I came of age during America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, witnessing its denouement while serving in the US military. In those days, the USSR led the world’s weapons trade, providing arms to the Warsaw Pact (the military alliance it dominated) as well as to client states like Cuba, Egypt, and Syria. The United States usually came in second in arms dealing, a dubious silver medal that could, at least, be rationalized as a justifiable response to Soviet aggression, part of the necessary price for a longstanding policy of “containment.” In 1983, President Ronald Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in part because of its militarism and aggressive push to sell weaponry around the globe, often accompanied by Soviet troops, ostensibly as trainers and advisers.
After the USSR imploded in 1991, dominating the world’s arms trade somehow came to seem so much less evil. In fact, faced with large trade deficits, a powerful military-industrial complex looking for markets, and ever more global military commitments, Washington actively sought to promote and sell American-made weaponry on a remarkable scale. And in that it succeeded admirably.
Today, when it comes to building and exporting murderous weaponry, no other country, not even that evil-empire-substitute, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, comes faintly close. The United States doth bestride the world of arms production and dealing like a colossus. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, US arms contractors sold $209.7 billion in weaponry in 2015, representing 56 percent of the world’s production. Of that, $40 billion was exported to an array of countries, representing “half of all agreements in the worldwide arms bazaar,” as The New York Times put it. France ($15 billion) was a distant second, with Putin’s Russia ($11 billion) earning a weak third. Judged by the sheer amount of weapons it produces for itself, as well as for others, the United States, notes Forbes, is “still comfortably the world’s superpower—or warmonger, depending on how you look at it.” Indeed, under President Obama, in the five-year period beginning in 2010, American arms exports outpaced the figures for the previous Bush-Cheney years by 23 percent.
Not only has the United States come to dominate the arms trade in an almost monopolistic fashion over the last two decades, but it has also become the top exporter of troops globally. Leaving aside the ongoing, seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States continues to garrison the globe with approximately 800 military bases, while deploying its Special Operations forces to a significant majority of the planet’s countries annually. As TomDispatch’s Nick Turse reported recently, “From Albania to Uruguay, Algeria to Uzbekistan, America’s most elite forces—Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets among them—were deployed to 138 countries in 2016.” Think about that: Last year, US Special Operations troops were sent to more than two-thirds of the approximately 190 countries on the planet. While some of these deployments were small, others were more impressive—and invasive—and often enough dovetailed with efforts to sell weaponry (which even has its own military acronym: FMS, or foreign military sales).