America undermines arms treaty

America’s gun problem isn’t just domestic, writes Felix Donovan.

The United Nations headquarters in New York. Credit: hibino [Flickr ID], licensed under CC BY 2.0

The United Nations headquarters in New York. Credit: hibino [Flickr ID], licensed under CC BY 2.0
It is said that old habits die hard. On July 27, the UN discussions of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the UN reaffirmed its impotence. And the US, keeping with tradition, demonstrated its unwillingness to be the bastion and enforcer of morality that its leaders pay tribute to so often.

Throughout July, delegates from 193 countries negotiated the exact provisions of an Arms Trade Treaty. If successful, the negotiations would have, for the first time in history, imposed regulations upon the global trade in armaments. Quite absurdly, the merchants of death operate in a lawless environment. The $60 billion arms trade occurs without oversight. The consequences of that anarchic system have been documented by human rights organisations for decades. They are laid bare in Assad’s Syria, whose thugs wield Russian Kalashnikovs.

The proposed treaty was a commonsense one: countries must report the sale of arms and ammunition, and must not sell arms to countries or organisations that would put them to rapacious use. It had the support of Nobel Laureates, retired Generals and the vast majority of UN member states. So why, then, did the US delegation walk out on the 27 July, saying it needed more time?

America has built its hegemony on a web of alliances. The strength and longevity of those alliances is built upon simple logic: In return for resources and military bases, the US will guarantee your existence. Sometimes that is direct, like with Kuwait in 1990. But more often it is indirect, in the form of military training and equipment.

The US is the world’s largest exporter of arms, accounting for almost half of all arms sales. But it does not pick its allies, the recipients of those arms, on the basis of a shared commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And here’s where we get to the ATT: regulating the arms trade would mean restricting America’s ability to supply arms to its Eastern European and Middle Eastern allies – violently misogynistic and homophobic when not arbitrarily cruel. There can be no loophole big enough in the ATT for such countries. Reticence to abandon such ties explains, in part, the American recalcitrance.

That is, however, only one part of this tale. The greater morass to Obama’s signature on the ATT was what President Dwight Eisenhower famously denounced in his farewell address as ‘military-industrial complex’. The power of arms companies to cajole and corrupt Washington into favourable policies, including unregulated arms trade, is a very troubling vein of American democracy.

Take a look, sceptical reader, at the nefarious influence of US-based Lockheed Martin, the largest manufacturer and supplier of arms in the world. It spent $14 million on lobbying Washington in 2010, and is the top contributor to the campaigns of many prominent US Senators. Moreover, Lockheed’s CEO sits on the Obama Administration’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. And it is just one of the many American arms companies.

Many delegates bitterly denounced the debasing presence of lobbyists at the conference. A member of the British delegation told one reporter that he believed the American position on the ATT was bought by the arms lobby. There is likely some truth in that.

July 27 marked a triumph of cowardice and cynicism, and it is the children of Syria and the Congo who will pay the ultimate price for that.