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The case against a U.S.-arms monopoly.


The United States government is the dominant force in the global arms market. Between 1970 and 1979 the U.S. arranged more than $74 billion in weapons sales. Between 1980 and 1989 the U.S. would agree to sell over $97 billion in arms to nations abroad. This number would rise again between 1990 and 1999 to $128 billion and continued to climb in the new millennium. Between 2000 and 2010 the U.S. arranged to send more than $192 billion in arms to countries all over the globe (Security Cooperation 2010). As U.S. weapons sales have increased over time, so too has the U.S. share in the global arms market. By 1990, when the Soviet Union was dissolving, the U.S. accounted for 37 % of the global arms market and realized more than $12 billion in annual sales. That same year, the Soviet Union accounted for $10 billion, or 30%, while Great Britain, France and China made up most of the remaining supplies. By 2008, the U.S. was responsible for 68.4 % of all arms trades with Italy and Russia being the next largest suppliers, each accounting for under nine percent of total global arms sales (Berrigan 2010).

A similar story can be told when one examines arms sales specifically to developing nations. Between 2004 and 2011, developing nations purchased an average of 68.6 % of all weapons sold throughout the globe. By the end of 2011, lesser-developed countries (LDCs) would purchase 83.9 % of all arms agreements. Between 2008 and 2011 the United States comprised on average over 54 % of the arms market to the developing world. Russia, the second largest supplier to LDCs accounted for only 15 % of all arms agreements. In 2011 the U.S. share in the arms market to developing nations jumped from 43 to 78 %. Russia, meanwhile, maintained a market share of only 5.7 % (Grimmett and Kerr 2012).

The subject of U.S. arms sales has been studied at some length (see Anderton 1995 and Kinsella 2011 for a literature review). Within the broader literature on this topic one strand of research focuses on the benefits of a U.S. monopoly on global arms sales. For example, Kapstein (1994) posits that the world will undoubtedly benefit from the "inevitable monopoly" of U.S. arms production. He states, "if exploited properly, this monopoly will not only benefit the United States, but international security as well" (Kapstein 1994: 13). Brooks (2007: 211-214, 234-239) discusses the global arms trade as a mechanism for peace. He posits that the globalization of the weapons trade has increased stability, enhances U.S. military dominance, and that the U.S. is the only country with the capability to capitalize on the global arms market. Caverley and Kapstein (2012a, b) argue that the U.S. arms monopoly is not only a source of great economic gains, but that arms sales contain an important geopolitical component. They contend that the U.S. share of the global arms market is slipping and that a declining market share could have adverse consequences for the U.S. and the world, especially in Asia.

A review of this strand of literature indicates that research on this topic is skewed toward emphasizing the benefits of a U.S. arms monopoly while neglecting the related costs. The purpose of this paper is to fill this gap by examining some of the overlooked costs and consequences of arms sales. (1) Once these costs and consequences are taken into account, the supposed obviousness of a U.S. global arms monopoly becomes much less certain.

Arguments for a U.S.--Arms Monopoly

The existing literature advocating a U.S. arms monopoly emphasizes several supposed key benefits to the U.S. dominance of global arms sales which can be summarized by the following five categories.

Arms Sales Facilitate Diplomacy and National Security Objectives

By offering weapons to foreign nation states, the U.S. government can build and maintain relations with other regimes, enhance national security, and secure other U.S. policy objectives. The U.S. can use weapons sales as a type of payment to secure strategic commodities (e.g. oil) or assets (e.g. military bases). As Caverley (2007: 24) argues, "Not only does the United States enjoy tremendous market power in the international arms market, but it enjoys the privilege of using this market power to advance its strategic interests." Furthermore, proponents of this argument state that smaller nations will trade some of their sovereign decision making abilities to the U.S. government in order to obtain a steady stream of weapons. "In asymmetric arrangements, small states sacrifice a measure of autonomy in exchange for another valued good, often termed 'security,' from the more powerful state [the U.S.]" (Caverley and Kapstein 2012b: 9). This exchange, they propose, allows the U.S. to influence the policies of other countries and secure the cooperation of foreign governments in backing U.S. foreign affairs. Further, the opportunity for repeated dealings with the U.S. government provides an incentive for other, potentially hostile, governments to support U.S. initiatives.

