Thinking Internationally About The Arms Trade

A guest post, following our recent podcast on the arms trade and its discontents, from Anna Stavrianakis. Anna is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the arms trade, arms transfer control and militarism.

Zapiro - Russia Syria Arms Trade

September 2015, ExCel Centre, London: Stop The Arms Fair activists block the road and prevent military vehicles entering the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition. They are protesting against one of the largest arms fairs in the world – sending a message to the UK government and arms companies that “inviting representatives of repressive regimes and their armed forces to hob-nob and do dodgy deals at DSEI … with representatives from the UK government and unscrupulous arms companies from around the world IS NOT OK.” Two weeks previously, Cancun, Mexico: Control Arms activists build a life-size sand sculpture of a Stormer 30 tank on Baracuda Beach, Cancun, calling on states to save lives! by ensuring the toughest possible standards at the first Conference of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, the biggest game in town for contemporary international arms transfer control.

These two campaigns share the language of “dodgy deals” but are otherwise quite different visions of the arms trade and its control. The Control Arms campaign focuses on encouraging, informing and embarrassing diplomats into agreeing a multilateral treaty that enshrines higher common international standards and establishes stronger norms against arms transfers that violate human rights and international humanitarian law. The Stop The Arms Fair coalition, meanwhile, takes direct action to halt the operation of arms fairs in the UK by physically blockading the exhibition centre, in protest at the relationship between arms companies and the UK government, and the relationships between the UK government and authoritarian, repressive and war-fighting foreign governments.

I’ve written in the past about the international politics of NGO and campaign group strategy – whether reformist, insider approaches are more effective than transformist, outsider ones – in the context of debates about global civil society. Yet what continues to trouble me, intellectually and politically, is a raft of questions about the operation of the arms trade itself. Namely: where, or with whom, does political responsibility lie for the negative effects of the arms trade in a world of formally national states that are home to internationalising arms companies and operate in a multilateral system based on sovereignty? What social forces drive the arms trade, how does their power operate, what is the character of the problems they generate, and how should scholars and activists best respond? Competing understandings of the operation of the arms trade can be seen in the varied activist responses to it: is the problem one of lack of regulation, the need for improved multilateral action, improved normative standards and international law, as per the Arms Trade Treaty? Or is the problem the relationship between the state and arms capital, and government promotion of the trade, as per the anti-DSEI protests? In the case of DSEI, how are we to understand the operation of internationalising arms capital that has an intimate yet fractious relationship with national states? And in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty, how should we make sense of efforts to create a level playing field of respect for human rights and humanitarian law in the context of a vastly asymmetric and hierarchical world military order?

Thinking theoretically, I have come to see that a large part of the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the grip that methodological nationalism continues to hold on IR as a discipline. Continue reading

The Dissonance Of Things #3: The Arms Trade and Its Discontents

This month, I step into the role of host for our third ever podcast, on the topic of the arms trade, ways of thinking about it, and the various forms of opposition to it. Helping us make sense of all that are Chris Rossdale of the University of Warwick and Anna Stavrianakis of the University of Sussex. Chris is a participant observer of anti-militarist social movements and the author of numerous pieces on the politics of protest, as well as this post for us on political solidarity. Anna is the author of many pieces on the arms trade and militarism, including Taking Aim at the Arms Trade: NGOs, Global Civil Society, and the World Military Order (Zed, 2010).

The immediate context for our discussion is a whole series of protests against the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) Exhibit, due to take place next week in London. One part of that was an academic ‘Conference at the Gates’ earlier today at the ExCeL Centre, and it is on the notion of activist academia that we begin the conversation.

As ever, consume, cogitate, share, discuss and share again. You can also follow past and future casts on soundcloud.


