Time for the U.S. to Get Behind a Global Arms Treaty

Photograph by ATR/AFP/Getty Images

As good American patriots celebrated the Fourth of July by blowing stuff up, international diplomats were gathering in New York for month-long treaty negotiations over a sector of the world economy that generates about $55 billion in exports each year: the arms trade. A strong and comprehensive treaty would benefit America’s national security—yet when it comes to regulating the global trade in weapons, America is shooting itself in the foot. State Department negotiators are taking positions that will weaken the final treaty, allowing festering security challenges, from Syria to the Congo, to get worse.

The past decade has seen fewer war deaths than any in the past 100 years. But half a million people are still killed by armed violence every year. And while the cost of all 100 million AK-47s on the planet is the equivalent of just 370 F-35 fighter jets (the Pentagon plans to buy seven times that number of F-35s over the next few years), it’s the AK-47s, not bombers, tanks, or missiles, that are doing most of the actual killing worldwide. So a treaty that controlled arms sales—in particular, the small arms and ammunition trade—to countries engaged in repression or civil war could make a real difference toward saving lives.

Depending on the course of negotiations over the next month, the proposed arms trade treaty could require that transfers be authorized by states; mandate bans on arms and ammunition sales to countries committing gross violations of human rights; and promote transparency of arms and ammunition exports to all countries. In particular, a comprehensive global treaty would help tighten enforcement of arms embargoes, clarifying what should be included and states’ obligations to enforce them. That’s badly needed: Looking at 26 different regional and multilateral embargoes in force from 2000 to 2010, Oxfam estimates that at least $2.2 billion in arms flowed to countries supposedly under an embargo.

Even a strong treaty wouldn’t usher in an era of global peace, of course. Black-market arms sales would continue. Based on the past record of international treaties, there will be plenty of breaches. But it might at least raise the price of conflict. In strife-torn Somalia, for example, ammunition shortages have increased the cost of a single bullet about sevenfold, to $1.50. Even the most amoral fighter might worry a little more about collateral damage if killing the wrong person cost that much. In fact, in Mali during the 1990-96 rebellion, a shortage of ammunition left combatants firing their assault rifles on single-shot mode. The result: fewer civilian deaths.

A strong treaty would also be of significant benefit to the U.S. While the U.S. made nearly 70 percent of new global arms sales in 2008, it’s already largely doing what the rest of the world would sign up to do under a stronger treaty; the U.S. abides by embargoes and publishes information on arms deals, for example. Meanwhile, a strong arms trade treaty might put additional pressure on the likes of Russia, still busy exporting weapons to Syria as President Assad orchestrates army assaults on his own population. Those exports were worth as much as $1 billion last year.

By Oxfam’s count, 100 countries are already part of regional mechanisms that involve legally binding criteria to control the trade of arms and ammunition, and 153 countries have voted in favor of some draft form of the comprehensive treaty. But the U.S. government finds itself in a bind due to the stance it has taken in the current treaty negotiations. The U.S. is demanding that the conference produce a consensus document—which would effectively give the U.S. a right of veto over any treaty, whether or not the U.S. ever signs it. And there are a few issues—particularly over whether the treaty covers ammunition—where the U.S. is opposing strong language on the grounds that it clashes with current domestic law. The combination of these two factors means that, without a shift in the administration’s position, negotiators will end July with a watered-down treaty.

The silver lining is that a consensus approach that brings in all major players may not actually be necessary to make progress. The U.S., Russia, and China have yet to sign the 1997 landmine ban treaty, for example. Yet the treaty is largely responsible for a dramatic decline in the number of mines being used and the number of people being killed or injured by them. Annual worldwide casualties from mines and unexploded ordinance have dropped from around 26,000 before the treaty to 4,191 identified cases in 2010. According to the Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor, only 12 countries still produce mines—the lowest total ever. And there is effectively no international trade in mines at all.

Despite their nonsignatory status, China, the U.S., and Russia all have moratoria on the export of mines. Signatory countries have observed the treaty even without the commitment of major mine producers because self-interest suggests any small benefit to their own production and exports is outweighed by the horrendous cost to innocent victims. That same logic applies to small arms and ammunition exports.

So it would be better for the U.S. to shoot blanks and negotiate for a strong document that includes ammunition—even if everyone at the table understands it won’t sign the resulting agreement. If the U.S. wants to show leadership on stopping the global arms trade, the best thing it can do at this point is get out of the way.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.