Arms Sales Maintain International Stability and Regional Balances

This category of argument for weapons sales posits that the U.S. selectively arms its allies and other strategic partners, ensuring that those sympathetic to the U.S. are equipped with the necessary armaments. Some versions of the argument suggest that those who threaten international and regional stability will be cut off completely from amts transfers. As Kapstein (1994: 13) writes, "[A U.S. arms monopoly] will ensure that only friends and allies obtain advanced conventional weaponry and that adversaries will be denied amts ... [a U.S. monopoly] will provide leverage in other issue areas through diplomatic linkage." In principle, this influence allows the U.S. government to maintain stability in the broader global order of nation states. This argument has received particular attention in recent literature, as it is proposed that arms sales may be used to isolate China while maintaining other Pacific connections (Caverley and Kapstein 2012a).

Others argue that the U.S. can maintain stability by supplying arms to otherwise violent and hostile nations. The underlying logic is that the repeated dealings of arms trades with the U.S. government will discourage destabilizing actions on the part of foreign governments. As Kapstein (1994: 18) writes, "There is strong evidence that countries relying on American weaponry have not started wars with their neighbors [.. .] The most likely reason is that countries reliant on the United States fear being cut off and forced to look elsewhere if they misbehave." Moreover, it is argued that rivals will want to join the U.S. weapons network to maintain regional balances, and as a result the U.S. can influence the policies in these countries. Along these lines, Caverley (2007: 612) notes that, "As the world's principal source of high-end weapons, the United States can calibrate military balances between India and Pakistan, Israel and the Arab States, and elsewhere [...] A state will feel tremendous pressure to join the American network if its rival is a participant." In other words, it is argued that the U.S. government can allocate arms to governments around the world to balance power, minimize violent conflict, and ensure regional and global stability.

Arms Sales as Domestic Economic Stimulus

This line of argumentation focuses on the domestic economic benefits to arms production and international sales. The logic is straightforward--more arms exports lead to more domestic jobs to produce those arms. Thompson (2012) captures the essence of this argument when he notes that, "Unlike sending troops to fight overseas, there is almost no downside to sending weapons [...] They stimulate economic activity in America's industrial heartland at a time when well-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs are hard to come by." Recently, after signing a $29.4 billion arms sale to the government of Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration justified the deal by noting, among other things, that "this agreement will support more than 50,000 American jobs. It will engage 600 suppliers in 44 states, and provide $3.5 billion in annual economic impact to the U.S. economy" (U.S. Department of State 2012).

By Dominating the Arms Market, the U.S. Will Drive Out Smaller Foreign Firms Allowing Poorer Nations to Focus on Other Industries

This argument states that if the U.S. fully utilizes its comparative advantage in weapons production, it will be able to reduce the cost of manufacturing weapons via economies of scale. Smaller firms abroad will be unable to compete on similar margins and will be driven out of the market. It follows that the resources which were used to manufacture weapons will be allocated to other, more productive uses. As Kapstein (1994: 13) notes, "With inefficient defense firms put out of their costly misery, [foreign] governments will be able to put scarce resources toward more productive pursuits."

If the U.S. Doesn't Supply Arms, Someone Else Will

As per the previous categories, proponents of a U.S. global-arms monopoly posit that the U.S. can maintain significant control over international peace, stability, and policies all while contributing to domestic economic activity. As a result, it is often argued that if the U.S. were to lose or relinquish this authority, other governments would step into this role and reap these benefits. Given that U.S. policies may not align with a potential replacement suppliers), the logic goes, the U.S. government should work to maintain its role as a global monopolist. Furthermore, proponents of U.S. arms sales argue that a competitive arms market with several suppliers could destabilize many regions throughout the globe. "Shifts could prove destabilizing. [If] the U.S. los[es] its position as principal arms supplier in [a] region, producers will proliferate [...] U.S. firms can be more selective in their approach to exports [...]Washington can withhold its supplies, reducing the amount of advanced weaponry in the world ... [The U.S. government] should focus on preventing most foreign weapons from being built at all." (Caverley and Kapstein 2012a: 130-132).

