The United States Needs A Conventional-Arms Policy

By Lee H. Hamilton. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana is chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. | The Christian Science Monitor, September 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

The United States Needs A Conventional-Arms Policy


Lee H. Hamilton. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana is chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs., The Christian Science Monitor


PRESIDENT Clinton last year unveiled a good initiative on nonproliferation. Yet a crucial element is missing: a policy to limit the transfer of conventional arms. On Aug. 3, Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis explained the 18-month delay on conventional-arms policy this way: "Other things have come a little bit higher on our agenda." I do not understand how "other things" can come higher when conventional arms have killed 40 million people since the end of World War II.

Nothing will limit the proliferation of conventional arms unless the United States takes the lead. We have become the No. 1 supplier since the Soviet Union's collapse. Last year, the US accounted for 73 percent of all arms transfers to the third world. Russia is far behind at 9 percent. The Clinton administration claims the US is maintaining a steady share of a dwindling world arms market. Yet the US set a record in 1993 of $33 billion in government-to-government arms sales, more than doubling previous figures.

Sheer dollar volume illustrates the problem. The more serious implication is that arms sales stimulate arms races that undermine US security. Arms races increase the risks and lethality of regional conflicts and the risks of our involvement. US forces may face US-supplied weapons in some future war.

After the Gulf war, Congress passed legislation that pressed the Bush administration to start negotiating limits on conventional-arms transfers, especially in the Middle East. Talks involving the US, Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union (later Russia) were intended to bring guidelines and limits to arms sales to the Middle East. They broke down in 1992 when China walked out.

Restraining arms sales is the toughest of policy and political issues. Suppliers have good reasons to sell. Through arms sales, the US can deter aggression, help friendly governments meet legitimate security interests, cut defense costs through longer production runs, and promote jobs and exports.

Buyers have good reasons to buy. They want top-quality US arms to meet legitimate and perceived threats. They also want the political and military ties to the US that come with agreements to purchase arms.

How can the US get a handle on conventional arms transfers that destabilize regional peace and security?

First, convene talks among major arms-supplier governments. They must agree on a code of conduct based on mutual restraint. Why does the Middle East need more advanced aircraft or tanks? How can we stop Russian submarine transfers to Iran if we do not work for restraint by all parties, including the US, on other weapons transfers to the region? …

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