Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

On Arms Control

There’s always the potential for unintended consequences with arm sales, however justified they are. A basic problem for countries that sell weapons is that once you sell them you’ve given up practical control of them. 

Do you agree that we’re seeing the emergence of a new world order? Over the past few years, we’ve experienced a number of major events—from Brexit and the U.S. elections in 2016 to the pandemic and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—that have led to debate about the end of the so-called liberal world order. Yet while I agree that we’re seeing the relative rise of China as a global military power, it’s not really clear to me what will become of the post-1945 institutional order. It’s also not clear to me right now that the vast majority of countries outside of the NATO core really see Russia’s war as a battle of institutions and values that is causing that order to crumble. The war has created clear dividing lines—not only those firmly opposed to it and those backing Russia but also some fence-sitters such as India—that are reminiscent of the cold war. But whether that becomes a starting point for a new order or just an important anomaly to the existing order remains to be seen. There’s been a lot written about how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has set off a wave of defense spending in other countries.

Is this the beginning of a new international arms race? Actually, global arms transfers have been increasing for years. There was a downturn after the cold war, but since 9/11, we’ve seen a steady increase in arms exports and defense spending. Recent numbers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute show that world military expenditures last year surpassed $2 trillion for the first time. But I think that’s indicative of different regional concerns rather than necessarily a global arms race. In Asia, for instance, China has been rapidly growing its military, and we’ve seen some of the other countries in the region, like South Korea, responding to that with military spending of their own. In the months since Russia first threatened invasion of Ukraine, we’ve seen European countries respond with more spending, but some of that might also be driven by doubts about long-term U.S. defense commitments.

The world has responded to the heartbreaking invasion of Ukraine by providing the country with arms to defend itself. That seems appropriate, especially given Russia’s targeting of civilians, but is there any chance that the move could have unintended consequences? There’s always the potential for unintended consequences with arm sales, however justified they are. And I think you’ve hit on the core dilemma for a lot of people who study the arms trade. Many may support arming Ukraine, as there do not seem to be good alternatives to that. But there’s also concern about what could happen down the line as the result. A basic problem for countries that sell weapons is that once you sell them you’ve given up practical control of them. Think about U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia before the Yemen war, which were intended to be largely defensive weapons in response to an Iranian threat. Military intervention in Yemen was not the intended purpose of those weapons, yet that’s how they have been used. It’s also hard to guarantee that the weapons you sell will stay with the people you wanted to arm and not end up in what we often call the “wrong hands.” In Syria, small arms that were intended for a certain rebel group often ended up on the black market, helping to spread arms around the region, or were diverted to al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria. A fighter in a group that you’ve armed might defect or sell a weapon because they need the money. A group’s stockpiles might also be looted. Once you send weapons—especially small arms, which are largely what the U.S. is sending to Ukraine—it’s out of your hands. That’s an important part of the risk calculation that countries should make when they export weapons, and it’s really difficult to control in practice.

Are there any laws governing the sale of arms to other countries?
In the 1970s, the U.S. put into national law and policy that the risk of conflict and regional instability should be considered when making arms-exports decisions. In practice, that ends up as just one consideration among many. Typically, U.S. arms exports are driven more by political considerations and perceptions of economic gain. In cases where it might be sending small arms to non-state actors in a conflict zone, the U.S. has tried to vet the groups that are receiving them. It wants to make sure the armed group is not an al-Qaeda affiliate, for instance. But even when an exporter does that, it can’t really control where those weapons are going to end up. So there’s a very big question about whether there is a better way to do this. That’s something the international community is still trying to figure out, and it hasn’t been resolved yet in any meaningful way.

Russian saber-rattling since the invasion of Ukraine has reminded the world of what it’s like to live in dread of a nuclear attack. 
Nuclear weapons are likely to continue to shape international security and superpower relations. But, unfortunately, I worry that arms control has become more politically difficult in recent years and that nuclear deterrence may not function as well going forward as it has in the past. First, some scholars suggest that technological changes will enable more precise nuclear weapons. If they can be more precise, and less broadly destructive, then they might be seen as more usable in conflict under the laws and norms of war. Second, although the U.S. and Russia remain the largest nuclear powers, it’s clear that this isn’t just a U.S.-Russia game anymore. China, especially, is growing and upgrading its nuclear arsenal, and that’s going to make arms control much more complicated. The big political security tension to come is one between the rival U.S. and Chinese superpowers, and if they don’t know how to manage their nuclear relationship and haven’t fostered clear norms and lines of communication, that’s potentially very dangerous. The final big challenge is the future status of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. It’s the cornerstone of the world’s nuclear order, but there are political tensions within that order. One big point of tension is whether some states might decide that they could be better off abandoning the treaty and developing the bomb. If those states believe that developing nuclear weapons will protect them from being invaded by a more powerful nuclear-armed neighbor, then the world could become a much more dangerous place. 

Jennifer L. Erickson is a political science associate professor whose research focuses on international security and arms control, conventional and nuclear weapons, the laws and norms of war, and sanctions and arms embargoes.