The Overlooked Costs and Consequences of a U.S.-Arms Monopoly

The aforementioned literature on a U.S.-global arms monopoly tends to highlight the perceived benefits of such a state while neglecting the potential costs. It is to these costs which we now turn. The costs of a U.S. arms monopoly can be broken into several distinct categories.

System Effects

One of the main arguments offered in support of U.S.-global arms monopoly is that it allows the U.S. government to achieve diplomatic and security objectives while maintaining international peace and stability. This assumes that U.S. policymakers can determine the correct mix of weapons and recipients needed to achieve these goals. However, when one considers the nature of the international environment within which arms sales take place, it is far from clear that the desired ends can be achieved in any kind of consistent manner.

Jervis (1997: 6) emphasizes that international economic, legal, social, and political life is characterized by complex systems which have two defining properties: "... a set of units or elements is interconnected so that changes in some elements or their relations produce changes in other parts of the system," and "... the entire system exhibits properties and behaviors that are different from those of their parts." Systems-type thinking stands in stark contrast to the linear-type thinking that characterizes most discussions of arms sales. Linear thinking holds that changes in outputs (e.g., national security objectives, global stability and balance, etc.) are directly proportional to changes in inputs (e.g., well-target arms sales), and that such changes take place in isolation, meaning they do not affect other aspects of the larger system. However, systems-type thinking indicates that linear-type thinking is too simplistic when intervening in complex systems. Systems thinking indicates that interventions in one part of a system (e.g., the injection of new arms) can generate negative unintended consequences, or system effects.

System effects occur for three related reasons (Jervis 1997: 10-27). First, while interventions in a system do have direct effects, they also have indirect effects that are often long and varied and thus not immediately obvious or observable. For example, the provision of arms may achieve the immediate goals of the U.S. government but be used in an unintended manner in future periods as illustrated by the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, where exported arms were first used to fight Soviet invaders, but later used against U.S. forces. Second, because systems are characterized by interactions between multiple actors, the relationship between any two individual actors will be determined not only by their direct interactions but also by interactions with and by others in the system. For example, the delivery of arms is not just a function of the direct relationship between the U.S. government and the recipients but also the external relationships of these parties with government actors or other local power brokers. Finally, systems are not additive, and thus system outcomes are fundamentally different from the sum of the individual elements. For example, it may appear that providing more arms will increase security and stability. This is not necessarily the case as arms can be used for purposes that undermine peace and stability either directly by recipients, or indirectly by third-parties who obtain the weapons.

Overall, system-type thinking matters because it implies that attempts to influence foreign affairs through arms sales can never simply do one thing, even if this is the intention, because there are a series of unpredictable consequences over time and space that emerge from any single intervention in a complex system (Jervis 1997: 10).

Policies related to arms sales are necessarily simple relative to the complexity of the broader international system in which these policies are introduced. Given the web of complex interactions--economic, legal, social, and political--in the national and international arenas, policymakers cannot know the outcome of injecting arms into one part of the system. To illustrate these dynamics, consider the provision of arms by the U.S. government to the Somali government.

Between 1981 and 1989, after the Somali government severed ties with the Soviet Union, the U.S. sold Somalia more than $153 million in weapons (Security Cooperation 2010) with the intention of gaining a foothold in the country because of its position near the Red Sea and Suez Canal. The U.S. government supplied these weapons to the Barre regime despite warnings by African specialists, human rights groups, and other regional organizations that they could easily be misused and abused (Ramsbotham and Woodhouse 1999: 222). The U.S. short term policy objectives of impeding the USSR and gaining military advantage in the region contributed to significant long-term negative consequences for both the U.S. and Somali citizens.

