Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Follow the Trail of Bullets

A new report was recently released by SIPRI that details the flow of arms transfers around the world. So who, you may wonder, is fueling the conflicts of the world?

The answer would focus your attention on at least one country. This state is, far and away, the top exporter of arms to the conflict-ridden Middle East ($9.9 billion from 2006-2008). One out of every three weapons transferred from 2006-2008 -- this will be the period of reference in this post -- came from a factory in this country. Based on typical news reports and TV pundits, you may be forgiven if you point a finger at Russia or China. But alas, the primary global arms trader is the United States.

The US produces and exports more weapons to more countries than any other country. America exported over $37 billion in arms (30% of all arms). Russia is second, exporting $29 billion (23%). For some perspective, the next six top sellers are Western European states (arms producing is a costly business), including the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy. How about the Chinese? They come in at 11th, selling $2.4 billion in arms, or about 2% of global arms exports. That leaves the People's Republic just above the arms sales of Sweden. (Ruminate over that for a few moments.)

So the US exports over 15 times more arms than China. For at least some people, this is not a revelation. But what is more interesting are some of the specifics of US firepower abroad.

By tracking the biggest recipients of US arms, it is like looking at a map and priority list of America's geostrategy. Please excuse the crudeness, but consider the following:
  • Exports: $2 billion to Australia, $2.5 billion to Japan, $1.1 billion to Taiwan, and $6.5 billion to South Korea. These three combined are 32% of all US arms sales.
  • Strategy: Hedge against China's rise.
  • Exports: $4.4 billion to Israel and $3.8 billion to the United Arab Emirates (and one may even consider the $2 billion to Egypt). Counting Eygpt, 27% of all exports.
  • Strategy: Hedge against Iranian influence.
  • Exports: $1.5 billion to Canada and $1.7 billion to the United Kingdom. 8% of total.
  • Strategy: Reassure long-time allies. These states are what Alex Wendt and the academic paradigm of constructivism would call America's "friends".
  • Exports: $2.9 billion to Poland. 7.8% of total.
  • Strategy: Hedge against Russian influence.

However, a potentially worrying figure is the $1.5 billion in US arms sold to Pakistan. It is not that anyone should be concerned about the weapons reaching militants in the Northwest provinces. Most of the weapons were not small arms and are unlikely to be stolen or transferred easily to unintended recipients. Rather, my concern is the effects of this tremendous arms transfer on Pakistan's unresolved rivalry with India. India only received 15% of the arms from America that Pakistan received. What does this portend for the balance of arms between them? Furthermore, is India party to these American decisions to shovel weaponry at its western neighbor? If not, then I worry about the consequences for the Indian-US relationship in the future. India is only going to get more prosperous and powerful in the coming decades, and the US should avoid both being on the wrong side of this trend and fomenting a South Asian conflict between India and Pakistan. (I would invite my colleague, Ashesh, to comment on the validity of these concerns.)

Of course, there are all sorts of other findings in this dataset. I'd suggest taking a gander at the linked summary above. If you want to know where the rhetoric meets mortality, then follow the trail of bullets.


  1. No surprise there! America is to guns as grapes are to wine. Besides, many in this country value money above anything else, including patriotism. Great article.

  2. A qualifier, though: wine doesn't usually come back to bite grapes in the ass -- as guns will often do to America.

  3. milind.bhawar@gmail.comApril 30, 2009 at 1:58 AM

    '..India is only going to get more prosperous and powerful in the coming decades..' means the Indian politicians are going to be more prosperous and powerful in the coming times and that too with the help of America. US may be selling less arms to India in comparison with Pakistan but it has already bought the Indian parliament (and the so called democracy)with the help of World Bank loans..so however powerful the politicians become they will remain as stooges of US and will use their power to destroy any voice of dissent raised by countrymen against them..