The Case for Arms Embargoes Against Uncooperative Partners


The efficacy of withholding military assistance, including grant aid and arms sales, to modify the behavior of recipient countries is a hotly debated topic in the U.S. foreign policy community. Last month, War on the Rocks published another contribution to this discussion. In “The Case Against Arms Embargos, Even for Saudi Arabia,” Raymond Rounds opposes what he calls an “arms embargo” on Saudi Arabia, arguing that suspending U.S. arms sales as leverage over policy disagreements will only backfire by driving the kingdom to purchase arms from other countries. He contends that suspending sales to Saudi Arabia will fail to alter objectionable Saudi conduct, whether in Yemen or domestically, while “[damaging] ties with Saudi Arabia.” According to Rounds, this dynamic is not unique to Saudi Arabia, but a general proposition that applies to all U.S. arms recipients.

If he is correct, arms embargoes — a regular tool of U.S. foreign policy — are quixotic attempts to shape the behavior of foreign governments and put the United States at a strategic disadvantage to global competitors. While this argument seems reasonable, if depressing, it suffers from two principal and serious flaws.

First, the empirical record does not support Rounds’ contention that arms embargoes do not deliver. While these suspensions are not a silver bullet, there is ample evidence to demonstrate that they can be effective in changing the policy of a target country. For example, in 2005, the United States successfully used the suspension of a joint weapons project to persuade Israel to cancel a proposed sale of drone equipment to China. In another example, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson secured commitments from Egypt to resolve a longstanding criminal case against 41 foreign NGO workers, including Americans and Europeans, and to suspend military cooperation with North Korea in exchange for releasing $195 million in suspended military aid. More recently, the legislative hold Sen. Robert Menendez placed on an arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, when combined with threatened legislation to impose further restrictions on transfers to Saudi Arabia, helped pressure the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to re-engage in negotiations with the Houthis, resulting in an imperfect but still important deal on the port of Hodeidah.

The author’s argument that arms embargoes do not work cites the 2013 suspension of U.S. military aid to Egypt following that country’s military coup. This policy clearly failed to reverse the military coup led by current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but there are good reasons to question the validity of the example. Proponents of the suspension argue with good reason that it was not given a fair chance to work. Shortly after the decision was announced, senior U.S. officials told the Egyptians the aid would soon be restored, undercutting the coercive value of the suspension. From the perspective of the Egyptian government, it would have been irrational to make serious concessions in response to what they believed was an idle threat. Just as important, due to a plethora of exceptions and carve-outs, some U.S. military assistance to Egypt continued throughout the suspension period, including maintenance and sustainment, sparing the Egyptian military from the full force of the hold.



Despite undercutting its own suspension, the hold still produced some good. U.S. diplomats were able to leverage the policy to deter the Egyptian government from enforcing an arbitrary September 2014 deadline for NGOs to register under Egypt’s draconian 2002 NGO law. And, although Egypt released U.S. citizen Mohamed Soltan from prison two months after aid was resumed, Cairo was partly motivated by the concern that the Obama administration could reverse its decision to resume arms shipments. To be sure, these accomplishments were relatively limited, and we should be careful not to overestimate the efficacy of arms holds. A foreign government is unlikely to fundamentally change its position on what it views as an existential issue. But prior suspensions have yielded tangible gains, and they should remain part of the U.S. foreign policy toolkit.

Second, Rounds also overstates the costs of suspending arms transfers. He is particularly focused on the potential for losing “access,” a term that encompasses relationships with the recipient country’s military leadership; insight into their views, organization, and doctrine; and permission for the U.S. military to use that country’s bases and airspace. These are legitimate concerns, but suspensions do not automatically compromise access. Egypt, for instance, never curtailed the U.S. military ability to use the Suez Canal or Egyptian airspace while arms transfers were on hold. And, while intelligence about a foreign military is valuable, we often have other, clandestine ways to acquire such information. Moreover, we should not conflate access with influence. U.S. military officials had access to their Egyptian counterparts during the events of 2013, but those channels were of no use in deterring Egypt’s military from removing the country’s democratically elected president. Nor has U.S access reduced civilian casualties from Saudi-coalition bombing in Yemen. In these cases, access without influence does not absolve the United States of complicity.

The author’s other major concern is that arms suspensions could result in the loss of arms sales to strategic competitors like Russia or China. The jobs created by such sales are not trivial matters, but studies have found that they do not provide the economic benefits or jobs that are often touted. Nor are these sales necessary to maintain the military industrial base, which is powered by billions of dollars each year from domestic purchases, except in rare cases. Fundamentally, the author’s implicit argument — that if the United States reliably supplies weapons to strategically important countries, they won’t seek them elsewhere — is suspect. Countries, including close partners like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have long sought to diversify their weapons stockpiles, and in an increasingly multipolar world, more countries are seeking to diversify their arms suppliers to maintain their own independence. While U.S. arms will continue to compete with Russian or Chinese counterparts on a sale-by-sale basis, it will become increasingly unrealistic to be the exclusive supplier of any partner country, irrespective of how reliable the United States is.

The reluctance to use the leverage afforded by arms transfers is symptomatic of a broader pathology in U.S. foreign policy: a fixation on maintaining relationships without regard to the value they provide. Relationships are important, but the United States should receive a commensurate return on its investments. When this is not the case, the United States should not hesitate to adjust the status and intimacy of a bilateral relationship, including through the suspension of arms transfers. Contrary to Rounds’ argument, such steps can yield important policy gains. Even if they do not, we can at least avoid some of the blowback of enabling reckless and rights-abusing actions. Distance does not have the allure of access, but it may ultimately put the United States in a stronger strategic position.



Andrew Miller is the deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy and served as the director for Egypt and Israel military issues at the U.S. National Security Council from 2014 to 2017.

Seth Binder is the advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy. Previously he served as the program manager and research associate at the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor program, where he focused on U.S. security assistance and arms sales policy.