Death Trade


The Political Economy of the Global Arms Trade

By William W. Keller

BasicBooks 222pp $25

Earlier this year, a global consensus seemed to be emerging on curbing weapons of mass destruction. In May, more than 170 nations agreed to a permanent extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And in August, France and the U.S. agreed that a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty shouldn't permit even tiny test blasts. Yet these laudable moves ignored an equal danger: the proliferation of conventional arms. People forget that conventional weapons can bring on mass destruction quite handily, as shown by the World War II bombing of Dresden.

William W. Keller hasn't forgotten. In Arm in Arm, he explains and bemoans the vastly different approaches nations take to sales of the two classes of weapons. His chilling portrait of the global arms business shows that while governments seek to limit transfers of nuclear, biological, and chemical components, they actually encourage conventional-arms deals.

Before the end of the cold war, such sales were said to advance a peace-promoting balance of power in such volatile regions as the Middle East. Instead, we got arms races and war after war: Policymakers never seemed to understand that, as long as there was competition for sales, no balance of power would last for long. In the post-cold-war world, deals for conventional arms have no grand geopolitical rationale--they are simply a way to save jobs in an industry whose chief raison d'tre is gone.

In fact, Keller, an associate professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, argues that proliferation is so embedded in business and policy that it's hard to see how the madness will stop. Sales often involve co-production or licensing deals with buyers. The increased use of commercial technology also facilitates the spread of military knowhow.

Ex-President Jimmy Carter, for one, tried to stanch the arms flow. Keller praises his approach but says that pressures from cold warriors and competitive concerns doomed such unilateral restraints. Keller himself offers no bold solutions. But if his book spurs policymakers to think about a problem too often glossed over, his effort will have been worthwhile.

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