‘If We Don’t Sell Them Arms, Someone Else Will’ Is a Myth
Some of the assumptions that underpin this familiar refrain don’t hold water.
When lawmakers voted in 2019 to suspend arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Trump administration invoked a familiar argument: if we don’t sell them arms, someone else will. The axiom encapsulates a longstanding fear that countries cut off from U.S. defense exports will quickly source them from elsewhere, particularly from American adversaries, allowing partners to drift from U.S. spheres of influence and into those of potentially hostile powers. But despite its use to justify controversial arms sales to questionable recipients from Egypt to the Philippines, the argument has flaws that inflate risks and dangerously distort the development of effective policies.
In a new brief, our team at the Stimson Center examined how the “if we don’t sell” refrain dangerously oversimplifies the complex circumstances that shape decisions around selecting defense partners. And while our research makes clear that partners certainly can switch suppliers, doing so is no small feat, and comes with associated financial, tactical, and strategic costs.
For example, it’s not always easy to find a comparable capability. Exporters may coordinate their trade policies and make collective decisions around restricting arms transfers to particular countries; ramping up domestic production may be technically and financially beyond reach; more sophisticated systems may have only a few or even a single producer; and geo-political alignments may preclude obvious alternative suppliers.
On a more practical basis, countries that have long imported arms from the United States have often made substantial investments in American-oriented logistical, sustainment, maintenance, and training infrastructure that is unlikely to natively support alternative platforms, especially those made by U.S. adversaries. Developing parallel systems will require time, potentially undercutting readiness, as well as placing greater financial and logistical burdens on the importer.
Moreover, turning to alternative suppliers could jeopardize important defense ties with the United States that extend far beyond the particular capability in question. For many countries, arms imports from the United States are not just about the acquisition of a platform; they are mechanisms for building interoperability with the world’s most advanced military power and for signaling the support and backing of Washington. Accordingly, rupturing such a partnership by turning to an American adversary for arms could threaten the practical ability to operate alongside the United States as well as squander the weight Washington might be willing to throw behind the interest and needs of its erstwhile partner.
In short, switching arms suppliers is a far more complex and costly undertaking than the “if we don’t sell” argument suggests. But perhaps more importantly, the axiom betrays a disappointing superficiality in some of America’s security partnerships. If the imposition of conditions or any potential moderation in arms transfers is all that it takes for U.S. security partners to slip into the spheres of influence of adversaries, it would seem that these partnerships were foundationally weak. Far from being rooted in shared interests or strategic alignments, such a highly transactional approach to arms transfers seems unlikely to create the basis for durable alliances that can be brought to bear at moments of crisis or uncertainty.
Accordingly, it is worth considering how assumptions reflected in the “if we don’t sell” axiom have warped the sense of risk and rewards in the U.S. security cooperation enterprise. All too frequently, fears that countries will drift into the orbits of unfriendly governments have justified costly value compromises for the sake of preserving security partnerships that deliver questionable returns for the United States. For governments that have persistently engaged in human rights abuses, predatory behavior, or actions that harm U.S. interests, it remains unclear what sustaining arms transfers accomplishes or what danger the loss of such a partner would spell for the United States.
Similarly, “if we don’t sell” almost entirely sidelines consideration of the potential dividends the United States might realize from disassociating from unreliable or abusive security partners. In either case, the “if we don’t sell” argument exaggerates the risks of curtailing or conditioning arms transfers and encourages a fear-based approach that effectively constrains the development of more strategically and ethically strong policies.
At a time when Washington insists the world is in a “decisive decade” that will be defined by a competition between democracies and autocracies, inflating the risks of moderating arms sales or conditioning them on value-based commitments seems counterproductive. By dispensing with the fears embodied by “if we don’t sell,” the United States may yet have the opportunity to maximize the utility of its security partnerships while aligning its approach with the values it purports to defend.