Towards a world with a greatly reduced arms trade?

Reducing the size of the international arms trade is a seemingly impossible task. The current sale of UK and US arms to Saudi Arabia provides a telling example of how egregious arms sales to provision a war zone are extremely difficult to stop in the face of state resistance and vested corporate interest.  In this article I discuss what might be done to make moving to a world with a greatly reduced arms trade more feasible, drawing on the perspectives of some recent World Peace Foundation blogs and papers.[i]

It will take more than new laws and regulations, or sustained campaigns aiming at changing Government decisions about particular arms sales.  Technical measures to deal with the arms trade and its corruption are clearly vital practical tools needed by officials and prosecutors.  But if we fail to address the political and economic drivers of the arms trade and its corruption as well, we risk missing the forest for the trees.  Look at the Arms Trade Treaty – the ultimate “technical measure” to address the arms trade.  I do not know of any evaluation of the Treaty, but to my eyes it has had no impact on the nature or size of the global arms trade, and certainly none that could be confidently ascribed to the Treaty.  The Treaty is not useless, but I do not think it will greatly reduce the international arms trade.

The problem is that conclusively identifying the key drivers of the arms trade is impossible.  Military procurement by Governments will never be simply a technical competition between the different suppliers.  For that reason “arms transfers are best understood as ‘reciprocal, bargaining relations’ rather than ‘separate unilateral acts of supplying and receiving’[ii].

How can we best understand the relationships between purchasing Governments and supplying countries that underpin the global arms trade?

The international arms trade mostly comprises legal transactions entered into by Governments.  So we need to understand the nature of the relationships between purchasing Governments, arms companies and supplying countries, before effective action can be taken.  Who has leverage over whom?

I define leverage as the possession of coercive power in a relationship between Governments.  In this context this power can be used to determine whether a deal is struck, or to set the terms on which arms are bought or sold.  It can also, I think, be used by a Government to easily withstand attempts by another to exert pressure on it, for example by walking away from a possible deal.  In layman’s terms, when we are talking about leverage, we are talking about who has the upper hand in the relationship.

“If we don’t sell, others will”.  Why does leverage matter?

Analysing who has most leverage matters because it helps those who want a world with a greatly reduced arms trade to identify the best course of action.

The over-production of arms is inevitable when arms industries operate freely in a capitalist world.  I believe the size of the international arms trade needs to be drastically reduced, and restraint from supplying countries seems more possible than restraint from purchasing Governments.  The reason I think this is because corruption is so prevalent in the international arms trade.  The over-production of arms increases competition in the international arms market and gives arms companies a big incentive to pay bribes, but they would probably avoid such embarrassing entanglements if they could.  But I suspect the same is not true of those offered bribes: the sums in arms deals are so large and potentially life-changing that we can reasonably suppose that those offered bribes will almost always take them.

If the purchasing Governments do have the upper hand in the “reciprocal, bargaining relations”, then we must devise and advocate policies which will decrease their leverage.  If the supplying Governments have the upper hand, then we need to devise ways of encouraging them to use this leverage.

The conventional wisdom is that the purchasing Governments have most leverage.  For this reason, frequently we are told “if we don’t sell, others will”.  It is usually implied or stated that the supplying countries, even major ones such as the UK and USA, have no choice but to accept this reality, and therefore the current structure and outcomes of the international arms trade.

Over many years in the UK the apparent perception of most decision-makers that the leverage lies with the purchasing Governments has meant arguments in favour of selling arms have usually trumped arguments for restraint, especially when a strong vested interest is involved.  This is true, I am sure, of many other countries.

One strategy commonly adopted by those campaigning for a greatly reduced arms trade is to try to stop particularly egregious arms sales, such as (to use two UK examples of sustained campaigns featuring prominently in the media) the sale of Hawk aircraft to Indonesia in the 1990s, or the current sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia.  This experience clearly shows we are unlikely to persuade decision-makers to stop egregious arms sales.  A further problem with this strategy is it focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and so any success is likely to be transitory rather than permanent.  In the case of the Hawk aircraft, following the Indonesian Army’s brutal campaign against the population of East Timor after the 1999 referendum vote for East Timorese independence, the relevant licences were suspended, but only for a few months.

I am not suggesting for one moment that such campaigns are not worthwhile – I think they are for a whole host of reasons – just that we need some different (if not new) ideas about how to be more effective.

