The Politics of the Contemporary Trade in Major Conventional Weapons

Authored by: Mark Phythian

The Ashgate Research Companion to Modern Warfare

Print publication date:  February  2010
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754674108
eBook ISBN: 9781315613284
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042495


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Andrew J. Pierre memorably termed arms sales ‘foreign policy writ large’. 1 1

Andrew J. Pierre, The Global Politics of Arms Sales (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 3.

This characterisation reflected the fact that, during the era of the Cold War and decolonisation, for a number of suppliers, but especially the two superpowers, the transfer of arms was a highly political act. At the same time, recipients viewed certain types of weapon – particularly jet fighter aircraft – as symbols of statehood. Arms transfers conferred a mark of legitimacy on the recipient and served as a signal of superpower support. Even amongst second-tier suppliers, such as the UK and France, political factors were far from absent from calculations concerning the transfer of arms, even though economic imperatives were more pressing here than at the superpower level. Although economic justifications came to assume a greater importance in the less ideological post-Cold War era, a time during which the arms market increasingly came to be a buyers’ market, as this chapter indicates the arms trade remains highly politicised. In making this point, the chapter offers a guide to key issues in the study of the contemporary arms trade. It discusses arms trade statistics, analyses the nature of the contemporary market, including the impact of the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’, as well as human rights and ethical issues. Finally, it discusses the progress that has been made in introducing a degree of transparency to the trade in major conventional weapons over the last decade.

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