Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.N. Arms Trade Treaty

Iran Drives Spike in US Arms Sales

The New York Times’ Thom Shanker cites a new Congressional Research Service report to make the startling claim that “weapons sales by the United States tripled in 2011 to a record high” of $66.3 billion, an “extraordinary increase” from 2010’s total of $21.4 billion and one that represents “three-quarters of the global arms market.” The full report, by Richard Grimmett and Paul Kerr, is available here. While the dollar figures that Shanker cites are accurate, the context he provides is not.

First, the CRS report is based on calendar year data, whereas most U.S. figures are based on the Federal Year. The difference this makes in calculating percentage changes is astonishing, because the data are dominated by a few large sales, especially a $29 billion deal with the Saudis. Thus, if measured from FY 2010 to FY 2011, the increase is about nine percent, not three hundred percent.

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The New York Times’ Thom Shanker cites a new Congressional Research Service report to make the startling claim that “weapons sales by the United States tripled in 2011 to a record high” of $66.3 billion, an “extraordinary increase” from 2010’s total of $21.4 billion and one that represents “three-quarters of the global arms market.” The full report, by Richard Grimmett and Paul Kerr, is available here. While the dollar figures that Shanker cites are accurate, the context he provides is not.

First, the CRS report is based on calendar year data, whereas most U.S. figures are based on the Federal Year. The difference this makes in calculating percentage changes is astonishing, because the data are dominated by a few large sales, especially a $29 billion deal with the Saudis. Thus, if measured from FY 2010 to FY 2011, the increase is about nine percent, not three hundred percent.

Second, the CRS report includes only data from the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system, administered by the Defense Department. It does not include Direct Commercial Sales (DCS), administered by State. In FY 2011, DCS authorizations–which do not necessarily result in sales–totaled $44.3 billion. Again, the percentage increase in U.S. arms exports from 2010 to 2011 would be a lot less dramatic if it included all authorizations.

Third, Shanker leaves the impression that the U.S. is unleashing a tidal wave of armaments into the developing world. But Grimmett and Kerr note that the U.S. total for 2011 “was especially high … the international arms market is not likely growing overall. The U.S. global total for arms agreements in 2012 seems a clear outlier figure.” And while the figure of $66.3 billion will grab the headlines, those are agreements for future deliveries, not actual deliveries to the developing world in 2011, which, via FMS, totaled $10.5 billion for the U.S., about a third (not three-quarters) of combined U.S., Russian, Chinese, and European exports.

If the media are going to take an interest in this subject, I hope they’ll report a few other nuggets from CRS’s excellent work. Much of the demand for the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty is driven by the wars of Africa. So from 2008-2011, who actually delivered more arms to Africa, the U.S. or Italy?  The answer (Table 17), the Italians, by a factor of three ($105 million for the U.S., $300 million for Italy).  Over that same period, who delivered more arms to Latin America, the U.S. or minor European suppliers? The Europeans, by $2.4 billion to $1.4 billion.

It’s no surprise that the U.S. is competitive in the arms business. The only reason the U.S. doesn’t do better is because we rightly refuse to sell to a lot of the world’s grubbiest regimes. And it’s equally no surprise that sales to our allies in the Gulf are spiking: they have a dangerous neighbor. That’s the irony of the Administration’s decision to disengage from Iraq, while at the same time nattering on about the need to control the conventional arms trade: U.S. disengagement makes our allies nervous and increases their desire to buy our arms. And while arms sales are an indispensable part of foreign policy, selling arms is no substitute for U.S. leadership around the world.

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China’s Arms Exports Aren’t Mistakes

Colum Lynch had an interesting feature on China’s arms exports to sub-Saharan Africa in the Washington Post this weekend. His premise was that, while China does all it can to prevent this trade from becoming public knowledge, it is conducted without the approval of China’s diplomats. This may in some cases be true: the Chinese Foreign Ministry may not know about China’s exports of incendiary cartridges. But that just sums up the problem, which is that China is not a nation governed by law. Expecting it to have regular, lawful processes is quite beside the point.

Lynch quotes one expert as arguing that China’s arms trade is “a case of unbridled capitalism.” This is ridiculous: the Chinese exporters may be making profits, but they are state-owned. They are doing what they are supposed to do, which is to win raw materials contracts and political influence for China by selling arms to governments under UN sanctions at prices few others can match. Chinese diplomats may find this embarrassing, but they do what they are told to do, which is to defend the sales and obstruct investigations. Westerners appear to be congenitally incapable of realizing that most autocracies, unlike Western democracies, have a public and a private face: the public face is on display at the UN, while the private one makes the decisions that actually matter.

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Colum Lynch had an interesting feature on China’s arms exports to sub-Saharan Africa in the Washington Post this weekend. His premise was that, while China does all it can to prevent this trade from becoming public knowledge, it is conducted without the approval of China’s diplomats. This may in some cases be true: the Chinese Foreign Ministry may not know about China’s exports of incendiary cartridges. But that just sums up the problem, which is that China is not a nation governed by law. Expecting it to have regular, lawful processes is quite beside the point.

Lynch quotes one expert as arguing that China’s arms trade is “a case of unbridled capitalism.” This is ridiculous: the Chinese exporters may be making profits, but they are state-owned. They are doing what they are supposed to do, which is to win raw materials contracts and political influence for China by selling arms to governments under UN sanctions at prices few others can match. Chinese diplomats may find this embarrassing, but they do what they are told to do, which is to defend the sales and obstruct investigations. Westerners appear to be congenitally incapable of realizing that most autocracies, unlike Western democracies, have a public and a private face: the public face is on display at the UN, while the private one makes the decisions that actually matter.

