Conflicting Messages: The Arms Trade Treaty and Export Control Reform

A recognized global leader in both arms trade and export control, the United States has committed to seeking a robust international arms trade treaty. Washington is undertaking this effort in part to raise global norms for the trade in conventional weapons. At the same time, the administration is moving forward with a comprehensive review of its own export control system that may lower U.S. standards. It’s difficult to advocate for states to raise their own practices while appearing to weaken one’s own.

An Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to Bring the World Up

In deciding last year to break with the previous administration and vote for a UN process that could lead to an ATT, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Oct. 14, 2009:

[T]he Arms Trade Treaty initiative presents us with the opportunity to promote the same high standards for the entire international community that the United States and other responsible arms exporters already have in place to ensure that weaponry is transferred for legitimate purposes.

She also touted the U.S. system:

On a national basis, the United States has in place an extensive and rigorous system of controls that most agree is the “gold standard” of export controls for arms transfers.

Earlier this year at an ACA co-sponsored roundtable, U.S. lead ambassador on the ATT Donald Mahley delivered comments on behalf of Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher further highlighting the advantages of a strong ATT and export control system for U.S. national security goals, saying Feb. 18:

We have a strong and robust regulatory body. The transfer of arms are approved only when there is realistic and reasonable evidence the intended recipient has shown that they have a legitimate need and sufficient safeguards are there to preclude either deliberate or unintended re-transfers to unapproved end uses. We also consider the effect of the transfer on regional stability.

This process requires enormous effort. It is expensive. And it results in denying exports in questionable circumstances.

Although this can work to the commercial disadvantage of U.S. firms, it is the price we have to pay to try to stem the flow of conventional arms to terrorist groups, rogue states, and others who would undermine the rule of law.

It is also why the United States believes that it is the responsibility of the entire international community to settle for no less than the highest possible standards in international agreements and reporting activities.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Loosens Its Own Controls on Arms Transfers

About the same time as the administration agreed to pursue an ATT, it also announced it would conduct a comprehensive reform of its export control system. The outlines of that reform have been coming out over the past year, with a White House press release yesterday detailing the first steps in “Implementation of a New U.S. Export Control System.”

As the reform effort has progressed, officials have often pointed to the U.S. system’s flaws and need for a dramatic overhual, not its value, with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying April 20:

America’s decades-old, bureaucratically labyrinthine system does not serve our 21st-century security needs or our economic interests. It is clear our current limitations in this area undermine our ability to work with and through partners to confront shared threats and challenges – from terrorism to rogue states to rising powers. Our security interests would be far better served by a more agile, transparent, predictable, and efficient regime. Tinkering around the edges of our current system will not do.

The emerging approach relies on creating new tiers in military (USML) and dual-use commerical (CCL) lists, with a focus on more tightly controlling the so-called “crown jewels.” Key quotes from yesterday’s press release explaining this include…

On tiers:

  • Items in the highest tier are those that provide a critical military or intelligence advantage to the United States and are available almost exclusively from the United States, or are weapons of mass destruction or related items.
  • Items in the middle tier are those that provide a substantial military or intelligence advantage to the United States and are available almost exclusively from our multilateral partners and allies.
  • Items in the lowest tier are those that provide a significant military or intelligence advantage to the United States but are available more broadly.

On what happens with the tiers:

  • A license will generally be required for items in the highest tier to all destinations.  Many of the items in the second tier will be authorized for export to multilateral partners and allies under license exemptions or general authorizations.  For less sensitive items, a license will be required for some, but not all, destinations.
  • For items authorized to be exported without licenses, there will be new limitations imposed on the reexport of those items to prevent their diversion to unauthorized destinations.

The Wrong Signals

Instead of telling the world to keep a robust and broad export control system, the message is to loosen controls, especially on low-tech items, and in many cases remove licensing requirements.

Unfortunately, many of the weapons that fuel terrorists, aid conflict, exacerbate destabilizing conditions, and contribute to devastating human suffering are “low tech” weapons. As vividly portrayed in the recent Shooting Poverty film competition, countries in Africa, Asia and South America are still suffering from poor arms trade practices.

The concept of requiring more accountability of others for receiving license-free exports is a shifting of responsibility away from the U.S. government to industry or other countries. There are many problems with that approach, especially when there is not common agreement on standards.

If the United States wants other countries to share responsibility in the arms trade, it needs to convince those countries to agree to a strong arms trade treaty. What Washington is doing in its export reform overhaul may weaken, rather than strengthen, the case for a robust ATT.

About Jeff Abramson

Deputy Director, Arms Control Association
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  1. Pingback: Export Control Reform: Grading the Obama Administration’s Conventional Arms Control Record | Arms Control Now: The Blog of the Arms Control Association

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