While the United States has long been accustomed to being the de facto premier security partner for nations around the world, the current administration’s actions — whether it’s withdrawing troops from Syria or chiding NATO allies to increase defense spending — have increasingly placed U.S. dependability into question.
Meanwhile, strategic competitors China and Russia are eager to capitalize on those doubts and offer an alternative to U.S. military supremacy.
“For the first time, perhaps, since the Cold War, many nations look at partnering with America on matters of defense and security not as an imperative, but as one of several options,” said R. Clarke Cooper, U.S. assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the State Department, who spoke to ambassadors, embassy military attachés and others at the Meridian International Center on Oct. 31 as part of an Insights@Meridian briefing.
Cooper acknowledged doubts about “our reliability as a partner at a time where the debate in Washington about our assistance and arms transfers appears more politicized than ever,” but he insisted that the U.S. remains an indispensable and dependable security partner.
America’s obvious advantages remain the same: The U.S. still dwarfs other nations in terms of security assistance and foreign military sales, which include not only equipment and hardware, but also training and exercises. Moreover, President Trump has loosened restrictions to boost arms sales abroad in an effort to spur jobs back home.
But as the market for arms sales and security aid becomes more competitive, with rivals such as China and Russia seeking to enhance their own military influence, the United States faces the tough task of winning over governments that are both looking to save money and wary of the unpredictability of U.S. politics and the more stringent rules that come with U.S. weapons sales.
Winning over those governments is the mission of Cooper’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, which serves as the State Department’s primary liaison with the Department of Defense. The bureau’s portfolio includes security assistance — which includes training and joint exercises as well as supporting peacekeeping operations — and serving as the lead on military sales. From this vantage point, political-military officials working with the Defense Department also pinpoint and address gaps for interoperability with partners. Recently, some of the biggest hurdles have been partners purchasing defense systems from U.S. rivals, as NATO ally Turkey did with its contentious acquisition of Russian S-400 missile systems.
The Global Arms Trade
Military sales are a big — and growing — business. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the volume of international transfers of major arms between 2014 and 2018 was 7.8% higher than in 2009 to 2013 and 23% higher than in 2004 to 2008. The five largest exporters were the United States, Russia, France, Germany and China, while the five largest importers were Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt, Australia and Algeria.
According to SIPRI, the United States accounts for the largest share of arms exports in the world — 36% between 2014 and 2018 — a figure that has grown significantly in recent years. Meanwhile, Russia accounted for 21% of global arms exports while China stood at just over 5%, with both countries working to ramp up those numbers.
Since 2008, China has exported more arms overseas than it imported, and as of 2018, it was the fifth-largest arms supplier in the world, with conventional arms sales totaling $1.04 billion (from $645 million in 2008). The bulk of these sales targeted China’s neighbors in Asia, with Pakistan leading the pack, followed by Bangladesh and Myanmar. However, as China’s economic footprint in Africa expands, so has its military presence there, with the continent comprising 20 percent of China’s conventional arms sales.
Meanwhile, despite a drop in arms exports to key countries such as Venezuela, Russian companies have experienced significant growth in their arms sales since 2011, according to SIPRI, which said that in 2017, Russia surpassed the United Kingdom as the world’s second-largest arms producer. The country’s main recipients include India, China and Algeria, but as it seeks to grab a larger share of the global weapons market, Russia is increasingly focusing on the Middle East, which has been on a weapons buying spree over the last decade.
In August, Russia delivered an order of S-400 long-range air defense systems to Turkey, raising the ire of the United States. In response, the U.S. cut off Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, citing interoperability issues and concerns that the S-400 would place U.S. technology at risk. Turkey recently announced it is in “advanced negotiations” to finalize acquisition of Russian Su-35 fighter aircraft, while India has made an advance payment of $800 million as part of a $5 billion deal to buy Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.
Despite gains by Russia and China, the U.S. is still by far the number-one arms exporter in the world, sealing more than $41 billion in government-negotiated arms deals in 2017 alone. That same year, commercial arms sales by U.S. companies reached $226.6 billion. (For comparison’s sake, Russian companies sold $37.7 billion that year.)
Increasing U.S. Weapons Sales
But President Trump, true to his business background and his “America First” governing ethos, wants those numbers to be even bigger. Last year, he introduced a new Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) Policy to increase American weapons sales by adding U.S. “economic security” as a factor in considering whether to approve U.S. arms exports. Previously, such exports were approved largely on the basis of national security interests and foreign policy objectives, but the administration argues that national security encompasses economic prosperity.