As per the logic of systems thinking, when making the decision to provide arms to the Barre regime, the U.S. government could not anticipate future political events and how the weapons it was supplying would be used. In 1991 a military coup ousted the Barre regime and civil war soon erupted. During the conflict it is estimated that somewhere between 350,000 and one million people were killed by weapons transferred to the former government (Global Security Organization 2012).

Principal-Agent Problems

In addition to being unable to anticipate the long and variable effects of arms sales due to the nature of complex systems, the U.S. government also faces a fundamental principal-agent problem when providing arms to other governments and groups. The U.S. government, acting as the principal, supplies foreign recipients with weapons under the pretense of maintaining regional safety, stability, or obtaining other foreign-policy goals. However, once these weapons are transferred it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to monitor their use or transfer. These monitoring difficulties mean that even if weapons are given to a foreign government or group for a legitimate purpose, the weapons may ultimately be used to achieve other ends which may be at odds with their intended purpose. A clear example of this problem involves the market for small arms. In many countries small arms are purchased legally internationally via government-to-government transfers, but are re-sold to other groups or individuals. These illicit small-arms sales are a big business for some governments, constituting more than an estimated $1 billion in annual revenues (Stohl et al. 2006: 12).

Principal-agent problems are also prevalent in arms sales agreements with countries that rely almost completely on U.S-supplied weapons. Consider that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, the U.S. largest arms importers, have each sold weapons to countries with whom the U.S. has engaged in political conflict, instituted embargos, or other sanctions. In August 2012, the Saudi government was accused of actively engaging in supplying arms to Syrian rebels, further inflaming the conflict in which some 25,000 people have been killed (see Sanger 2012). There is a long history of Israeli soldiers selling weapons to Palestinian groups. In 1997, the same year that the U.S. supplied over $47 million in arms to Israel, Nahum Manbar was sentenced to 16 years in prison after selling information and supplies for chemical weapons to Iran (see Security Cooperation 2010, Zarchin 2011). In 1999, the U.S. State Department issued sanctions on subsidiaries of Egypt's Arab Industrial Organization (AOI) specifically for transferring dual-use U.S. technology, including missile parts, to North Korea. During the same year, the U.S. granted more than $2.1 billion in arms agreements to the Egyptian government (Security Cooperation 2010). This is important because it implies that even in cases where the U.S. would seem to have some sort of enforcement mechanism through repeated dealings (Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are the top U.S. weapons importers), principal-agents problems remain a serious issue.

Rent Seeking

Proponents of a U.S. monopoly on global arms sales emphasize that purchases of arms by foreign governments serve as a form of domestic economic stimulus. The underlying idea is that these sales to foreign government strengthen the domestic military industrial base without putting pressure on the domestic budget or tax base. While not denying that international sales create a unique profit opportunity for domestic arms producers, this line of argumentation focuses on the seen effects while neglecting the unseen effects of this expanded market and the associated profit opportunities.

An existing literature indicates that entrepreneurs respond to the incentives created by new profit opportunities both in private markets and in political markets (see Boettke and Coyne 2003; Coyne and Leeson 2004). International arms sales create new profit opportunities funded by international political entities. Recognizing this, domestic producers will direct additional resources to lobbying both domestic and foreign governments to secure the rents associated with arms sales. The domestic rent-seeking behavior associated with the "military-industrial complex" is widely appreciated by public choice and defense and peace scholars (see Dunne 1995: 409-411; Duncan and Coyne 2013). Expanding the arms market globally increases the scale and scope of this behavior as domestic private producers of arms increase their lobbying efforts and, in doing so, the associated deadweight loss associated with rent seeking.

To provide one recent illustration of these dynamics, consider that domestic drone makers have begun lobbying the U.S. government to ease restrictions so that they can expand their market and sell drones to governments oversees (see Hennigan 2012). While such sales would clearly benefit the domestic drone makers who receive the sales contracts, a full accounting of the net domestic benefits must take into account the resources invested in securing these economic rents which are a cost. (2)

Increase in the Overall Amount of Global Arms

If the U.S. government were to remove itself as the world's main weapons supplier, would another government, or governments, not step into that role, resulting in more total global arms? Although we cannot predict a priori what would happen should the U.S. exit the arms market or significantly reduce its supplies, there are at least three reasons to be skeptical of this concern.

