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Military Aid—”If We Don’t Do It, Someone Else Will”

“If we don’t do it, someone else will.” If I had a nickel for every time someone said this to me in regard to U.S. foreign policy, I’d have enough to pay off the rest of my student loans and put any future children through college.

This is particularly true when it comes to the idea of the U.S. providing arms to foreign nations. Advocates of this practice argue that the U.S. can maintain significant control over international peace and stability and effectively implement its policies, all while enhancing the domestic economy.

If the United States government were to lose this tool or relinquish its position, it is claimed that other governments may step into this role, reap the benefits, and possibly implement policies that counter U.S. interests.

It doesn’t look like the U.S. government will fall behind other nations in weapons sales anytime soon. According to a 2012 report from the State Department, the U.S. approved more than $44 billion in arms shipments to 173 (!) countries the previous year. The U.S. dominates the global arms trade, including sales to developing countries.

In one of my previous posts, I discussed the problems with arming Syrian rebels. In particular, I highlighted how this type of argument falls prey to linear thinking. That is, it assumes that the U.S. government can 1. identify a problem, 2. construct a solution, and 3. implement said solution. This type of thinking ignores that it is impossible for interventions like weapons sales to do only one thing. When acting in a complex system like the global political arena, it is impossible to know ex ante how interfering in one part of the system will impact other parts, either today or in the future.

The case for using U.S. weapons as means of diplomacy has other problems. In addition to fallacious linear thinking, the U.S. government faces significant principal-agent problems when offering arms to foreign governments. After weapons are sent abroad, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to monitor their use or transfer. The “principal,” in this case the U.S. government, may be unable to control the “agent,” or foreign actors.

This is true even for those countries that, in theory, face losing a great deal should the U.S. withdraw its support. Take, for example, the top three importers of U.S. weapons, Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. In theory, these countries would be particularly inclined to go along with U.S. interests, lest they lose the major cache of weapons and military funds supplied by the U.S. government.

Well, the data says something very different is happening. In fact, each of these countries has an extensive history of selling weapons to countries with which the U.S. has had conflict or refused to engage in economic or other activity. So much for weapons getting foreign nations to go along with U.S. interests.

The Saudi government, for example, has found it particularly appealing to supply weapons to the Syrian government (note that this is before and during the current U.S. strikes in Syria). Israeli soldiers have sold a variety of weapons to Palestinian groups and other nations hostile to the U.S. for decades. In 1997, Israeli Nahum Manbar was sentenced to 16 years in prison for selling chemical weapons and sensitive information to Iran. That same year, the U.S. supplied Israel with over $47 million in weapons. And Egypt? The same year the U.S. agreed to sell more than $2.1 billion to the Egyptian government, the U.S. State Department issued sanctions again Egypt for selling missile parts to North Korea.

These points on foreign weapons sales are important to keep in mind for two reasons. First, we can’t know what exact “it” is that we (the U.S. government) are getting. Chances are, we wind up generating some nasty unintended consequences. Second, even in cases where the U.S. would appear to be able to enforce its agreements through repeated interactions (e.g. Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia), these activities still suffer from serious principal-agent problems. Countries like Syria, Iran, and North Korea increase their weapons stocks as a result.

“If we don’t do it, someone else will.” I say, “let them go for it.”

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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