Global powers rarely learn from history. Instead, they look to find ways to influence others with a range of sticks and carrots. Hello, weapons manufacturers, stop smiling.
Did Washington just give Israel the green light for a future attack on Iran via an arms deal? Did Russia just signal its further support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime via an arms deal? Are the Russians, the Chinese, and the Americans all heightening regional tensions in Asia via arms deals? Is it possible that we’re witnessing the beginnings of a new Cold War in two key regions of the planet — and that the harbingers of this unnerving development are arms deals?
International weapons sales have proved to be a thriving global business in economically tough times. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), such sales reached an impressive $85 billion in 2011, nearly double the figure for 2010. This surge in military spending reflected efforts by major Middle Eastern powers to bolster their armories with modern jets, tanks, and missiles — a process constantly encouraged by the leading arms manufacturing countries (especially the U.S. and Russia) as it helps keep domestic production lines humming. However, this familiar if always troubling pattern may soon be overshadowed by a more ominous development in the global arms trade: the revival of far more targeted Cold War-style weapons sales aimed at undermining rivals and destabilizing regional power balances. The result, inevitably, will be a more precarious world.
Arms sales have always served multiple functions. Valuable trade commodities, weapons can prove immensely lucrative for companies that specialize in making such products. Between 2008 and 2011, for example, U.S. firms sold $146 billion worth of military hardware to foreign countries, according to the latest CRS figures. Crucially, such sales help ensure that domestic production lines remain profitable even when government acquisitions slow down at home. But arms sales have also served as valuable tools of foreign policy — as enticements for the formation of alliances, expressions of ongoing support, and a way to lure new allies over to one’s side. Powerful nations, seeking additional allies, use such sales to win the allegiance of weaker states; weaker states, seeking to bolster their defenses, look to arms deals as a way to build ties with stronger countries, or even to play one suitor off another in pursuit of the most sophisticated arms available.
Throughout the Cold War, both superpowers employed weapons transfers as a form of competition, offering advanced arms to entice regional powers to defect from each other’s alliance systems or to counter offers made by the other side. Egypt, for example, was convinced to join the Soviet sphere in 1955 when provided with arms the West had refused to deliver. In the late 1970s, it moved back into the American camp after Washington anted up far better weapons systems.