This article examines why US-made and US-supplied weapons consistently appear in conflicts around the world, despite the United States having what is commonly lauded as the ‘gold standard’ of national arms export control systems. On paper, US law and policy discourage arms transfers to areas engaged in or at risk of conflict. US arms export controls also informed the creation of the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which provides legally binding conventional arms export criteria. Yet in the recent Yemen, Syria and Libya conflicts, among many others, the United States has directly supplied or indirectly facilitated the supply of weapons to conflict parties. This article highlights two factors that help to account for this apparent policy failure: the flexible design of US law and policy and the inherent challenges of ensuring that weapons in conflict zones—especially small arms—go to and stay with their intended recipients. These findings have important implications for US foreign policy, ATT implementation and the human costs of conflict around the world.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko