The Ambivalent Supplier: U.S. Arms Transfer Policy Under Biden
The Biden administration came into office with the declared intention of putting human rights and democracy at the center of its foreign policy. President Joe Biden has made clear that he will try to rally the world, especially other democracies, to advance these values.
At the same time, the administration likely understands that it cannot limit itself to working only with democracies. This is surely one of the reasons that the United States continues to approve arms sales to partners that respect neither democracy nor human rights. For example, mere weeks after Biden’s inauguration, the State Department approved the sale of naval surface-to-air missiles to Egypt worth $197 million. In the months that followed, the United States approved lucrative defense contracts to other countries with problematic records on democracy and human rights, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Philippines, and Thailand.
How can Biden reconcile the apparent contradiction between promoting democracy and human rights on the one hand, and the sale of advanced weapon systems to countries that undermine these values on the other?
The administration reportedly briefed Congress in July on its plans to change its arms transfer policy to emphasize human rights, but nothing has been unveiled yet. The White House will likely find that putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy — especially when it comes to arms sales — will be easier said than done. Significant security and commercial interests are on the line when it comes to defense contracts. The United States faces increasingly fierce competition from China and Russia for geopolitical influence, and arms sales are a major tool for securing political advantage. While the Biden administration will likely add more conditions on defense deals compared to the Trump administration, America’s approach to defense sales is unlikely to change substantially. The values of democracy and human rights, as always, will remain secondary to geopolitical calculations.
U.S. Arms Sales and the Beginning of the Biden Administration
The Biden administration inherited a permissive U.S. arms transfer policy. Most notably, the Trump administration’s arms transfer policy was undeterred by the human rights violations of partners, and prioritized economic benefits to U.S. defense industries. President Donald Trump supported the continued supply of weapons to countries such as Egypt even in the face of strong congressional opposition. In May 2019 the Trump administration even invoked an emergency waiver to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan — overriding congressional oversight. This approach was lucrative for U.S. firms. In Fiscal Year 2020, the U.S. sold $175 billion worth of weapons to foreign partners and allies through the foreign military sales program ($50.78 billion) and direct commercial sales ($124.3 billion).
One of Biden’s initial foreign policy decisions as president was to stop U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen and place a temporary freeze, pending a review, on the planned sales of advanced munitions to Saudi Arabia and F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates. Some saw this decision as a possible sign that the Biden administration might develop a new, more restrictive arms transfer policy in line with the president’s publicly stated value-based foreign policy orientation. And there are signs the Biden administration intends to increase the emphasis on human rights when reviewing arms sales. However, by April 2021, the administration had given the green light to renew these sales and others to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Despite the initial temporary freeze on arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Biden administration’s arms transfer decision-making hitherto largely resembles that of previous administrations. In its first 10 months, the administration has informed Congress of its intention to transfer major weapon systems and support to 23 countries for a total of over $26 billion, including to authoritarian regimes or those that violate human rights, such as Egypt, the Philippines, Kuwait, Thailand and Saudi Arabia (see table).
|Month||Country||Weapon System||Estimated Cost|
|February||Finland||Extended Range Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System||$91.2 million|
|Egypt||Rolling Airframe Missiles||$197 million|
|Jordan||F-16 Air Combat Training Center||$60 million|
|NATO||Communications and Information Systems||$65 million|
|Chile||Standard Missile-2||$85 million|
|March||Korea||AGM-114R Hellfire Missiles||$36 million|
|Norway||Javelin FGM-148 Missiles||$36 million|
|The Netherlands||AH-64 Pilot Training and Logistic Support||$190 million|
|The Netherlands||CH-47 Pilot Training and Logistics Support||$125 million|
|North Macedonia||Stryker Vehicles||$210 million|
|Germany||P-8A Aircraft and Associated Support||$1.77 billion|
|April||India||P-8I and Associated Support||$2.42 billion|
|Australia||CH-47F Chinook Helicopters||$259 million|
|Australia||Heavy Armored Combat Systems||$1.685 billion|
|Australia||MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft||$1.651 billion|
|May||Spain||Follow-on Support for MQ-9A Aircraft||$110 million|
|Greece||FMSO II, CLSSA Services||$165 million|
|Canada||Aegis Combat System||$1.7 billion|
|June||The Philippines||F-16 Block 70/72 Aircraft||$2.43 billion|
|The Philippines||AIM-9X Sidewinder Block II Tactical Missiles||$42.4 million|
|The Philippines||AGM-84L-1 Harpoon Air-Launched Block II Missiles||$120 million|
|Australia||AH-64-E Apache Helicopters||$3.5 billion|
|July||Thailand||Javelin Missiles||$83.5 million|
|Israel||CH-53K Heavy Lift Helicopters with Support||$3.4 billion|
|Kuwait||Heavy Tactical Vehicles||$445 million|
|August||Taiwan||155MM M109A6 Howitzer System||$750 million|
|Japan||AEGIS Class Destroyer Support||$134 million|
|Japan||RAM Block II Tactical Missiles||$61.5 million|
|Georgia||Javelin Missiles||$30 million|
|Greece||F-16 Sustainment Materiel and Services||$270 million|
|India||Harpoon Joint Common Test Set||$82 million|
|Korea||Precision Guided Munitions||$258 million|
|Australia||Defense Services||$350 million|
|September||Saudi Arabia||Continuation of Maintenance Support Services||$500 million|
|Australia||EA-18 Growler Aircraft and Related Defense Services||$125 million|
|October||Australia||MH-60R Multi-Mission Helicopters and Services||$985 million|
|November||Saudi Arabia||AIM-120C AMRAAM Air-to-Air Missiles||$650 million|
Planned major arms sales. (Adapted from Defense Security Cooperation website)
A complete picture is difficult to ascertain at this stage, given that not all notifications of intended arms sales will necessarily be finalized. Also, the list includes only government-to-government foreign military sales above the notification threshold and does not include arms transfers through direct commercial sales.
The administration’s track record so far indicates that security interests continue to take precedent over the professed values of democracy and human rights. Thus, for example, the Biden administration has approved the sale of Rolling Airframe Missiles to Egypt. Recently, the Biden administration conditioned the provision of $130 million from the annual $1.3 billion in security assistance to Egypt, dependent on the country ending its protracted prosecutions of rights and civil-society organizations and the dropping of charges against, or the release of, 16 individuals identified by the United States. However, by comparison, the Obama administration conditioned the provision of $300 million in security assistance to Egypt on the meeting of human rights standards.
At the beginning of November, the State Department also approved the sale of air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia for $650 million. Additionally, during its first months, the Biden administration unfroze arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, even though they are still involved in the war in Yemen.
It is still unclear whether Biden intends to overhaul U.S. arms transfer policy. However, from a historical perspective, presidents who successfully changed U.S. policy on defense sales — including Carter, Reagan, and Nixon — did so in the first few months of their administration. By contrast, an initial review of arms transfer notifications during the Biden administration’s first ten months points to a continuation of the arms transfer policies of previous administrations. However, there are reports that the Biden administration intends to formally unveil an updated arms transfer policy in the coming months that emphasizes human rights in weapon-sales decisions.
Given the growing strategic competition with China and Russia, changing the present course of U.S. arms sales will be difficult. To contend with the changing global distribution of power, the United States should maintain and strengthen its alliances and partnerships around the world — even if those countries are not democracies. Arms transfers are a key mechanism for this, even though they can entail risks to U.S. foreign policy and do not necessarily provide the economic benefits claimed by the Trump administration.
The United States faces great-power competition from China and, to a lesser degree, Russia. Both China and Russia materially and ideationally challenge U.S. power and values. China has become more aggressive in maritime disputes in East Asia and border issues with India and Taiwan. Russia and China appear to be working in concert to weaken and fragment the existing international system that they consider antithetical to their illiberal domestic agendas.
The Biden administration’s March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance acknowledges that the central challenge to U.S. security and prosperity is the emergence of long-term, strategic competition by revisionist powers:
We must also contend with the reality that the distribution of power across the world is changing, creating new threats. … Both Beijing and Moscow have invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world.
