By JOSH KIRSHNER, January 14, 2022
As originally appeared in Breaking Defense.
The Biden administration is expected to soon release its version of the US Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy, which sets the guardrails for how America sells arms to foreign militaries. While the administration has held its cards close on what the new policy will entail, it is widely expected to put a renewed emphasis on the human rights records of potential arms buyers.
This is not only because the President has been committed to promoting human rights throughout his career, including by convening the first-ever Summit for Democracy in December, but also so he can make clear that his commitment to human rights differs from the Trump administration’s, which largely overlooked such concerns.
The question is, will the Biden CAT policy be revolutionary, or like most presidents’ arms sales policies, evolutionary?
Reflecting the concerns of the immediate post-Vietnam War period, President Jimmy Carter followed through on a campaign promise by publishing Presidential Directive/NSC-13 [PDF] and a “policy statement” on conventional arms transfers – the first from a US president. Carter made clear his intent: “The United States can and should take the first step” in order to reduce the supply of arms globally. He drew a direct link to human rights, stating that US security assistance programs “will promote and advance respect for human rights in recipient countries.”
Not surprisingly, President Ronald Reagan took a very different tact, and his presidential directive on CAT allowed for significantly more defense exports. Of the five CAT policies after Carter, this is the only truly revolutionary one.
Reagan boldly refuted Carter’s rhetoric, stating that the US “will deal with the world as it is, rather than as we would like it to be” and proclaimed that arms transfers would not be “discrete,” but instead an “essential” and “indispensable” part of the United States’ effort to strengthen its national security and defend the free world. Reagan’s revolutionary policy introduced the concept of a “case-by-case” review of sales, giving the government the flexibility to ignore its own CAT policy if it sees fit.
Just weeks after releasing this policy, Reagan approved the world’s then-largest arms sale, a $8.5 billion package to Saudi Arabia that included AWACS surveillance aircraft. The sale was controversial on the Hill, with 44 senators — including then-Senator Joseph Biden — cosponsoring a bill to block the sale.
Fourteen years later, after the end of the Cold War in 1995, President Bill Clinton released the nation’s next CAT policy, which in true Clintonian fashion triangulated between the Carter and Reagan policies.
While his policy echoed elements of Carter’s intent of restraint, Clinton emphasized Reagan’s case-by-case concept by including it in the very first sentence of his criteria, and then reinforced the Republican president’s philosophy by stating that “transfers of conventional arms [are] a legitimate instrument of US foreign policy,” and reaffirmed the link between the health of the defense industrial base and the overall economy.
In practice, Clinton approved several significant arms sales, including $500 million in fighter aircraft to Chile. This reversal of Carter’s refusal to sell advanced weaponry to Latin America resulted in Senate legislation to show liberal opposition to the shift. One of the co-sponsors? Senator Joseph Biden.
President Obama’s CAT policy was the first of the post 9/11 era, more focused on defense exports as a tool to build partner capabilities to fight terrorism, restating Reagan’s mantra that arms transfers are a “legitimate instrument” of national security policy.
Doug Bush, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, also called Congressional funding reductions on the Army’s IVAS “frankly just good oversight.”
While the Obama policy discusses human rights in more detail than previous versions, stating a need for “restraint against the transfer of arms that would… serve to facilitate human rights abuses…,” it does not state that the US should leverage defense export decisions to push recipients to improve their human rights. The human rights community would like to see Biden’s policy clearly state that it will take such an approach.
For all of the differences between Presidents Obama and Trump, and despite the commentary that President Trump’s CAT policy was radically pro-industry, the text of his policy was in truth evolutionary, continuing many elements of the Obama-era policy and actually copying some language verbatim.
Where Trump differed from Obama significantly was in his implementation of the policy, specifically with his White House’s willingness to work directly with defense companies, instead of directing them to State or Defense. Senior White House staff also made the case to push defense exports publicly, making them a key part of Trump’s economic agenda. In this COVID era, how closely Biden ties defense exports to job creation and improving the manufacturing sector is an area to watch.
What Might Biden’s CAT Policy Look Like?
A CAT policy centrally focused on human rights would be revolutionary, recalling the views of the senator from Delaware who consistently pushed back against presidents as they attempted to sell arms abroad in the 1980s and 1990s. However, there are several reasons to believe that Biden will instead favor an evolutionary CAT policy.
First, Biden has made repairing frayed international partnerships and countering China core foreign policy tenets. Increased defense cooperation with partners, including arms sales, is one way to show the US commitment to rebuilding these relationships.
Second, as part of his effort to repair a US economy ravaged by COVID-19, the president has specifically targeted assistance to the manufacturing sector. The aerospace and defense industry supports over 2.5 million domestic jobs [PDF], including highly skilled manufacturing, creating a significant economic incentive for the White House to enable this industry to grow.
Third, he served as Obama’s vice president, and both National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Tony Blinken served in prominent roles during the Obama administration. They had a hand in crafting and implementing Obama’s CAT policy; it is unlikely their views on arms sales have changed dramatically over the past four years.
Other changes we may see in Biden’s CAT policy include an increased focus on protecting US-origin military technology from Chinese intellectual property theft, further developing the US position on exporting surveillance technology (as discussed at the Summit for Democracy), and more detail on how the government will consider the export of cyber technologies to foreign militaries.
The rhetoric of Biden’s CAT policy will likely make clear that the Trump era of defense exports is over, and human rights will be a more significant criteria. Indeed, sales went down 21% in fiscal year 2021, which spanned the last three months of the Trump administration and the first nine months of Biden’s. But ultimately, the practical result of the policy will come down to implementation, as Biden and his team grapple with how to balance his commitment to human rights with a rapidly evolving landscape of domestic and international challenges.
Josh Kirshner previously served as special assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and as a professional staff member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He is currently a senior vice president at Beacon Global Strategies.