Promoting Security Responsibly: Conventional Arms Transfers a Key Tool of U.S. Foreign Policy

Posted by Tom Kelly
February 3, 2014
The USAF C-17 Globemaster III Performs a Demonstration

Defense trade is an important part of America’s relations with a number of allies and partners, and the United States takes seriously the implications of any transfer of conventional arms to foreign partners.  Conventional weapons continue to be legitimate instruments for the defense and security policy of responsible nations.  But in the hands of hostile or irresponsible actors, these weapons can exacerbate international tensions, foster instability, inflict damage, enable transnational organized crime, and be used to violate universal human rights.  Therefore, global conventional arms transfer patterns have significant implications for U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, and the U.S. policy for conventional arms transfer has an important role in shaping the international security environment.

The United States Conventional Arms Transfer policy was first articulated in the immediate post cold-war era, in 1995.  Much has changed since those days.  To reflect these changes, and ensure that all arms transfers take place in a context of conscientious oversight, President Obama recently signed a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) updating the policy on conventional arms transfers.  This document sets out the broad principles for a core component of U.S. foreign policy.

The new policy recognizes that empowering our partners through arms transfers and security cooperation is essential to developing the kind of new diplomatic and military relationships needed to meet shared security challenges. At the same time, the policy also reinforces that we must also take into account a wide range of other U.S. foreign policy interests, including our support for democracy, the protection of human rights, and attention to regional security and nonproliferation, when considering such transfers.

This PPD provides greater clarity and transparency on U.S. goals for arms transfers and details the criteria used for analysis and decision on all potential conventional arms transfers. The policy revision is based on two overarching principles. First, the policy supports transfers that meet the legitimate security requirements of our allies and partners in support of our national security and foreign policy interests.  Second, the policy update promotes restraint, both by the United States and other suppliers, in transfers of weapon systems that may be destabilizing or dangerous to international peace and security.

This policy update helps us better demonstrate the longstanding U.S. practice of taking into account the full range of our national security and foreign policy interests when considering potential arms exports, including the security of the United States and our friends and allies, the protection of human rights, and support of nonproliferation and arms control.

It is not always obvious or simple to determine how best to serve both of these principles and take into consideration the wide range of U.S. interests. That is why the policy ensures that checks and balances are maintained throughout the process. It ensures that conventional arms transfers proceed only after intensive analysis by the Department of State, the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies and in consultation with the Congress.

Why now?  A policy this important to U.S. national security merits a full review from time to time.  And a lot has happened since 1995, from the spread of globalized terrorism epitomized in the September 11, 2001, attacks to the development of regional security partnerships to combat emerging threats, such as those arising from ungoverned territories and transnational crime.   Events in the Middle East and Africa during the past three years also provided a major impetus to this review.   The policy update reflects the security challenges of the 21st century. In particular, it: addresses major US policy goals, starting with the threats posed by transnational actors and terrorists; ensures that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law;  focuses on the need for cost-sharing and interoperability among the United States and its allies; ensures that allied nations can defend themselves; prevents the proliferation of conventional arms systems that could be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction; and addresses the destabilizing influence of accumulations of unsecured arms.  Critically, the revised policy deals directly with issue of transfer of services and technical data related to arms. Finally, the policy ensures the continued technological superiority of U.S. and allied forces.

In the hands of hostile or irresponsible state and non-state actors, however, these weapons can exacerbate international tensions, foster instability, inflict damage, enable transnational organized crime, and be used to violate universal human rights.  Therefore, global conventional arms transfer patterns have significant implications for U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, and the U.S. policy for conventional arms transfers has an important role in shaping the international security environment.  End-use monitoring and strict provisions regarding use of U.S. weapons systems help ensure that thesystems are never used for ill.

The State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs coordinates the Secretary of State’s statutory responsibility for “continuous supervision and general direction of...military assistance...and sales and export programs.” To learn more about the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, visit our website.

About the Author: Tom Kelly serves as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.

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