60 Second Expert: America and the Arms Trade

Accused Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout has gained notoriety through his character’s starring roles in the book Merchant of Death and the Hollywood movie Lord of War. His recent extradition to Washington from Bangkok (ironically accomplished by the promise of military hardware) might be painted as the delivery of an archetypal bad guy to justice. But compared to major American arms dealers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and others – the real “merchants of death” – Bout is a penny-ante operator.

According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, world arms sales totaled $57.5 billion in 2008, even with an 8.5 percent “dip” attributed to the global economic downturn. Most of the trade – some $45.1 billion – makes its way to impoverished developing nations ill-equipped to invest in costly weapons systems. The United States cornered 68.4 percent of such sales in 2008 and 45.1 percent in 2009.

Traffic in deadly arms is often an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Sales to the Gulf States, South Korea, and Colombia are designed to check the influence of regional antagonists like Iran, Syria, China, and Venezuela, while sales to countries like Yemen and Somalia support U.S. allies caught up in local civil wars. This enormously profitable enterprise thus represents a dangerously fortuitous dovetailing of corporate and foreign policy interests. American arms dealers lobby ferociously (and usually successfully) against any cuts for costly programs like the unnecessary B-2 stealth bomber and the clunky F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Despite what industry lobbyists tell Congress, such useless projects do not create American jobs. The Center for Economic and Political Research has correlated Robert Gates’ proposed 1 percent increase in defense spending to a 0.6 percent decrease in GDP over 20 years, while economist Dean Baker projects a long-term loss of some 2 million American jobs as a result of such spending.

The international arms trade will not even notice if a marginal figure like Viktor Bout ends up behind bars. With a UN conference set to devise an arms trade treaty in 2012, the international community must seek not only to roll back the Viktor Bouts of the world, but also the arms trade itself.

Conn Hallinan is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus. His writings can also be found on his blog.