September 11, 2019 5:12PM

The 2019 Arms Sales Risk Index

The 2019 Arms Sales Risk Index, designed to help policy makers assess the potential negative consequences of international arms sales, is now online at Cato here. It represents an expanded and improved version of the original risk index published in Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policypublished in 2018 by A. Trevor Thrall and Caroline Dorminey.

The United States has long been the world’s leading arms exporter. In 2018 the Trump administration notified Congress of $78 billion in major conventional weapons sales, giving the United States 31% of the global arms market. Between 2002 and 2018 the United States notified Congress of over $560 billion in sales of major conventional weapons to 167 different nations.

Though arms sales can play an important role in American foreign policy, the risks involved with sending billions of dollars of deadly weapons to all sorts of places are significant. The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 requires the executive branch to produce a risk assessment to ensure that the risks do not outweigh the potential benefits of selling major conventional weapons. Unfortunately, however, recent history strongly suggests that the risk assessment process is broken.

Over the past decade American weapons have wound up in the hands of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, on the black market in Yemen and elsewhere, have been used by oppressive governments to kill their own people, and have enabled nations to engage in bloody military conflicts. More broadly American arm sales have helped prop up authoritarian regimes, have encouraged military adventurism, spurred arms races, and amplified existing conflicts. The reality is that the United States will sell weapons to almost any nation seeking them regardless of the potential risks involved.

Concerns about these negative consequences have risen of late. In April 2019, the Senate joined the House in passing a war powers resolution requiring the United States to stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Though the United States has no troops in Yemen, it has enabled and fueled the war through billions of dollars in arms sales to the Saudis over decades. In the wake of Trump’s predictable veto of that resolution,a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Enhancing Human Rights in Arms Sales Act, designed to ensure that “U.S. manufactured weapons are not used in the commission of heinous war crimes, the repression of human rights, or by terrorists who seek to do harm to Americans and innocent civilians abroad.”

To help improve decision making around arms sales we created the Arms Sales Risk Index. In 2018 Cato published our policy analysis, Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policy, in which we introduced the first version of the index. By identifying the factors linked to negative outcomes like dispersion, diversion, and the misuse of weapons by recipients, the index provides a way to measure the risk involved with arms sales to every nation. Though by no means an exact science, the index can help policy makers incorporate the potential risks of arms sales and make better decisions about which nations should receive American weapons.

We invite scholars and policy makers to read the report and to download the data for further analysis.