A World Awash in Weaponry

While the Clinton administration seeks to restrict handgun sales at home, it has quietly arranged to sell more and more weapons abroad.

Late last month, President Clinton announced the Defense Trade Security Initiative, the most significant loosening of arms-export controls since the end of the Cold War.

Under the initiative, NATO members plus Japan and Australia will now be allowed to import U.S. weapons with fewer licenses, get accelerated service and more easily resell U.S. weapons within NATO.

If allies fully comply with U.S. efforts to strengthen their export controls, they will be rewarded with broad license exemptions, which will enable them to receive most U.S. arms without prior approval. The United Kingdom and Australia are first in line to receive weapons under this initiative.

Arms makers must be delighted. Despite the fact that U.S. arms are already being sold to 154 out of 188 countries, manufacturers claimed they were hamstrung because of U.S. restrictions. Arms makers had set “reform” of the export-licensing system as a top priority for the 2000 elections. In 1997 and 1998, the top six military companies disbursed $6 million in political donations and spent more than $50 million on lobbying. They were outspent only by the tobacco industry. Thanks to key Defense Department officials, the industry lobby got what it wanted and then some—well ahead of schedule. Not that the American arms industry had been suffering. From 1995 through 1997, U.S.-based weapons makers grabbed 55 percent of the global arms market. By comparison, at the height of the Cold War, U.S. manufacturers provided one-third of the world’s arms. American arms deliveries increased in absolute terms as well, from $23 billion in 1987 to nearly $32 billion in 1997. All of this despite a global decline in demand for weapons following the end of the Cold War.

So why the changes? And why now?

Defense and State Department officials declared there were two main reasons for lifting controls: to ensure the health of American arms manufacturers and to improve security by convincing allies to adopt stricter controls over military manufacture and sales.

But the U.S. government should not be giving corporate welfare to giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. They don’t need the money.

And boosting the traffic in arms will not increase our, or the world’s, security and well-being. When countries increase weapons purchases, they often divert resources from such crucial areas as education and health care. Also, the more armaments in circulation, the greater the chances that some of these weapons will end up in the wrong hands. It’s difficult to control the reselling of these weapons, even by our allies.

These weapons may be used by human-rights abusers. One NATO member, Turkey, has been regularly cited for abuses against its Kurdish minority, yet receives hundreds of millions of dollars in advanced U.S. weaponry year after year. It is both dangerous and immoral for the United States to attempt to buy influence and security by selling arms. It would be a shameful legacy if the Clinton administration’s attempts to control weapons in the United States were to be overshadowed by its weapons policy in the rest of the world.