In a May 10, 2019 article for War on the Rocks, “The Case for Arms Embargoes Against Uncooperative Partners,” POMED Deputy Director for Policy Andrew Miller and Advocacy Officer Seth Binder respond to “The Case Against Arms Embargos, Even for Saudi Arabia,” by Raymond Rounds.
One area in which U.S. President Donald Trump does not need to worry about making America great again is international arms sales. The United States accounts for 34 percent of all global arms sales (second place Russia remains a distant 23 percent), and has more than 40 defense companies in the top 100 globally. However, with civilian deaths caused by the Saudi-led war in Yemen estimated at between 16,000 and 50,000 by the end of 2018, calls for the United States to suspend arms sales to its largest client — Saudi Arabia — have understandably gained traction in both Congress and the public. More generally, several authors have penned articles in these virtual pages calling for more selective U.S. arms export decisions or outright embargos, governed less by economic motivations and more by concern about blowback, human rights, dispersion, and reducing technology transfer. I respectfully disagree with all of these recommendations. Whether it is delayed approval, as in the recent Kuwaiti F-18 purchase, an outright embargo, like Egyptian F-16s in 2013, or denial of technology transfer, as in the 2016 Turkish Patriot missile request, using the withholding of arms sales as a blunt force instrument of coercion is unlikely to produce desired strategic benefits and often backfires.
Arms exports are best used for maintaining or strengthening relationships while limiting adversary access to client states; a tool of nuanced influence, not outright coercion. In fact, threatening to withhold arms sales to coerce a state into changing its behavior often has the opposite effect, leading clients to diversify their arms sourcing instead of shifting course. Similarly, calls to restrict technology transfer and worries about demands for direct offsets mistake what is known as “design technology transfer” for the much more difficult “capacity” level of transfer. Both are explained in more detail below, but for now it is worth noting that design transfer, the level at which most of these offsets occur, does not lead to the creation of an independent defense industry, but instead provides the United States with a source of political power. The United States should not fear technology transfer, but with the appropriate end-user controls, encourage it. Additionally, while a large domestic market provides the United States the luxury of sacrificing financial gains for political influence, sometimes economics do matter; especially when it comes to preserving complex production lines for future flexibility. Finally, the United States should not look to use an arms embargo to coerce Saudi policy change, not for economic reasons, but simply because it is unlikely to work.
Greasing the Skids, Not Twisting Arms
Arms sales are useful tools for maintaining communication, strengthening relationships, and keeping potential adversary states at bay. Conversely, as a blunt instrument of coercion (i.e. if you do not do X, we will suspend Y), they are likely losers. Senior U.S. government officials involved in the arms transfer process that I interviewed over the past year during the course of my research have echoed similar sentiments. This is also borne out by previous research providing evidence that using arms transfers as situationally coercive tools is rarely successful. Interestingly, coercion attempts using arms transfers are least likely to be successful when used as a punishment or threat against an autocratic regime, such as Saudi Arabia. Instead, punishments in the form of an embargo can often push a client to diversify sourcing rather than to change behavior…
Read the full piece here.