Who has most leverage?  Purchasing Governments or supplying countries?

But is the perception that the purchasing Governments have the upper hand actually valid, or merely an argument of convenience put forward by the vested interests of the arms companies and supplying countries?

A number of recent World Peace Foundation blog articles have addressed the issue of leverage in these relationships, coming from very different perspectives, using the Middle East as the example.  The Middle East is a useful case study because, as Emma Soubrier points out, it is the second most important region, after Asia and Oceania, in terms of percentage of arms imported, and the gap is rapidly closing.

Two recent pieces have suggested that the supplying countries held the upper hand.  In her recent study of Bahrain, Jodi Vittori argues the US has considerable leverage over the Bahraini regime and should not be afraid to use it.  She argues the US should use that leverage to initiate security sector reform to address excessive Bahraini military procurement and its attendant corruption, and help address Bahrain’s other serious problems.  In a similar vein, David Wearing, drawing on his excellent recent book about UK-Gulf relations, argues that the balance of power lies with the UK (and by implication other Western states).  While the end of UK arms sales to the Gulf might hurt British economic interests (a little), for the Gulf regimes the ending of foreign military support (and arms sales are a key, if not the only, part of that) is an existential issue.

Two other blogs point to the opposite conclusion.  Emma Soubrier analyses the shifts in the relations between stakeholders in the “triangle” of purchasing Governments, supplier countries, and arms companies.  She argues supplier countries face an “‘existential need’ to export”, because of shrinking Western defence budgets and increased competition in the international arms market.  She contends the Gulf monarchies are using this competitive market to nurture a newfound strategic leverage against many of the supplying countries.  Because of the concentration of power in these “prince states”, decisions made by supplying countries can spill over and affect other aspects of the relationship, maximising the purchasing Governments’ leverage.

Linda Åkerström discusses the example of Sweden.  Sweden was the fifteenth largest exporter of major conventional arms from 2014-2018 with Saab the dominant Swedish company (around 70 percent of the Swedish military equipment budget goes to Saab).  The Swedish Government facilitates arms exports because it believes in an independent Sweden, requiring the maintenance, at any costs, of combat air, submarine and crypto/cyber capabilities.  Predictably the result is that Sweden has little leverage in the international arms market.  Sweden’s huge state support for Saab led to the purchase of 14 Gripen airframes Sweden did not need to improve Saab’s competitive advantage (for delivery times) in the export market, the commissioning of Saab to build submarines when it had no recent experience, and massive state support of the Gripen sale to Brazil now tainted with corruption allegations.

All four pieces are excellent and reach sensible, even if different, conclusions.  Looking at the issue from the perspective of the decision-maker in a supplying country, changing policy and testing the validity of the “if we don’t sell, others will” argument is quite a gamble.  The actions of other Governments cannot be predicted easily.  If vested interests are strong and civil society is politically weak, as is certainly the case in the UK and Sweden, the incentive to gamble is non-existent.  We need to create a basis sufficient for decision-makers to want a change of direction.  This implies we need to work on changing their perception of who has leverage over whom, and to undertake the very difficult task of developing an alternative to the current structure and outcomes of the international arms trade which is viable in their eyes.

Analysing who has most leverage

Turning first to perceptions of who has leverage over whom, what we need is to build on the excellent papers described above to develop a method, if possible, of analysing leverage so we can reach some robust general conclusions, using as wide an evidence base as possible.

In my own view, the relative leverage possessed by purchasing Governments or supplying countries is likely to vary significantly depending on the identity of both.  In some regions or contexts, the supplying countries may well have more leverage than is generally supposed.  We must challenge any suggestion that “if we don’t sell, others will” is valid in all situations.  What factors might we look at?

Firstly, there is a hierarchy of suppliers in the international arms trade in terms of quality.  Historically, the countries with the most advanced arms industries have been those countries with the largest domestic arms markets, those markets usually created by the necessity of war or empire.  Even in the medium term, it will not be easy for potential competitors of the major supplying countries to build arms industries that can compete on the same basis.

Secondly, there is also a hierarchy of suppliers in terms of capabilities.  Not every country can build high performance military aircraft, main battle tanks, missile systems, submarines or aircraft carriers.  So for many items of major equipment the purchasing Government has few good options.

