U.S. arms transfer policy strives to strike a balance between promoting human rights and the need to develop strong security partners. President Biden’s arms transfer policy will reportedly increase the emphasis on human rights. Exactly how much this will change the status quo remains to be seen.
Current policy, established by presidential memorandum in April 2018, requires arms transfer decisions to fully consider the national security, economic security, human rights, foreign relations, and nonproliferation implications of each transfer. It gives the State Department and the Pentagon flexibility to weigh the importance of each criterion and approve proposals on a case-by-case basis.
As the Biden administration puts its own spin on the policies directing U.S. foreign engagement, it would do well to remain focused on the U.S.’s overall strategic defense priorities.
Despite some differences in language, the review processes governing proposed arms sales have remained much the same throughout the Obama and Trump administrations. Consistency in the processes by which State and the Defense Department review proposals enhances Washington’s reputation as a reliable security partner.
The Afghanistan debacle has raised grave doubts about the reliability of U.S. support. Any shift in policy must weigh the real possibility of driving partner nations to strategic rivals. Thailand, for example, opted for Chinese arms when its military relationship with the United States deteriorated following a coup in 2014.
A new policy must not lose sight of the need to protect America. Some point to the UAE’s involvement in the war in Yemen as sufficient reason to deny them U.S. arms sales, for example, the 50 F-35 advanced jet fighters the Trump administration proposed to sell them following last year’s breakthrough Abraham Accords. As a counter to Iran’s malign influence in the region, a UAE with 50 F-35s would be a much more capable partner. Fortunately, it appears the Biden administration will prioritize the obvious benefit of deterring the regime in Tehran above vague concerns about UAE’s behavior in Yemen, a conflict characterized by egregious behavior on all sides. This doesn’t preclude working appropriately through diplomatic channels to raise concerns where merited regarding a partner nation’s human rights.
In fact, strong participation in the international market can support U.S. efforts to maintain influence and encourage other nations to invest in the long-term relationship of buying American defense products. The Trump administration, much like its predecessor, pursued this path via a president-led campaign promoting U.S. products to allies, friends, and potential partners.
An overly restrictive arms transfer policy would disadvantage our partners as well. American defense products are the best in the world, and our foreign military sales offer a “total package approach” of training, repairs, spare parts, and logistics support. In many cases, the U.S. option is the best long-term value for interested nations, many of whom have tight defense budgets.
Arms transfers may also include grants to assist the purchases, known as Foreign Military Financing. Significantly, some members of Congress are currently pushing President Biden to take a harder line in support of human rights by withholding $300 million in military financing for Egypt. The move is intended to coerce Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi to improve the country’s overall human rights situation, but it could wind up driving a wedge in the long-time security relationship with Cairo.
No nation has been stronger than Egypt in its efforts to crush the terrorist Islamic State, an enemy of the United States. The State Department’s decision on Egypt may be an indicator of how far the administration’s policy will go to signal its principles, even at the risk of undoing a vital security partnership.
It is important to remember that arms transfers are, first and foremost, a tool of defense. They are most effective when applied to objectives that prioritize partner interoperability and security-specific outcomes.
U.S. human rights principles and national security objectives are not necessarily at odds with one another. But when they do seem opposed, it makes sense to follow the current standard that considers the issues and weights priorities on a case-by-case basis. Any proposals in the new policy to unbalance this should be carefully considered.
This piece originally appeared in Real Clear Defense