(AP Photo/Ricardo Moraes)
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Did Washington just give Israel the green light for a future attack on Iran via an arms deal? Did Russia just signal its further support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime via an arms deal? Are the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans all heightening regional tensions in Asia via arms deals? Is it possible that we’re witnessing the beginnings of a new cold war in two key regions of the planet—and that the harbingers of this unnerving development are arms deals?
International weapons sales have proved to be a thriving global business in economically tough times. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), such sales reached an impressive $85 billion in 2011, nearly double the figure for 2010. This surge in military spending reflected efforts by major Middle Eastern powers to bolster their armories with modern jets, tanks and missiles—a process constantly encouraged by the leading arms manufacturing countries (especially the United States and Russia) as it helps keep domestic production lines humming. However, this familiar if always troubling pattern may soon be overshadowed by a more ominous development in the global arms trade: the revival of far more targeted Cold War–style weapons sales aimed at undermining rivals and destabilizing regional power balances. The result, inevitably, will be a more precarious world.
Arms sales have always served multiple functions. Valuable trade commodities, weapons can prove immensely lucrative for companies that specialize in making such products. Between 2008 and 2011, for example, US firms sold $146 billion worth of military hardware to foreign countries, according to the latest CRS figures. Crucially, such sales help ensure that domestic production lines remain profitable even when government acquisitions slow down at home. But arms sales have also served as valuable tools of foreign policy—as enticements for the formation of alliances, expressions of ongoing support and a way to lure new allies over to one’s side. Powerful nations, seeking additional allies, use such sales to win the allegiance of weaker states; weaker states, seeking to bolster their defenses, look to arms deals as a way to build ties with stronger countries, or even to play one suitor off another in pursuit of the most sophisticated arms available.
Throughout the Cold War, both superpowers employed weapons transfers as a form of competition, offering advanced arms to entice regional powers to defect from each other’s alliance systems or to counter offers made by the other side. Egypt, for example, was convinced to join the Soviet sphere in 1955 when provided with arms the West had refused to deliver. In the late 1970s, it moved back into the American camp after Washington anted up far better weapons systems.
In those years, the Americans and the Soviets also used arms transfers to bolster key allies in areas of strategic confrontation like the Middle East. Washington armed Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran when it was still ruled by the Shah; Russia armed Iraq and Syria. These transfers played a critical role in Cold War diplomacy and sometimes helped tilt the scales in favor of decisions to go to war. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, for example, Egypt, emboldened by an expanded arsenal of Soviet antitank missiles, attacked Israeli forces in the Negev desert.
In the wake of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the commercial aspect of arms sales came to the fore. Both Washington and Moscow were, by then, far more interested in keeping their military production lines running than in jousting for advantage abroad, so emphasis was placed on scoring contracts from those with the means to pay—mainly the major oil producers of the Middle East and Latin America and the economically expansive “tigers” of Asia. Between 2008 and 2011, the CRS ranked the leading purchasers of conventional arms in the developing world this way: Saudi Arabia, India, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Egypt and Venezuela. Together, these six countries ordered $117 billion in new weaponry.