REPORT: The Biden Administration’s Business-As-Usual Arms Sales Policy Is Undermining National and Global Security

A new paper from William Hartung highlights how the U.S. continues to arm repressive regimes — and how our weapons sales can be brought back into line with our interests.

CONTACT: Jessica Rosenblum, [email protected], 202.800.4662

WASHINGTON, DC — The recent Saudi move to cut oil production during a period of soaring energy prices caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine has brought renewed attention to America’s massive arms sales to the Kingdom, with many Democratic lawmakers questioning why the United States should continue to arm a government that acts against our geopolitical interests. This practice is one of many conventions in U.S. arms sales challenged  in a new Quincy Institute paper  — “Promoting Stability or Fueling Conflict? The Impact of U.S. Arms Sales on National and Global Security” — by arms sales and military budget expert William Hartung.

Hartung’s paper highlights the continued U.S. dominance of the global weapons market, and the negative impacts many of these arms sales have in fueling conflict and tension, exacerbating hostility toward the U.S., and enabling war and repression. For example, the U.S. has supplied weapons to participants in 34 of 46 current wars. In some cases these transfers are modest, but in others they are central to sustaining devastating conflicts that do not serve U.S. interests or the interests of people in the impacted regions.

The paper also demonstrates how U.S. arms sales are often driven not by American interests but by the profits to weapons manufacturers. Arms sales are big business – over half of the $101 billion in major arms offers made during the Biden administration involved systems produced by one of the top four exporters –Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Raytheon. Hartung offers a series of policy recommendations on how these sales can instead be made to benefit national and global security.

“Despite his promise as a candidate that the U.S. would no longer ‘check its values at the door to sell arms,’ President Biden’s arms sales policies have shown more continuity than change from previous administrations,” Hartung said. “The Biden administration has continued to arm reckless, repressive regimes — like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and the Philippines — that have acted in ways that undermine U.S. interests and risk entangling the United States in unnecessary conflicts.” 

Contrary to the arguments that U.S. arms sales strengthen allies, help stabilize key regions, and improve global security, weapons sales are currently fueling numerous conflicts — like Saudi Arabia’s devastating war on Yemen — and in other areas, risk driving dangerous arms races.

Hartung lays out a number of measures to curb these risks, including:

• Restricting the revolving door between government and industry as a way to weaken the grip of weapons makers over arms transfer decision making;
• Making it possible for Congress to block dangerous weapons sales, through a revision to the Arms Export Control Act that would require an affirmative congressional vote on major deals
• Providing greater transparency so Congress and the public know what sales are being made, when arms are being delivered, and how U.S. arms are being used;
• And requiring better risk assessments by the Pentagon and State Department as to the likely impact of particular sales regarding arms race dynamics, fueling conflict, enabling of human rights abuses, or diversion of U.S.-supplied arms into the hands of U.S. adversaries.

“The United States’ ongoing role as the number one global arms dealer has often been a detriment to the security of both Americans and the world,” Hartung said. “These steps by Congress and the administration would help ensure that U.S. arms sales and military aid serve legitimate defensive purposes and contribute to peace and stability worldwide, while freeing up public money to be spent in areas of vital interest to the American people.”