In addition, the United States is confronted by rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, who destabilize their respective regions by pursuing nuclear weapons and subversion. Concurrently, rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war are challenging the U.S. military advantage. Consequently, as former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy writes,
The Biden administration has inherited a U.S. military at an inflection point. The Pentagon’s own war games reportedly show that current force plans would leave the military unable to deter and defeat Chinese aggression in the future.
In this context, U.S. arms transfers play a vital role. Major arms deals provide longstanding influence and tie recipients to U.S. leverage. While they do not guarantee compliance with U.S. policies and values, they serve to maintain security relations, interoperability, and possible overflight or basing rights. They also reduce the potential of partners in key regions falling under Russian or Chinese security dominance. However, since the end of the Cold War, the diversification of the global arms trade has increased, challenging Washington’s ability to retain its sway through arms sales. The United States competes with other technologically innovative arms exporters such as Russia, China, Britain, and France, especially in the Middle Eastern and Asian markets.
The Biden administration inherited arms trade policies promoted by the Trump administration to effectively compete with other suppliers and retain its position in the global market. These include a hands-on marketing effort by senior officials and American diplomats around the globe, the increase in the kinds of weapons and equipment that can be sold through the direct commercial sales avenue, reduced surcharge and transportation costs, and offers of generous payment schemes.
Additionally, the United States actively works against the sale of Russian weapon systems to its allies and partners through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Thus, for example, the United States imposed sanctions against Turkey, removing it from the F-35 program, for purchasing Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missiles.
In sum, the emergence of long-term competition between the United States, Russia, and China, combined with overt challenges to the liberal international order, signifies growing systemic hostility. Within this hostile global environment, the United States is striving to retain and expand its influence by increasing its efforts of external balancing, including through substantial arms transfers. This kind of environment is not conducive to initiating a restrictive change to U.S. arms transfer policies. Instead, the continuation of permissive arms transfer policies is a more plausible U.S. strategic option. Moreover, the diversification of the international arms market reinforces this permissive arms transfer perspective.
While some might claim that curtailing arms sales to countries abusing democratic and human rights values could serve as a form of strategic competition with Russia and China, this would mean a loss of U.S. material influence among key partners at a time of growing competition. Nevertheless, adjustments in arms sales decisions for specific recipient countries are possible, especially in line with the Biden administration’s human rights and democratic values.
Domestic Influences and the Importance of Values
The emerging “Biden Doctrine” seems to be predicated on the view that the overarching challenge of the era is the contest between democratic and autocratic countries. Accordingly, Biden’s grand strategy promotes fortifying the democratic world against this challenge. This vision entails changing the Trump administration’s “America first” approach and attempting to return “the country to its traditional role of catalyzing international cooperation and staunchly defending liberal values abroad.”
In this context, as a candidate, Biden was explicit about not selling more weapons to Saudi Arabia. However, as president, he continues to approve major arms deals with the kingdom. The Biden administration understands that collective action on global threats cannot be limited to working only with democracies. And, in line with this realist outlook, the administration appreciates the need for building and sustaining the military capabilities of non-democratic partners through arms transfers and training.
Additionally, while there is broad public support for working closely with allies, and 78 percent of Americans say they want to see the United States share a leadership role in the world, the public considers promoting democracy as one of the least important priorities for U.S. foreign policy. Combined with the partisan division in Congress on foreign policy issues, this public attitude indicates it is unlikely that an effective domestic effort to prioritize democracy and human rights values in arms sales decisions will crystallize.
Biden — like his predecessors — faces a central dilemma regarding the U.S. arms transfer policy. The United States needs allies and partners furnished with U.S.-made weapon systems. At the same time, these partners include non-democratic countries that undermine human rights in their domestic and regional struggles.
Given the growing competition between the United States one side and China and Russia on the other, a more restrictive U.S. arms transfer policy change is improbable. Additionally, the Biden administration is unlikely to find domestic pressure to align arms sales and human rights considerations as persuasive as U.S. security interests. As a result, the current U.S. approach to defense sales is likely to continue. However, this does not rule out the Biden administration in certain cases emphasizing human rights considerations and adjusting specific arms transfer decisions accordingly.
Shimon Arad is a retired colonel of the Israeli Defense Forces and a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa. His writings focus on Middle East regional security topics.
Photo by Sgt. Camilo Parody