Do as I Say, Not as I Do

It's hard to tell France not to sell warships to Russia when the United States is also placing profit over policy.

Photo by YEVGENY ASMOLOV/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by YEVGENY ASMOLOV/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes a ship is more than just a ship. The diplomatic two-step between Washington and Paris over France’s planned delivery of amphibious warship frames to the Russian military continued on June 5, as French President François Hollande dined with U.S. President Barack Obama in Paris — two hours before Hollande held a separate dinner for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, the Obama administration has been aggressively urging Paris to suspend the sale, as it would provide the Russian military with new capabilities. On June 6, however, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed that the sale of Mistral-class warships to Russia would happen. "They represent many jobs," he said.

In some ways, this dance looks similar to past transatlantic debates on transfers of war materials to troubling destinations. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has struggled to persuade European countries to curb arms transfers to countries of concern such as China, Iran, and Libya. Typically, the United States urges its European allies to prioritize global security concerns over supporting its domestic arms industry. And in the past, the U.S. government has succeeded in helping stem European exports to countries such as China, Iran, and Libya — because the United States practices what it preaches.

But America’s responsibility and the leverage it provides, however, appear to be evaporating. As part of the Export Control Reform Initiative, a 2010 initiative aimed at increasing the competitiveness of the U.S. defense industry abroad, the Obama administration has been gutting critical national controls on many types of arms exports. The initiative, implemented in October 2013, means that the administration will now weigh U.S. economic considerations in its decisions to export weapons of war — just like France is doing with Russia. In April, the White House updated the initiative to include 14 out of 21 categories of weapons. "While we do not approve transfers strictly based on the health of the U.S. industrial base," said Gregory Kausner, deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security and security assistance, said on April 23, "we would be foolish not to consider its impact."

That statement may sound innocuous, but the effect is significant. Contrast it to what the then State Department senior advisor for arms control and international security, John Holum, said in 2000: "If there is a security reason not to export a munitions item, it will not be done whether or not there is an economic consideration in favor of it." Holum also supported a notion that appears anathema to the Obama administration: Exports of low-tech military items should also require U.S. government authorization before export as they can have a dangerous effect on less-advanced countries and regions. These controls also helped safeguard U.S. foreign-policy interests around the world, as the U.S. government can view and influence the bulk of U.S. arms exports.

Under the Export Control Reform Initiative, however, the State Department will now only strictly control arms that provide the U.S. military with a critical advantage, such as target drones and stealth technology. Tens of thousands of high- and low-tech war materials such as unarmed Black Hawk helicopters and radiation-hardened microchips, which are critical components in the operation of missiles and satellite systems, now fall under the Commerce Department’s export controls. According to the White House, approximately 90 percent of the military vehicle-related items the State Department approved for export in 2009 would now be under Commerce Department control. (It’s unclear how much this affects defense contractors’ bottom line.) In doing so, the United States is devaluing the many export controls the U.S. government has adamantly urged other countries to adopt and is making it easier for U.S. and foreign arms to reach countries under U.S. and U.N. Security Council arms embargoes.

The administration has also created a new, narrow definition of "specially designed" in U.S. law. This definition — which appears to contradict the U.S. federal judiciary’s interpretation and the U.S. government’s long-held position in several multilateral agreements on arms control and nonproliferation — will allow companies to avoid export controls by deliberately designing items that can be used with controlled and uncontrolled items. In other words, if a company develops cockpit indicators for fighter jets with a secondary use in civilian planes, the indicators would likely no longer be subject to U.S. export controls.

Although the Obama administration has recently restricted arms exports to Russia, this new definition of "specially designed" allows companies to export many types of sophisticated military equipment to the Russian military without U.S. government review. Some of this equipment includes items used in radars, surveillance systems, and weapons guidance systems; the Russian military has already sought similar items through illicit means in the United States. If it were the United States and not France selling the warship frames to Russia, they could fall outside the scope of U.S. arms export controls — as they are reportedly based on civilian merchant ship hulls with no armaments.

As governments around the world review the administration’s loosening of arms export controls, many will weaken their own controls to better compete with the United States. Canada has already lowered some of its arms export control regulations and policies. And like France, countries may also start to claim that sales of arms with civilian uses should now be more weakly controlled. Foreign governments may also be less influenced by U.S. government pressure to c
urb arms transfers to countries such as Russia and China, now that U.S. companies can export many sophisticated U.S. military items to these countries.

To stem this dangerous threat to global security and U.S. foreign-policy interests, the U.S. Congress should heed some of Holum’s advice. Requiring U.S. companies to obtain U.S. government approval before exporting military-related items or services to countries or institutions under U.S. arms embargoes would help curb U.S. arms transfers to these entities. The U.S. Congress should also evaluate the risks to U.S. and global nonproliferation and enforcement efforts arising from the deregulation of U.S. export controls on military technology and war materials.

Without effective controls added to U.S. arms exports, the U.S. government will continue to lose its leverage to encourage European and other countries around the world to stem problematic arms exports and proliferation to countries such as Belarus, China, Russia, and Somalia. If things continue down this path, the Obama administration may one day be blamed as the administration that helped weaken many arms export controls around the world and caused the resulting dramatic increase in arms proliferation.

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