LOOKING BACK: Multilateral Arms Transfer Restraint: The Limits of Cooperation

By Lewis, James A. | Arms Control Today, November 2005 | Go to article overview

LOOKING BACK: Multilateral Arms Transfer Restraint: The Limits of Cooperation


Lewis, James A., Arms Control Today


As the United States and Europe wrestle over European plans to sell conventional arms to China, many Americans would like to see a new transatlantic treaty regime. They disparage the existing regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement, which coordinates export policies on conventional arms and related industrial technologies.

European officials also acknowledge the limitations of the current arrangement; British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has even proposed a new arms trade treaty.

Yet, it is unlikely that any replacement or change to the Wassenaar Arrangement can provide meaningful restraint in conventional arms transfers and still be acceptable both to the United States and Europe. The negotiations during the early 1990s that led to the creation of the Wassenaar Arrangement made clear that mutual restraint in transfers of advanced technology and arms is impossible when foreign policies diverge. And with the end of the Cold War, any Atlantic consensus was fast eroding over sales to commercially important nations in Asia and the Middle East.

The Wassenaar Arrangement, established in 1996, replaced NATO's Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM). Created in the 1950s, COCOM blocked technology transfers to the Soviet Union and its allies. It had three lists of controlled goods-arms, industrial equipment, and "atomic" technologies-that members "embargoed" to the Soviets. To ensure that an export of a listed item was consistent with the embargo, COCOM procedures required the review and consent of all members. This gave the United States extraterritorial authority to "veto" exports to the Soviet bloc.

COCOM was not a nonproliferation regime. It lacked a global scope and applied only to the Warsaw Pact, China, Vietnam, Albania, Mongolia, and North Korea. It controlled only the advanced industrial equipment the Soviets needed to make their already formidable military equal to the United States.

COCOM's extraterritorial reach made it unpopular with U.S. allies. With the Soviet collapse, there was immediate pressure to end it. Germany and France in particular believed that the United States used the regime to advance its commercial and foreign policies, using procedures that were no longer acceptable.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War showed that COCOM was neither well suited to the post-Cold War world nor adequate for nonproliferation. Iraq had built the world's fourth-largest army with $40 billion in foreign arms acquisitions. The discovery by post-war inspection teams that Iraq had easily obtained a broad range of Western industrial equipment for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs and for conventional arms was disquieting. The administration of President George H. W. Bush launched two initiatives to remedy these problems. The first sought agreement from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P-5) to restrain arms transfers to the Middle East. The second sought agreement from the Group of Seven (G-7) states on exports of sensitive industrial and civil goods to Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea.

New Initiatives

The Bush administration put forward its plan for arms transfer restraint shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War. The administration was prompted not only by the ease with which Iraq had purchased a huge conventional force and equipment for an extensive WMD program, but also by a desire to forestall congressional interest in legislating new restrictions on arms exports. The proposal called for the P-5 to cooperate in ending destabilizing arms sales or proliferation-related exports to the Middle East and was closely linked to British Prime Minister John Major's effort to create the UN Register of Conventional Arms.1

The arms transfer component of the Middle East initiative became, at the United Kingdom's suggestion, a proposal for a regime with global scope to prevent destabilizing arms transfers. The core would be a commitment by the five governments to observe a common set of guidelines for major weapons systems.

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LOOKING BACK: Multilateral Arms Transfer Restraint: The Limits of Cooperation
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