CAT is designed to speed up arms transfers and cut red tape to make it easier for U.S. defense companies to sell weapons abroad. According to a State Department fact sheet, the goal is to support America’s defense industrial base, create more jobs, maintain a technological edge over potential adversaries and strengthen partnerships with both traditional allies and new partners “that preserve and extend our global influence.”
At the Meridian talk, Cooper — whose bureau has been empowered by CAT to more forcefully advocate for U.S. arms sales — said that “our competitors are turning to arms sales and security assistance as key tools to build their own influence around the world, and to weaken ours.”
He warned that as countries eagerly explore arms sales from China and Russia that appear to be more affordable and come with fewer strings, this bargain-hunting approach could end up jeopardizing their own national security.
“We have seen countries around the world leap at the chance to obtain high-tech, low-cost defensive capabilities, only to see their significant investments crumble and rust in their hands,” he argued.
Cooper cited several incidents, including: the crash of a Harbin Z-9 attack helicopter purchased by Cameroon in 2015; the deaths of “dozens of Kenyan personnel” in Norinco VN4 armored personnel carriers, “vehicles that China’s own sales representative declined to sit inside during a test firing”; and instances in which Middle East countries purchased CH-4 armed drones from China only to soon discover their inoperability.
Moreover, according to Cooper, joint military training programs at China’s International Military Education Exchange Center place trainees with counterparts of “varying quality,” whereas the U.S. International Military Education and Training program trains foreign officers directly alongside U.S. personnel.
Cooper summed up the appeal of partnering with the U.S. in three words: quality, transparency and accountability.
“U.S. arms transfers are not a matter of secrecy, and rarely are the decisions surrounding them. Unlike the determinations made in Beijing or Moscow, our major foreign military and direct commercial sales are managed via a process whose policies are clear and transparent, and whose approvals are public,” he said, noting that CAT publicly outlines factors taken into consideration during the vetting process.
He added that while the U.S. is often criticized for having a costly and lengthy arms transfer process, over the past year, CAT has made “foreign military sales process faster and cheaper,” reducing the time between request to offer by 9% and cutting overhead fees and transportation rates to produce a savings of $180 million for foreign partners.
But the new CAT Policy has come under fire for putting money above morals and prioritizing economic interests over national security and human rights considerations. Some have also questioned whether it should be the job of diplomats like Cooper to promote arms sales that could fuel conflicts and weapons proliferation around the world.
President Trump, who has made personal sales pitches to sell weapons to countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is often criticized for cozying up to authoritarian regimes while disregarding human rights.
“Trump’s lack of concern about human rights and harm to civilians caused by U.S. arms trade partners is not, however, surprising. The Conventional Arms Transfer Policy his administration issued in April 2018 dangerously elevated economic arguments as a driving motive for arms transfer approvals,” argued the Arms Control Association in a Jan. 15, 2019, brief. The group added that more recent updates to CAT “again stress his administration’s desire to expedite the sale of increasingly more weapons, citing as success agreements to supply American arms to repressive regimes in not just Saudi Arabia, but also Bahrain and Nigeria.”
The Arms Control Association also warns that selling weapons with less oversight and transparency increases the risk of those weapons ending up in the hands of terrorists or criminal organizations.
Echoing that sentiment, Rachel Stohl wrote in an April 30, 2018, article for Just Security that a “focus on short-term economic benefits overlooks the realities of the global arms trade, in which the wares being sold and transferred endure long after the transfer is completed and can be used to promote or undermine U.S. interests. Recent transfers of weapons and vehicles supplied to the Iraqi military, which were then seized by ISIS and used against U.S. troops and interests, is but one in a long book of cautionary tales.”
Thus, experts have urged the administration to balance all U.S. interests — economic, security and humanitarian — when evaluating arms requests and to be more transparent about the rationale behind its decisions.
National and Economic Security Imperative
But the Trump administration has defended its approach, arguing that expedited arms sales that benefit America’s security and economy don’t have to come at the expense of human rights abroad.
“We will not provide arms where we believe they will be used to conduct a gross violation of human rights,” said Tina Kaidanow, Cooper’s predecessor at the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, during an Aug. 18, 2018, discussion held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“For sure, there can be complexities in any sale,” she said. “For that reason, the new CAT Policy requires us to work proactively with partners to reduce civilian casualties in their military operations. We also regularly use sales as an opportunity to engage with partners to address the human rights conduct of their military. These are often imperfect situations, but we always work to reduce the chance of the misuse of U.S. arms. The same simply cannot be said for most other suppliers of military equipment around the world.”
At the same time, Kaidanow said “we care deeply about creating U.S. prosperity,” noting that government and commercial defense sales help support over 2.4 million American jobs.
