The International Arms Trade

  • Published

The International Arms Trade by Rachel Stohl and Suzette Grillot. Polity Press, 2009, 176 pp.

In The International Arms Trade, Rachel Stohl, Associate Fellow at Chatham House in London, and Suzette Grillot, associate professor of political science and international and areas studies at the University of Oklahoma, describe the international conventional arms trade and the impact of these weapons throughout the world. The authors offer a brief history lesson on the arms trade from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War through the present day before addressing four key points: (1) the legal supply and transfer of arms, (2) the illicit arms trade, (3) the consequences of the international arms trade, and (4) control of that trade.

In Star Trek, “the Ferengi, a commerce-driven race . . . [declare that] ‘war is good for business’ and ‘peace is good for business’ ” (p. 42). Regardless of how well equipped a military is to defend itself, military and political leaders will always maintain that their military technology is dated, thus intensifying the international arms trade. The authors demonstrate how nations further this idea through diplomatic means, often utilizing the arms trade to gain support for their agendas. They establish this concept in explicit detail through the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, as the United States gained military access to Pakistan and, in turn, rewarded that country with arms sales.

Even though bodies such as the United Nations and European Union at times ban arms sales to certain nations, a report of 2006 demonstrated that Britain “had exported weapons to nineteen of the twenty countries listed as ‘countries of major concern’ . . . . Only North Korea was denied arms transfers” (pp. 64–65). Stohl and Grillot treat this issue in great detail, examining the politics, economics, and military rationalization of arms sales for each of the five permanent members of the Security Council. They also dispel any misconceptions that the reader may have about the small-arms trade, noting, for example, that “although Africa is often believed to be a major destination for small arms transfers, the continent’s legal sales totalled only $25 million in 2005. The five largest small arms recipients in 2003 were the United States, Cyprus, Germany, Spain and France, but no African countries” (p. 86).

Nations do not share information regarding their legal arms sales, not to mention illicit transactions. Nevertheless, the authors examine that subject, offering such examples as the appropriation of funds by Congress and the Central Intelligence Agency to be funneled through Pakistan to aid the mujahideen in Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets during the 1980s. Similarly, they point out that private companies are just as willing to participate in the illicit arms trade—an activity that has its consequences.

Indeed, such dealings have massive effects on both a nation and its people, primarily in the form of human security. Examples range from the obvious (death, injury, and trauma) to the less obvious (lost educational opportunities), including propagation of a culture of violence. In rare cases, arms networks lead to the use of armed child soldiers and terrorists. Despite what we hear about weapons regulations, Stohl and Grillot note that “significant loopholes have allowed terrorist networks to acquire US weapons with relative ease” (p. 132). The authors seem to assume that only war-torn nations obtain these weapons, overlooking countries that purchase arms simply as a deterrent and failing to consider the effects on their people.

Lastly, the book discusses a dizzying array of political battles between nations that attempt to control the international arms trade. On the one hand, China refuses to agree to any US arms sales to Taiwan, and Russia, flexing its power against Western hegemony, takes issue with the United States on such matters. On the other hand, regional alliances have created regulations and transparency concerning the arms trade. Ultimately, though, the fact that nations use weapons to establish their military power would obviate any attempt to establish a body designed to govern the sale of arms.

The International Arms Trade is highly relevant and worthwhile reading for the Air Force community. I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand how the international arms trade works and the effects it has on a nation and its people.

SSgt Justin Theriot, USAF

Incirlik Air Base, Turkey

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."