U.S. arms sales policy is out of control. Since 2002, the United States has sold more than $197 billion worth of major conventional weapons and related military support to 167 countries. In just his first year in office, President Donald Trump inked arms deals at a record pace, generating hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of potential sales.
Though the president trumpets each deal as a victory for the United States, an analysis of American arms sales since 2002 reveals that the arms trade is a risky business. The United States has repeatedly sold weapons to nations engaged in deadly conflicts, and to those with horrendous human rights records, under conditions in which it has been impossible to predict where the weapons would end up or how they would be used. On repeated occasions, American troops have fought opponents armed with American weapons.
Advocates argue that arms sales bolster American security by enhancing the military capabilities of allies, providing leverage over the behavior and policies of client nations, and boosting the American economy while strengthening the defense industrial base. We argue that the economic benefits of arms sales are dubious and that their strategic utility is far more uncertain and limited than most realize. Arms sales also create a host of negative, unintended consequences for the United States, for those buying the weapons, and for the regions into which American weapons flow.
Washington’s historical faith in arms sales is seriously misplaced. The United States should revise its arms sales policy to improve the risk assessment process, to ban sales to countries where the risk of negative consequences is too high, and to limit sales to cases in which they will directly enhance American security.