Thirdly, a hierarchy also applies to the wider benefits purchasing Governments obtain from arms purchases.  The US is the pre-eminent military power, and can project power around the globe.  US arms are generally perceived as highly effective, as its arms industry is highly advanced and can produce the full range of military equipment, but purchasing Governments no doubt also see the purchase of US arms as a way of buying US military support.  Other major arms suppliers such as the UK, France and Russia are much less powerful militarily, and lack a serious global power projection capability.  But nonetheless these countries can offer other valuable military support such as assistance against a fragmented internal rebellion (as Russia showed in Syria), intelligence co-operation, and high quality training. As UN Security Council members, these countries are useful diplomatic partners to have.  China has a rapidly developing power projection capability in the Asia-Pacific region, but many countries in the region are wary of it.

Fourth, militaries that use equipment from different countries that is not inter-operable are probably less efficient.  This, one assumes, is why NATO policy stresses the benefits – reduction of duplication, pooling of resources, and synergies – of inter-operability.  So previous purchases can narrow the options of purchasing Governments significantly when a dependency starts to be created, and these options narrow even further when a purchasing Government is engaged in armed conflict.  Saudi Arabia, for example, could not hope to continue its current war in Yemen for long without the continued flow of US and UK arms.

Fifth, in almost all countries it is economically inefficient to produce military equipment purely for the domestic Government.  Relatively flat military budgets (in real terms) in many supplying countries, and an inexorable rise in the real costs of advanced military equipment, creates what Emma Soubrier calls an “‘existential need’ to export”, if a national DIB is to be maintained.

Drawing general conclusions about leverage may prove difficult.  There are plenty of notable examples of countries which have a variety of suppliers and/or have demonstrated a willingness to switch supplier even at significant political cost (for example, Turkey, Qatar, India and Pakistan).  Nonetheless, general conclusions that are only valid at a regional level, or for the biggest purchasers of arms, would still be valuable because of the level of concentration in the international arms market.  According to SIPRI, the seven countries of the Arabian peninsula represented 20 per cent of the global arms market from 2014 to 2018, while the top ten supplying countries account for 90 per cent of all global arms exports.

In my view, in many, if not all, of the Gulf countries, who represent a significant part of the global arms market, the supplying countries have much more leverage than is commonly supposed.  The historical pattern of US/UK dominance of the region and its arms market would make a wholesale shift of arms purchases very difficult, particularly in a time of conflict.

An alternative to the current structure and outcomes of the international arms trade

Now for the really difficult question!  How might we actually decrease the leverage of purchasing Governments?  If we can convince decision-makers this is possible, we create the political space for them to implement a long-term change in arms sales policy leading, hopefully, to a greatly reduced arms trade.

The good news is that the structure of supply in the international arms market works in favour of those who want a greatly reduced arms trade.  According to SIPRI, the US accounted for 35.9 per cent of global supply (in 2014-2018) and the EU member states 26.8 per cent, meaning over half (62.7%) of global supply comes from countries which have well developed democratic institutions and so there is a possibility of civil society influencing Government decisions.  Of the rest of the world, Russia accounts for 20.6 per cent of global supply but given Russia’s recent attempted murder of the Skripals and support for Assad, the chances of Putin and his cronies being influenced by progressive policy proposals seems slim.

The recent controversy over the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, because of its use of imported military equipment in its war in Yemen, suggests one way forward.  In the UK a sustained campaign by NGOs and some Parliamentarians has failed to have much impact on UK Government policy, which is to continue the supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia.  An attempt to examine UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia led to the temporary break-up of the Parliamentary Committees which scrutinise Government arms export policy.  NGOs were forced to launch a judicial review action to challenge UK Government policy, with success still in doubt.  Contrast this with the US, where, as Bill Hartung explains in his blog, Congress has been more active on the issue of arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia than ever before, including the passage of resolutions in both houses of Congress that would have ended U.S. logistical support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen (since vetoed by President Trump).

Why the difference?  The answer surely must be that the US decision-makers and legislators are not more “moral” than British ones, but that the US arms industry, unlike the UK one, does not have an “‘existential need’ to export” to Saudi Arabia.  This is of course because the US has a vast military budget, unlike the UK or indeed other major European supplying countries like France and Germany.  The Pentagon budget is over 10 times larger than the military budgets of each of the UK, France and Germany.

