By Weakening Arms Export Controls, Trump’s National Security Strategy Will Create National and Global Insecurity

Saudi Special Forces attend a military show January 15, 2005 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (Abid Katib/Getty Images)

The Trump Administration’s newly launched National Security Strategy will draw a lot of critiques of Trump’s foreign policy worldview and prescriptions, but not of its implications for arms control or human rights. One important aspect of the 67-page strategy document that is unlikely to get the sustained attention it deserves is how the Trump administration’s proposals to weaken arms export controls will lead to national and international insecurity, and contribute to violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

The Trump administration’s policy of increasing arms exports and its attempts to rewrite US arms export regulations and processes, are a scandal that has not received the attention it deserves in the present news cycle. Trump’s National Security Strategy could result in the transfer of arms to autocratic regimes that use them to violate human rights, or the diversion of arms to actors that might use them against US security forces, or those of US allies. Individual sales proposals and policy reform proposals over the past year have been troubling enough, but the National Security Strategy confirms that these were not exceptions, but part of a broader policy of encouraging the export of US military equipment to strengthen the US defense industrial base, which does not give adequate consideration to potential impacts on human rights or national and international security.

In the first 11 months of 2017, the Trump administration notified Congress of arms transfers valued at $80.7 billion, which is almost double the amount the Obama administration sold in the same period in 2016 ($58.6b). This included approvals of arms transfers that the Obama administration had previously blocked on human rights grounds after much effort by advocacy groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Military aircraft and bombs have been sold to air forces that face credible allegations of unnecessarily bombing civilians, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Nigeria. The Trump administration has also proposed to or has already sold guns to countries with problematic human rights records including Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Turkey, the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. Very few of these irresponsible arms deals have received widespread public attention or pushback. Given the Trump administration’s stated National Security Strategy of encouraging arms exports and weakening export controls, these sales are likely to be the mere first rumblings of an avalanche of arms sales to rogue actors and human rights violators.

Too little attention has been focused on the Trump administration’s review of US arms export controls, which is primarily focused on promoting the competitiveness of the US defense industry by “removing unreasonable constraints on the ability of [US] companies to compete,” according to National Security Council (NSC) sources. Another justification for the review is to “strengthen the defense capabilities of US allies” which is driven by the desire to create “high-quality American jobs,” although arms control advocates have shown that investments in defense creates less jobs than investments in health care, clean energy, education or even tax cuts.  Although the NSC pays lip service to the importance of ensuring that arms export controls are not removed at the expense of US foreign policy interests, the review is clearly supported by lobbyists for the defense industry and gun manufacturers. Trump has also personally linked arms sales with trade imbalances, most recently signaling to Vietnam that he wants them to buy more US arms to reduce the US.-Vietnam trade deficit.

The Trump administration’s review of US arms export controls includes proposals to weaken specific export controls over a diverse array of weaponry ranging from small arms to drones. In short, the Trump administration intends to change export regulations so that gun manufacturers can export without adequate background checks on the countries or security forces purchasing them, even as we mourn the victims of gun violence linked to the inadequacy of background checks here in the US.

It has been reported that the Trump administration intends to shift some gun and small arms sales from the US Munitions List to the Commerce Control List soon, with reports indicating that the administration is close to finalizing proposed new rules. Although advocacy and reporting on this proposal have been hindered by a lack of transparency, this has not stopped a small group of dedicated arms control advocates from highlighting that the anticipated changes are likely to remove Congressional notification requirements for arms sales, remove State Department oversight that ensures these exports take into account national security, foreign policy and human rights considerations, and ultimately make it much easier for small arms manufacturers to obtain licenses to sell abroad, with less accountability if the guns end up in the wrong hands.

Of arguably greater concern than the rollbacks of individual export controls described above, the Trump administration has signaled its intent to revise the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the principal, overarching regulation governing arms exports. While public details remain scarce, pro-arms export officials from the NSC and State Department are emphasizing “export competitiveness” as the principal motive behind the review, a motive confirmed by the National Security Strategy. Arms control advocates are particularly concerned that the result of this rewrite could be that vetting criteria mandating consideration of human rights concerns will be eliminated and replaced with vetting criteria emphasizing the desirability of arms exports.

The consequences of poorly regulated arms flows are devastating, with tens of thousands of people dying each year due to the widespread availability of weapons on black markets. In Iraq alone, poorly regulated US arms transfers ended up providing ISIS with the weapons to commit mass atrocities in Iraq and Syria, while also supplying paramilitary militias with the weapons to abduct, “disappear,” torture and execute thousands of mainly Sunni men and boys. US-made weapons are also being used to enforce the Saudi-led siege of Yemen, where thousands of civilians are being needlessly starved and bombed, in flagrant disregard of international and US arms export control law.  The Trump administration should be fighting to end the bloodshed in Yemen and US complicity in human rights violations by threatening to end arms sales to members of the Saudi-led coalition, rather than threatening to weaken human rights provisions in the oversight of arms exports.

The People, the Congress, and the free press urgently need to pay attention to the Trump administration’s irresponsible plans to increase arms transfers without attention to human rights, foreign policy or national security consequences, before more American weapons find their way into the hands of rogue actors who will use them against US and allied forces, or to violate human rights. 

About the Author(s)

Brian Chang

Thomas Buergenthal Scholar at The George Washington University Law School and Research Assistant to Professor Arturo Carrillo for the Global Internet Freedoms and Human Rights Project