms). Although Clinton encountered opposition to a number of specific transactions in Congress—for example, the sale of advanced jet fighters to Latin American countries—most lawmakers endorsed the basic premises of U.S. arms export policy.
Little change in this picture was expected when George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001. Even more than Clinton, the younger Bush emphasized the centrality of national security considerations in the shaping of U.S. foreign policy—a stance that typically has entailed a predisposition to provide favored allies with large quantities of sophisticated weaponry. Indeed, Bush signaled his support for this approach in April 2001, when he approved the sale of four missile-armed warships and eight diesel-powered submarines to Taiwan.
But while most senior U.S. policymakers generally harbor a relaxed attitude toward arms transfers, the historic concern over the moral implications of such exports has not disappeared altogether. Many peace, human rights, and religious organizations continue to argue that foreign military sales undermine American values and interests by enhancing the repressive capabilities of authoritarian governments, by fueling local arms races in areas of tension, and by encouraging states to seek military rather than negotiated solutions to their disputes with others. These concerns have surfaced in a number of legislative proposals introduced by sympathetic members of Congress, and in occasional newspaper editorials. Whether they will have any impact on future policy remains to be seen, but such efforts are likely to remain an important feature of the national debate over U.S. foreign policy.