It is the persistence of national Defence Industrial Bases (DIBs), and Governments’ stubborn support for them, that is the major push factor behind the arms export drive seen in many supplying countries.  This in turn leads to increased competition in the international arms market, increasing the leverage of purchasing Government and incentivising corrupt practices by suppliers that are so rampant in the international arms trade.

Europe occupies a curious position in the global arms market.  It is a major supplier according to SIPRI – accounting for (pre-“Brexit”) 27 per cent of global arms supply, with just six EU member states accounting for 25 per cent.  Thanks to the European Union, an institutional framework exists that makes abolishing national DIBs in Europe more feasible than it might be in many other countries.

But if a vast military budget reduces the “‘existential need’ to export” then the best way for European countries to reduce their own existential need to export is to create something similar.

As has been widely noted the problem is that Europe has far too many arms companies, because each country aims to sustain its national DIB.  Whereas the US has 30 major weapons systems, including one type of tank, four types of destroyers and frigates, and six types of fighter aircraft, the respective figures for the EU are 178, 17, 29, and 20.  With a larger number of smaller arms companies competing fiercely for orders, there is a “‘existential need’ to export” for all European countries to sustain national DIBs.  The solution is the abolition of European national DIBs and replacing them with a European DIB.  That would leave the Pentagon budget “only” 2.3 times larger than the military budgets of all EU countries combined, creating a European DIB which would greatly reduce the existential need to export of European countries.

Given both the US and Europeans would then have a large domestic arms market, a European DIB would greatly reduce the current Europe-wide “‘existential need’ to export”.  This would increase the leverage of both the US and European countries in the international arms market and could even make co-operation rather than competition more likely in the long-term.  With fewer European arms companies, US arms companies would find their competitive position in Europe improved, potentially meaning they faced less pressure to export outside the EU/US market.  European states would still be able to buy from European or surviving national suppliers if they wanted.  Whichever choice they made they should find their procurement budgets went further than they do today, and thus this proposal ought to be attractive to many officials within the Governments of supplying countries.

Purchasing Governments would complain about this change in the balance of power, but no one is stopping them defending themselves as they are entitled to do under Article 51 of the UN Charter.  Nonetheless it is likely that without the considerable incentives to export the major European supplying countries now face, building political coalitions opposed to arms exports would be more viable.  If that happened, the international arms trade would hopefully shrink in the short- and medium-term, as other suppliers will not be able to satisfy the market to the same extent.

A more ambitious plan would be to do the same but to create an even larger arms market, comprising the Pentagon + EU or perhaps NATO + EU, with a US-European DIB or NATO-European DIB.  If the European DIB seems unrealistic, a US-European or NATO-European DIB is much less so, as the US seems unlikely ever to submit to some supranational structure or rules.

How to get to a European DIB?

The abolition of European national DIBs and replacing them with a European DIB would not be easy to achieve, far from it.  There have been previous efforts to consolidate the European arms industry, such as the setting up of a European Defence Agency, and the European Commission’s Defence Package, and these have manifestly failed.

Collaborative production has also proved problematic.  Eurofighter Typhoon is a major collaborative project of the UK, Italy, Germany and Spain with the work divided up among various suppliers across the four countries who produce parts of the aircraft.  These arrangements were driven by political considerations rather than commercial or military imperatives.  The UK House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee has reported the spread of design, manufacturing and support expertise across a number of suppliers has increased the cost of the aircraft, and that consensus decision-making among the four countries has been difficult, with several key upgrades taking years to agree and deliver.  In collaborative projects export opportunities can also be contested, as they were for Tornado (the Germans blocked UK attempts to sell Tornado to Saudi Arabia for over two years) and now for the New Generation Fighter being planned by France, Germany and Spain.

I do not have the knowledge or expertise to review the reasons why these efforts at the integration of European national DIBs have failed, but the reasons and how the difficulties might be overcome need study.  What factors might we look at?

Firstly, we can look closely at the security of supply argument and, in particular, how this is perceived by decision-makers.  A fully national DIB is, I think, with the possible exceptions of the US and China, either simply not feasible, or grossly inefficient.  Modern manufacturing involves complex cross-border supply chains meaning no country can cost-effectively produce all the advanced weapons systems it might need on its own.  In some countries like the UK or Sweden, fantasies about “standing alone” might persist among some, but it is unlikely these preoccupy decision-makers.  Instead perhaps the issue about security of supply is being able to act independently without being constrained by allies.  Or perhaps the issue is an adversary might, by diplomatic, economic or military action affecting arms production or supply, be able to frustrate or defeat military action against it.

