In a fiery speech at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association on Friday, President Trump announced that the United States would “unsign” the Arms Trade Treaty, or ATT. This decision is a mistake, not only because it undermines the United States’ important role in multilateral diplomacy on issues crucial to national and international security, but because it harms U.S. defense industry interests as well.
Adopted by the United Nations in 2013 and in force since the following year, the ATT is historic: it is the first legally binding international agreement to regulate the global trade in conventional arms by establishing common international standards for member countries to incorporate into their national transfer control systems. The ATT now has 101 states parties and an additional 34 signatories, including the United States, which signed but did not formally ratify the treaty.
Put simply, the ATT is intended to stop the irresponsible transfer of conventional arms, which are often used to commit violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The treaty also aims to promote cooperation in the global arms trade by establishing clear elements of national control systems, encouraging efficiency and predictability in transfer decision processes, and facilitating transparency to build confidence among trading partners.
The ATT’s objectives are in the United States’ interest – strategically, politically, and commercially. In walking away from this agreement, the Trump administration is needlessly putting U.S. interests at risk, particularly (and ironically) for the U.S. defense industry.
In 2010, while the treaty was being drafted, we convened the U.S. Industry Working Group on the ATT to ensure that the proposed agreement would not inadvertently harm U.S. defense industry. U.S. laws and regulations already comprehensively control American weapons exports and imports in order to protect U.S. national security interests and keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists, human rights abusers, and other nefarious actors.
The U.S. defense industry’s involvement helped ensure that the ATT reflected the realities of the global arms trade and did not undermine legitimate and legal business. To the contrary: when implemented effectively, the ATT helps level the playing field by requiring other countries to adopt standards similar to those that U.S. companies must follow. While Russia and China have not joined the treaty, the ATT provides a principled basis for the United States and its allies to challenge these countries’ arms exports, where appropriate, as inconsistent with international norms.
The ATT is also intended to harmonize arms transfer laws and regulations around the world. Rather than making industry follow a patchwork of rules, the ATT lays out clear elements of a national control system and criteria for states to consider when making arms transfer decisions. Clarity and consistency in national systems contribute to efficiency and predictability in the global arms market. This was a key objective for U.S. industry in the ATT negotiations.
The international arms trade is becoming increasingly globalized. U.S. defense companies rely on a diverse set of actors across the supply chain. Virtually all of our closest allies and partners are ATT members, including all of Europe.
Now the United States will have to live with the consequences of these key defense partners being inside the treaty while it remains in the company of Syria, North Korea, and Iran.
In short, the decision to unsign the ATT puts U.S. industry at risk. The President repeatedly referenced “America First” and U.S. sovereignty in his announcement, but his decision undermines the ability of the United States to secure its own interests. If the United States is not in the room when the treaty is discussed, there is no way to influence the treaty process, to share good practices, or to encourage governments to follow the U.S. example. As the world’s largest arms exporter, the United States would be well served to ensure that treaty interpretation and implementation is consistent with U.S. policy and practice. Trump’s decision undermines U.S. leverage and leaves America and its industry isolated from U.S. allies.