Further resources, including articles discussed in the podcast:

What We Talked About At ISA: The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex, Part I

Earlier this year, the U.S. government set out to reduce its vast defence budget. On 5 January, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to hold a press conference at the Pentagon. What prompted it was the release of Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence, a “strategic guidance” document outlining the national blueprint for “deterring and defeating aggression,” while reducing record budget deficits “through a lower level of defence spending.” (The document also attracted much media attention because it offered a rare glimpse into the strategic thinking of a president who seems to refuse to be associated with a “doctrine.”) In his State of the Union address three weeks later, Obama reinstated his belief that paring defence sending could help “pay down our debt.” The Pentagon’s FY2013 budget projection followed on 13 February, with a request for $614 billion in funding: $525 billion for the base budget and $88 billion for the so-called overseas contingency operations. FY2012 budget request, the Pentagon noted, was bigger.

Pundits in the US have been debating the meaning of the coming defence cuts, starting with the question of whether there will, in fact, be any cuts in the first place. This debate will probably intensify as the election date approaches, although, indicatively, Obama’s strategic guidance contains no “East of Suez” moments, and his Pentagon speech was a candid expression about the need to stay the course: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defence budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership… I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defence budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined” (emphasis mine; also, “10” appears to be way too low).

Much remains to be said about the type, magnitude, and sequence of the coming changes to America’s defence, and the electoral 2012 will be too short to say it all. The first round of projected budget cuts (“$487 billion”) takes into consideration the provisions of the self-flagellating Budget Control Act from August 2011. The second round of cuts (“$500 billion”) refers the so-called automatic sequestration cuts, also specified in the Act, which will take effect in January 2013 if Congress does find “alternative” ways to control the budget. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described these automatic cuts as the “doomsday scenario,” a label that Congress’s bipartisan supercommittee will no doubt keep in mind as it looks for those alternatives (such as, for example, legislation to reverse the Act). In the end, what will change is the ordering of America’s military priorities, but not the militarization of America’s “global responsibilities” (to use Obama’s own label) as such. Behind it, after all, are multiple and reinforcing structural factors that make real cuts difficult. One of them is “defence industry,” which some pundits and watchdog organizations like to call, somewhat retrospectively, the “military-industrial complex” (MIC).

As a conceit, the MIC goes back at least to World War I, but it is popularly dated to Eisenhower’s ‘Farewell Address’ in 1961. As far as US presidential speeches/speechwriting goes, Eisenhower’s was a tour de force in every respect, but the reason why we read it today – or, rather, search for it on YouTube – is for the parts where the president urges the American citizens to pay attention to the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry [that is] new in the American experience,” while advising the American government to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

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Excuses In Our Sleep: Libya, the Arms Trade, Universities and the Political Economy of Human Rights

A common purpose
Gains value as a common goal
Let’s flail together
If we must flail at all.
Deep in the heart of the battle
Caught in the switch of the flow
Freedom from notes, she sells freedom from songs
She sells freedom and arms Eritrea.
I could have made these excuses in my sleep
As if anyone had doubted them at all
But if we arm Eritrea we won’t have to pay her
And everyone can go home.

Future Of The Left, ‘Arming Eritrea’ (2009)

This now fairly-widely disseminated video of Saif Gaddafi brandishing his militarised manhood and promising death can only fuel the paroxysms of guilt and denial afflicting those previously enamoured of him. Not a topic to be neglected, fersure, and one that will be returned here at The Disorder Of Things soon (I promise). But there is another element at play, and one rather more materially linked to massacre and repression. Where are the guns coming from?

Last month, The Guardian engaged in one of its periodic moments of data-explication, borrowing somewhat from Dan O’Huiginn to set out which regimes get UK arms exports, and how much. Since David Cameron is unashamed in his claims that we’re merely helping democracies protect themselves (barring minor hiccups), the numbers and relations make interesting reading. The conventional (if perhaps flawed) metric for such political goods as freedom and democracy is that provided by Freedom House. The top five Middle East and North African beneficiaries of UK military export licences in 2009-2010 were Algeria (£270 million), Saudi Arabia (£64 million), Libya (almost £34 million), the United Arab Emirates (almost £16 million) and Jordan (£12 million).

Every single one is listed as ‘Not Free’ in the Freedom House Index for 2010.

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