What is depressing is how many accomplices the Chinese public face finds in the West. As witnessed by their behavior during July’s Arms Trade Treaty negotiations at the UN, Western NGOs are relentlessly credulous about China’s behavior and relentlessly skeptical about U.S. motives. The U.S. government itself is even worse, and that matters more. Lynch reports that:

The United States has sought to assuage Chinese sensitivities by granting Beijing and other key powers greater political control over U.N. investigators enforcing sanctions. In 2009, for instance, the Obama administration proposed inviting the Chinese, along with the council’s other permanent members, plus South Korea and Japan, to appoint their own national experts to enforce sanctions against North Korea. Beijing’s diplomats have worked assiduously to limit the experts’ ability to do their jobs…

Nothing good can come of this. As long as it’s an autocracy, China is not going to be wheedled into seeing things our way by being included on UN committees or in UN treaties. Rather like Russia’s efforts to facilitate Syrian oil sales and circumvent UN sanctions, China is going to keep on making these so-called mistakes. Except they’re not mistakes. They’re policy.

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Will Treaty Force U.S. to Abandon Taiwan?

President Obama has pinned the United Nations front and center to his administration’s philosophy of foreign policy. Prior to engaging militarily in Libya, Obama sought Turtle Bay’s endorsement, but never bothered to seek that of the U.S. Congress. With his first—and possibly—last term winding down, the Obama team is rushing headlong into a number of UN-sponsored treaties absent much regard to American sovereignty and U.S. national security interests.

The latest case in point could be the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Ted Bromund, my former graduate school colleague and now a Senior Research Fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, and his Heritage colleague Dean Cheng have an important report out looking at how joining the ATT could jeopardize the U.S. ability to help Taiwan defend itself from an increasingly aggressive China.

While China calls Taiwan a renegade province, the fact of the matter is that Taiwan was only under mainland Chinese control during the Qing Dynasty, and even then the Chinese control was tenuous. Taiwan has its own identity—apparent to anyone who travels there–and, unlike China, enjoys democracy and basic individual liberty.

The United States, of course, like much of the world, recognized the Republic of China as the legitimate representative of China until Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with the Peoples’ Republic of China. While the United States and Taiwan no longer maintain formal embassies in each others’ capitals, both house institutes and organizations which act as de facto embassies. Officially, the United States remains committed to Taiwan’s security, although the number of U.S. cabinet-level visits has declined precipitously in recent years, a fault which can be laid at the hands not only of the Obama administration, but the George W. Bush administration as well.

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President Obama has pinned the United Nations front and center to his administration’s philosophy of foreign policy. Prior to engaging militarily in Libya, Obama sought Turtle Bay’s endorsement, but never bothered to seek that of the U.S. Congress. With his first—and possibly—last term winding down, the Obama team is rushing headlong into a number of UN-sponsored treaties absent much regard to American sovereignty and U.S. national security interests.

The latest case in point could be the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Ted Bromund, my former graduate school colleague and now a Senior Research Fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, and his Heritage colleague Dean Cheng have an important report out looking at how joining the ATT could jeopardize the U.S. ability to help Taiwan defend itself from an increasingly aggressive China.

While China calls Taiwan a renegade province, the fact of the matter is that Taiwan was only under mainland Chinese control during the Qing Dynasty, and even then the Chinese control was tenuous. Taiwan has its own identity—apparent to anyone who travels there–and, unlike China, enjoys democracy and basic individual liberty.

The United States, of course, like much of the world, recognized the Republic of China as the legitimate representative of China until Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with the Peoples’ Republic of China. While the United States and Taiwan no longer maintain formal embassies in each others’ capitals, both house institutes and organizations which act as de facto embassies. Officially, the United States remains committed to Taiwan’s security, although the number of U.S. cabinet-level visits has declined precipitously in recent years, a fault which can be laid at the hands not only of the Obama administration, but the George W. Bush administration as well.

At any rate, as Bromund and Cheng explain, U.S. accession to the ATT would have devastating implications on the U.S. ability to sell arms to Taiwan which are needed to keep the peace and keep an increasingly aggressive China at bay:

One reason for the State Department’s concern is that the ATT is likely to recognize—in the words of the current Chairman’s Draft Paper, the closest equivalent to a draft treaty currently available—“the inherent right of all States to individual or collective self-defense,” and thus their right to buy, sell, and transfer arms. But Taiwan is not a U.N. member state, nor is it recognized as sovereign by a majority of U.N. member states. It thus appears that the ATT will not recognize Taiwan’s right to buy or import arms.

Moreover, the ATT will require signatories to control their imports and exports of arms. It will be incumbent on treaty signatories not to circumvent the import control systems of other signatories. The PRC claims—correctly—that it operates the import control system for China, and, much more controversially, that Taiwan also constitutes part of its territory. By the same token, the Chairman’s Draft Paper uses terminology from the U.N. Charter to reaffirm “the right of all States to territorial integrity.” The ATT thus provides the basis for a Chinese argument that U.S. sales or transfers of arms to Taiwan would circumvent the PRC’s import control system, violate China’s territorial integrity, and thus violate the treaty.

The United Nations likes to cloak itself in the mantle of peace but, alas, its actions can instigate war. No administration should subordinate U.S. national security to an international body that cares little for freedom and liberty, nor should well-meaning academics in the Obama administration trade the freedom and right of self-defense of 23 million Taiwanese for a philosophical embrace of internationalism that might win applause in a university seminar, but which would be a disaster if ever implemented.

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