Secondly, we can look at the influence of the arms industry itself.  This is widely understood to be significant in the US and UK, and almost certainly is in many other countries.  But to what extent does it determine decision-making or impose political costs on decision-makers who defy the arms industry’s wishes?

Thirdly, we can look at whether the possession of a national DIB enables that country to achieve greater influence over the design and production of weapons systems, than a purchasing Government?  The evidence I have seen in UK Government archives is that export opportunities and what potential purchasing Governments may want are not seriously considered until military equipment has already been produced, but this may not be the case today.

Fourth, to what extent are jobs the driver?  In the UK many arms production sites are based in areas of relatively high deprivation, with limited good alternative employment available.  It is of course wrong to assume that all lobbying campaigns against job cuts will succeed, and there are plenty of examples of local industries or production being closed by Governments or large companies with great resulting hardship.  All those campaigning for a greatly reduced arms trade need to have viable alternative plans for the local economies affected.  Nonetheless, concerns about the effectiveness of diversification are real.  A recent report[iii] arguing it would be possible to disarm the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system without massive job losses, looked at the experience of a range of countries and concluded there was a

real cost for workers and communities, especially where new economic activity cannot be created in the same location through an idealised plant-based conversion programme. Every international case study identified has involved substantial job losses in the short term.

Fifth, to what extent is there a concern about becoming enmeshed irrevocably in a supranational structure?  For although NATO is an alliance with a supranational military command structure, it is possible to withdraw from the command structure entirely (France has done this in the past), or, alternatively, withdraw some units from their NATO tasks when supreme national interests are at stake.  The same would not be true of a European DIB, for re-creating a national DIB is not as simple as reassigning the military tasks of a fighter squadron.  Do decision-makers feel that in NATO they have not lost national military independence but if they participated in a European DIB they would?

Sixth, to what extent is the concern about the political ramifications of closer European collaboration?  Currently, the political winds do not seem to be blowing in the direction of closer European integration, as suggested by “Brexit” and the reluctance of European leaders in recent years to consider Treaty changes.  Scare stores about a “European army” have been used by pro-“Brexit” campaigners, and in the context of a widespread popular pan-European prejudice against European collaboration, such propaganda is likely to be politically effective, regardless of the reality.

My guess is that the political concerns loom large in the thinking of decision-makers.  Giving up a national DIB is really a symbolic act but nonetheless might be readily perceived as a surrender of what makes a nation-state what it is than other European integrationist initiatives.  Further, concerns about jobs and corporate lobbying for survival are powerful factors.


Based on the papers presented at the World Peace Foundation conference, I have tried to draw some conclusions and identify what further work needs to be done to identify a credible route to a world with a greatly reduced arms trade.  The current model of campaigning against egregious sales certainly does no harm and does some good.  My ideas are not utopian and therefore perhaps unlikely to inspire greatly those who rightly are outraged by the cynicism, corruption and appalling human costs of the international arms trade.

Nonetheless to increase the chance of changing the structure and outcomes of the international arms trade, my view is we need to work on changing decision-makers’ perception of who has leverage over whom and identifying how barriers to a European DIB might be overcome.  The latter reflects my parochial perspective, but in my view policies which work against attempts to maintain national DIBs anywhere in the world are the most promising way to give supplying countries more leverage in the international arms trade, and create the political space for decision-makers to make more progressive and humane decisions.

The difficulty of the task of moving to a world with a greatly reduced arms trade is starkly illustrated by the fact that my ideas in this paper only touch on around 27 per cent of the global arms trade.  I will leave it to others to suggest a viable way of making the US Government cut its arms exports.  Then over half of the global arms supply will be covered.  To deliver a ten per cent cut in the scale of the international arms trade – a modest reduction – would require a cut in European arms exports of just over one third, with no corresponding increase from other supplying countries.  So although this would represent a major change, a European DIB is still only a step in the right direction.


[i] I am grateful to Sam Perlo-Freeman, Xiaodon Liang and Bridget Conley for their very helpful comments on this article.

[ii] The International Arms Trade by Rachel Stohl & Suzette Grillot (Polity, 2011), p19.

[iii] Defence Diversification: International learning for Trident jobs (Nuclear Education Trust, June 2018), p1.

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