First, the U.S. spends aggressively on weapons research and development (Caverley 2007: 605, Kapstein 1994: 16, Caverley and Kapstein 2012a: 5). The U.S. spends more than four times as much on research and development as the rest of the OECD countries combined, has historically waived the research and development recoupment requirements for arms sales and heavily subsidizes weapons for lesser-developed nations (Caverley 2007: 602-614). It follows that if the U.S. were to scale back its subsidization of weapons to other countries, the price of weapons would rise, lowering the quantity demanded by foreign governments.

Second, since the U.S. provides nearly 80 % of the total arms market, if the U.S. were to slow or cease its weapons operations, this would represent a massive supply shock. Such a sharp decrease in supply would drive the price of weapons upward and thus decrease the quantity demanded of weapons. Although one might argue that in the long run other suppliers may step into the market and drive the price down closer to its original level, it seems likely that the aforementioned effects of decreases in research and development subsidies and the decline of U.S.-driven imports would continue to curtail weapons acquisitions.

Third, recall that one justification for a continued U.S.-government arms monopoly is based on the logic of economies of scale. According to this logic U.S. producers are the most efficient producers of arms, so it makes economic sense for the U.S. government to be the main global supplier. If we take this reasoning as accurate, then a reduction in U.S. arms sales might very well reduce the overall availability of arms globally. If numerous, less efficient countries have to maintain their own arms production facilities then this might lead to lower overall volume of weapons due to diseconomies of scale (see Anderton 1995: 543-544). Of course, the magnitude of this "unspecialization effect" would depend on a variety of factors, such as the cost structure facing other countries and the overall number of producers, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that if the U.S. government is the most efficient arms producer, then reducing U.S. government involvement would reduce the overall amount of weapons available.

Concluding Remarks

Foreign policy analysis is a messy and difficult subject. The consequences of policies are far-reaching and affect a wide array of actors including: the target country, neighboring countries, others within the region, those in rival countries, and those in the country whose government is implementing the policy. Given this, measuring the specific costs and benefits of international policies is extremely difficult, if not impossible. However, appreciating these realities in no way implies that discussions of foreign policy should neglect the potential benefits and costs associated with policy alternatives. Nowhere is this more relevant than in discussions of the role of the U.S. government in international arms sales which is currently skewed toward emphasizing potential benefits while downplaying, or altogether neglecting, potential costs. Our goal has been to highlight some of these potential costs and negative consequences in the hopes of spurring a more balanced discussion of the net benefit of a U.S. government monopoly in the global arms market. Such a discussion would focus on the factors and conditions influencing the benefits and costs discussed above with a specific appreciation of the seen and unseen consequences of alternative policies toward international arms sales.

DOI 10.1007/sl 1293-014-9414-6

Published online: 15 April 2014


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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the South Economic Association annual meeting. New Orleans, LA, November 17, 2012. We would like to thank participants for useful comments and suggestions.

C. J. Coyne ([email]) * A. R. Hall

Department of Economics, George Mason University, MS 3G4, Fairfax, VA 22030, USA


A. R. Hall


(1) This paper can be seen as contributing to two existing literatures. The first examines the direct effects and the long and variable indirect effects of government interventions (sec Von Miscs 1929, Rothbard 1977, Kirzner 1978, Ikeda 1997). The second applies insights from Austrian economics and public choice economics to issues of foreign intervention (sec Coyne 2008, 2013; Coyne and Mathers 2010; Coyne and Pellillo 2011; Duncan and Coyne 2013).

(2) See Coyne ct al. (2010) for a discussion of how one unproductive entrepreneurial opportunity creates subsequent unproductive activities which threaten prosperity and well being.
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Date:Jun 1, 2014
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