“We’re expending every effort to maintain America’s status as the pre-eminent global exporter of defense goods. By specifically recognizing the link between economic security and national security, among other changes, the new CAT Policy provides us the tools to continue this important work.”
Administration officials also say CAT will bolster the security not only of the U.S., but of its allies as well.
“Partners who procure American weaponry are more capable of fighting alongside us, and ultimately more capable of protecting themselves with fewer American boots on the ground,” Peter Navarro, White House director of trade and manufacturing policy, said in an April 19, 2018, CNN article. “Providing our allies and partners with greater access to American arms will also reduce their reliance, not just on Chinese knock-offs, but also on Russian systems.”
To that end, Cooper stressed the quality of American equipment during his Meridian talk. He said the American defense industry continues to surpass rivals in terms of workmanship and cutting-edge technology, producing superior military hardware such as the F-35 aircraft and the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system.
Yet U.S. military equipment is hardly infallible.
For example, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II, the most expensive military program ever, has been consistently plagued by design flaws and massive budget overruns.
Following an attack on Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities, Russian officials taunted the U.S., saying “the brilliant U.S. air defense systems could not repel an attack.” President Vladimir Putin also urged the Saudis to consider purchasing Russian missile defense technology, an option that may be appealing given the deteriorating relations between U.S. lawmakers and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Politics of Weapons Sales
To that end, U.S. arms sales are subject to politics, as seen in the bipartisan congressional pushback against arms sales to Riyadh in the wake of the Saudi-sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen caused by the Saudi-led military campaign to oust Houthi rebels.
Congress has repeatedly tried to restrict U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, but Trump successfully bypassed lawmakers earlier last year by using an emergency declaration to push through $8 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that America’s allies in the Middle East needed the contracts to counter Iranian influence.
Cooper lamented that the backlash on Capitol Hill could cause U.S. allies to question America’s dependability.
“Congressional opposition was sufficient for passage of three joint resolutions of disapproval, and while these fell far short of the votes needed to overcome the president’s veto, it is no secret that such opposition contributes to doubts about the U.S. as a supplier in times of need,” he said.
Yet doubts about American reliability have been fed not by Congress, but largely by a president whose unpredictable, transactional approach to foreign policy has proven to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has benefited countries with less-than stellar human rights records. On the other, it has kept some of America’s closest allies off-kilter.
The most recent allies caught up in Trump’s crosshairs were the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. They had been working with 1,000 U.S. troops who were stationed in northern Syria to act as a deterrent against a Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory until the president’s abrupt decision to pull those troops out in October.
Abandoned and facing a Turkish onslaught, Kurdish forces had little choice but to retreat and turn to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for protection. Russia promptly stepped in to fill the security void, establishing joint patrols with Turkey in a newly created buffer zone along Turkey’s border.
Trump’s withdrawal from Syria not only further cemented Russian influence in the war-torn country, but it also gave a major boost to Putin’s efforts to re-establish Russia’s power on the world stage.
And while Russia is still no match for American military might — the U.S. spent almost as much on its military in 2018 as the next eight largest-spending countries combined — Moscow has made significant military inroads around the world.
Cooper admits that the security landscape has dramatically shifted in recent years.
“We have come a long way since the AK-47 became the ubiquitous symbol of Soviet-backed insurgencies from Southeast Asia to Africa. Today, Russia is working hard to foist variants of its S-400 air defense system around the world, while China is supplying everything from armored personnel carriers to armed drones,” he told the audience at the Meridian Center.
But he added that “if we scratch the surface of the offers laid out by our adversaries, we find failed systems, flawed training, false bargains. And it is important countries around the world understand the risks of choosing to procure systems from China or from Russia.”
Cooper said those risks include not only “cut-price systems such as unmanned aerial systems, predatory financing mechanisms and sometimes outright bribery,” but also efforts by China to use arms transfers “as a means of getting its foot in the door — a door that, once opened, China quickly exploits both to exert influence and to gather intelligence.”
Most importantly, despite concerns over President Trump’s erratic foreign policy, Cooper stressed that the United States is still a reliable partner — one that offers countries not only short-term weapons deals, but the “total package.” This includes long-term training, a strategy built on shared security interests and “the reassurance that comes with our friendship.”
He also stressed that the United States remains the undisputed global leader in supplying military equipment for every warfighting domain — both in terms of quality and quantity.
“It is true that the United States remains far and away the greatest provider both of direct security through the deterrence of our alliances and the presence of our global forces, true we remain the single greatest provider of grant security assistance — to the tune of over $10 billion a year between State and Defense — and, true we remain far and away the most significant source of defensive equipment for countries around the world.”
About the Author
Sarah Alaoui (@SarahAlaoui_) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.