Background and Rationale

According to the Pentagon and the White House, the greatest threats to international peace and global security today are regional and internal instability (including warfare) and the proliferation of weapons. These threats are said to justify Cold War-era Pentagon budgets—$396 billion requested for Fiscal Year 2003.

At the same time, the arms producing nations of the world are finding it extremely difficult (in terms of their domestic politics) to curtail production of weaponry in excess of levels needed for their own armed forces. This surplus production is exported, with the majority (62%) going to countries in the developing world. In 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service, the United States was the number one exporter of conventional weaponry in the world, a title it has held continuously since 1991. These weapons—in some cases big ticket items like fighter jets and tanks; in other cases light arms—were used in dozens of wars fought around the world in the 1990's.

The reasons for this contradictory policy are threefold. First, and most obvious, a very powerful subset of the American public—the arms industry—is benefitting from weapons sales abroad; the arms lobby works assiduously to ensure that foreign sales continue apace. Secondly, weapons and military ties are currently at the center of America's diplomacy; foreign lobbyists diligently work members of Congress to ensure that their countries get the weapons they want, while the State Department supports arms exports to keep foreign allies happy. Finally, the Pentagon uses weapons transfers to extend its global military reach. Arms sales are used—much as they were during the Cold War—to cement access to overseas bases and other facilities.

Over the past decade, we have worked effectively in coalition with arms control, peace and religious organizations to counter these short-term pressures to export weapons. Through print and electronic media and through public speaking appearances, we have educated many people about the medium to long-term costs of widespread and increasingly commercialized arms trading. Recent opinion polls indicate that the American public overwhelmingly opposes U.S. arms trading. In particular, the public is against U.S. arms exports to non-democratic or repressive governments.

Despite these considerable successes in public education and organizing, we have not succeeded in dramatically reforming U.S. arms trade policy. In fact, U.S. market share has held steady since the end of the Cold War, and subsidies to promote and finance arms exports have increased during this time.

The fundamental obstacle to success is that, relative to arms trade proponents, forces seeking to limit U.S. arms trading have very little influence with members of Congress and the administration. Even though we have mass public opinion on our side, the public at large does not perceive any direct self-interest in limiting the arms trade; therefore, most citizens do not take action on this issue. The preferences of the arms industry—which has clearly identified its self-interest in maintaining and increasing the arms trade—prevails.

Our challenge is to demonstrate to various segments of the American public that they do have a fundamental self-interest in the issue. For instance, we must show labor and small business how the arms trade negatively affects jobs and business opportunities. We must show taxpayer and good government groups how the public's money is squandered not only on arms export subsidies, but also on costly Pentagon interventions necessitated in large part by arms we have exported. And we must show all Americans that arms transfers to repressive regimes under the banner of the "War on Terror" not only hurt the innocents living under the boot of these regims, but may undermine the Bush administration's own policy objectives. Antidemocratic and abusive regimes create conditions that breed terrorism, and U.S. identification with these regimes only increases the likelihood that the disaffected will direct their anger at the United States.

Through our research and advocacy campaigns, we will demonstrate to various segments of the American public how the arms trade affects their interests. We will work with these specifically affected constituencies to influence policy makers. We believe that only by broadening the constituency of citizens pushing for change will we move forward.

FAS Home | ASMP Home | Search | About ASMP
Publications | Sales Data | Issues | Resources