Arms Transfers and Trade

Michael T. Klare

Arms transfers and trade—both imports and exports—have been a significant issue in American foreign policy since the revolutionary war. During the Revolution and in the decades immediately following, the United States was primarily concerned with the import of arms, in order to equip its nascent military forces. Following the Industrial Revolution, however, the United States became a major producer of arms, and since then the principal question facing American policy-makers has been when and under what circumstances to permit the export of arms. The latter question has gained in significance over time as the United States emerged as the world's leading producer and exporter of conventional weapons (weapons that do not incorporate nuclear, chemical, or biological munitions).

Arms transfers are an important question for foreign policy because they bear on the military capability of the United States and on those states to which the United States chooses to provide (or to deny) instruments of war. When the United States was relatively weak and lacked the ability to manufacture weapons for itself, it needed to obtain arms from foreign sources in order to enhance the capacity of its military forces to over-come both foreign and internal enemies. Since the United States has emerged as a major military power, and acquired the ability to manufacture weapons of all types, its decisions on when and to whom to export arms have had a direct impact on the relative strength of other, less powerful nations.

This capacity to affect the military power of other states became a major factor in American foreign policy before and during World War II, when the United States chose to mobilize its immense arms-making capacity to help defeat the Axis powers, and again during the Cold War, when Washington sought to construct a global network of anti-Soviet states. In both cases, decisions on arms transfers were viewed by American policymakers as issues critical to U.S. national security, requiring assessment and approval at the very highest (usually presidential) level.

Although the end of the Cold War alleviated some of the urgency once associated with decisions regarding arms transfers, such transactions remained a significant factor in U.S. foreign policy. In the mid-1990s, for example, the United States arranged major new arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates in order to enhance their capacity to resist attack by Iran or Iraq. And as China proceeded with a substantial buildup of its forces, the United States supplied Taiwan with increasingly sophisticated weapons.

At various times the question of when and under what circumstances to export arms has also been seen as a moral issue facing the United States. This is so because weapons are, by definition, instruments of violence, and so their transfer to another party is thought by many to entail some degree of responsibility for any uses to which they are put by their recipients. After World War I, for example, many Americans opposed the export of arms on the grounds that their sale contributed to the likelihood of war and also provided obscene profits to the "merchants of death." Similarly, during the Cold War some people objected to the sale or transfer of arms to pro-American dictators such as Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) who had been accused of egregious human rights violations.

For both security-related and moral reasons, arms transfers have become an important subject for international arms control negotiations. During the Cold War, for example, the United States conducted intermittent talks with the Soviet Union over proposals to restrict the flow of conventional arms to areas of conflict, such as the Middle East. And after the Persian Gulf War of 1990–1991, the United States and the Soviet Union held similar talks with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the P-5 negotiations).

Finally, it is important to note that arms exports are viewed by U.S. weapons manufacturers—and their supporters in Congress, the military, and the business community—as a legitimate source of revenue. Although such considerations have always been viewed as being subordinate to matters of national security, several presidential administrations (most notably those of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton) have embraced arms export promotion as a valid concern of American foreign policy. The purely economic dimensions of arms export policy have been accorded particular attention since the end of the Cold War, when the United States found itself in a less threatening international environment.

For all of these reasons, arms transfers and trade have been an important—and sometimes contentious—issue in U.S. foreign policy. Every American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had to direct considerable attention to this issue at one time or another, and it is likely that this will remain the case for all future presidents. As long as there are discrepancies in the military capabilities of states, and as long as nations continue to go to war with one another, arms transfer considerations will figure prominently in the security planning of the U.S. government.


Grimmett, Richard F. Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1993–2000. Congressional Research Service Report to Congress. Washington, D.C., 2001. See also earlier editions of this annual publication.

Hammond, Paul Y., David J. Louscher, Michael D. Salomon, and Norman A. Graham. The Reluctant Supplier: U.S. Decisionmaking for Arms Sales. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

Harkavy, Robert E. The Arms Trade and International Systems. Cambridge, Mass., 1975.

Hartung, William D. And Weapons for All. New York, 1994.

Klare, Michael T. American Arms Supermarket. New York, 1984.

Krause, Keith. Arms and the State: Patterns of Military Production and Trade. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Laurance, Edward J. The International Arms Trade. New York, 1992.

Neuman, Stephanie G., and Robert E. Harkavy, eds. Arms Transfers in the Modern World. New York, 1979.

Pierre, Andrew J. The Global Politics of Arms Sales. Princeton, N.J., 1982.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. SIPRI Yearbook 2000: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security. London, 2000. See also earlier editions of this annual publication.

Thayer, George. The War Business. New York, 1969.

Zwoll, Wayne van. America's Great Gunmakers. South Hackensack, N.J., 1992.

See also Arms Control and Disarmament ; Balance of Power ; Containment ; Covert Operations ; Foreign Aid ; Militarism ; Terrorism and Counterterrorism .

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: