Despite Rhetoric, Biden is Continuing Trump’s Weapons Sales
Before taking office, President Joe Biden proudly announced that under a Biden-Harris administration, America would not “check its values at the door to sell arms.” In July 2020, Biden tweeted, “No more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator,” referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. And in February 2021, Biden announced an end to U.S. military support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen.
So has Biden followed through on his intention to shift U.S. policy on arms sales? A quick look at the relevant data suggests he has not. The year 2021 did indeed see the largest drop in foreign military sale notifications in recent memory. But despite that, the value of foreign military sale notifications for 2022 is rising again and has already well surpassed all of 2021. In other words, although initially signaling a slowdown, this administration now resembles every other recent administration in terms of volume and value of arms sales. And this is true for countries with poor human rights records as well.
There are a number of institutional reforms the administration and Congress could pursue to chart a different course. Among the most valuable are those designed to increase transparency and better track arms sales, as well as those designed to limit arms sales to countries where weapons could be used in ways that are at odds with American values.
Rhetoric Versus Numbers
In the Trump administration’s final year, U.S. foreign military sales reached $111 billion, the highest volume observed by the Security Assistance Monitor in data going back to 2001. Then, in 2021, the first year of the Biden administration, those numbers dropped sharply: foreign military sale offers in 2021 totaled just over $36 billion, the lowest total in recent years.
A number of factors contributed to this decline. For one, 2020 saw several particularly high-volume arms deals. Most notably, Trump agreed to sell the United Arab Emirates 23 billion dollars of weapons, including up to 50 F-35 aircraft, a range of munitions, and MQ-9 Reaper drones. It is natural for a drop in arms offers after a year like that, particularly as recipients and manufacturers are saturated by existing requests. But even so, $36 billion was unusually low. Additionally, some pending deals had to be paused and renegotiated with the new administration. But whatever the reasons for the decrease in volume, many analysts concluded that arms sales were truly slowing down.
Yet the numbers for 2022 are already telling a different story. As of August, government-to-government arms sale offers have already reached $57 billion. In other words, the dip in foreign military sales offers in 2021 was just that, a dip, from which sales are already rebounding. The numbers for commercial sale authorizations, meaning arms sales from a U.S. maker directly to a foreign buyer, have followed a similar trajectory. They fell from nearly $62 billion in 2020 to nearly $41 billion in 2021. (The State Department has not yet released the direct commercial sale numbers for 2022.)
What does the data show us about the recipients of U.S. arms? In 2020, the last year of the Trump administration, the top five recipients of foreign military sale offers were the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Finland, Switzerland, and Taiwan. In 2021, the first year of the Biden administration, the top five were Greece, Australia, Israel, the Philippines, and India. In 2022, so far, they are Indonesia, Poland, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, followed by Saudi Arabia at a close number six. Each year, across administrations, the top recipients have included countries with severe human rights violations: the Emirates, with its participation in the Gulf-led coalition in Yemen, the Philippines, with its draconian “war on drugs,” and Egypt, with its systematic attacks on human rights defenders. In other words, there is no wholesale reversal on arms sales under the Biden administration, in volume or value, nor with regard to the human rights records of recipients.
For many observers who were skeptical of the Biden administration’s rhetoric, Egypt was a test case of the President’s “no more blank checks” tweet. And in February 2021, the Biden administration notified Congress of a proposed sale of 168 Rolling Airframe Missiles to Egypt worth $197 million, just days after the arrest of relatives of Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan. Saudi Arabia was another test case, given its brutal campaign in Yemen. In 2021, Saudi Arabia moved up from the 17th-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military sale offers at $640 million, to the 9th-largest recipient at $1.15 billion. While it is true that arms sales are often multi-year negotiations, and what surfaced in 2021 likely began long before President Biden’s term, the Biden administration nevertheless gave it the green light to continue.
During the President’s July trip to Saudi Arabia, there were reports that the administration was weighing the resumption of offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, provided that the Saudi government made progress toward ending the war in Yemen. Following that trip, and the continuation of the truce extension in Yemen, there were new notifications this month of more than $5 billion in missiles for Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. The Biden administration is trying to walk a careful line on Saudi Arabia, and it is worth acknowledging that it has been willing to limit the sale of some weapons that could be used in Yemen. But for many critics, after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Biden’s 2019 promise to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” the continuation of sales feels like a disappointing return to business as usual.
The Biden administration has also indicated a willingness to move forward with the major 2020 sales to the United Arab Emirates while approving additional sales as well. The 2020 arms offers, which include F-35 fighter jets, have been hung up over questions of how the jets could be deployed and the security of sensitive technologies. The Biden administration has noted its human rights concerns with regard to the sales but has not gone so far as to halt them.
All of this takes place in the context of rising U.S. arms exports generally, and falling exports from major U.S. competitors, namely Russia and China. As the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported in March, over the past several years, U.S. arms sales have taken a greater share of the global market, while Russia’s and China’s arms exports have declined. The failure to pivot on U.S. arms sales policy, then, is based not on a data-driven necessity to sustain competition, but on a general desire to strengthen global partnerships to address threats.
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind the pressure the administration is under to increase weapons transfers in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, some of the 2022 foreign military sale notifications, such as one for $6 billion in M1 Abrams tanks and equipment to Poland, are intended to strengthen Ukraine’s neighbors. So far, arms to Europe and NATO make up about 38 percent of 2022 foreign military sale notifications. However, most arms transfers to Ukraine take place as security assistance, not arms sales, and follow separate processes.
Transparency and Institutional Reforms
Instead of reforms that could reduce, or at least provide more scrutiny of arms sales, the Biden administration has also continued broader Trump-era arms sales policies. For example, in a July House Foreign Affairs hearing, Democrats criticized the Biden administration for leaving in place a Trump-era decision to move export oversight of firearms from the State Department to the Commerce Department, a move that resulted in less stringent oversight of exports and their recipients. As Senator Robert Menendez noted at the time that the change went into effect, this shift increased the risk of military-grade weapons falling into the hands of terrorists and criminals.
The Biden administration has also shown little interest in implementing recommendations such as applying Leahy laws — which block security assistance and training in the case of gross human rights violations — to arms transfers, or restoring State Department authority over firearms exports. While the State Department has long said that some changes are forthcoming, including a new Conventional Arms Transfer policy, no evidence of this has been made public.
On government transparency, which has long been a challenge in arms sales, the Biden administration has largely left the current reporting structures in place. In fact, increasing transparency is one of the best opportunities for meaningful and relatively non-controversial reforms. Reliable data on arms sales allows government officials, Congress, and civil society to analyze and assess their impact. Thus, accurate, transparent data underpins all the other monitoring, analysis, and advocacy. Even if the administration is not eager to reduce arms sales to friendly but problematic governments, greater transparency would at least provide for more informed public debate. Potential ways to increase transparency in arms sales include:
Providing public reporting on below threshold amounts for foreign military sales. The Arms Export Control Act requires Congress to be notified of the sale of major defense equipment totaling $14 million or more and defense articles and services costing $50 million or more. Sub-threshold sales, therefore, escape public notice, and some larger deals can be structured to avoid these requirements by being broken into smaller sales. Public reporting on sub-threshold arms sales would address this gap.
Providing detailed public reporting on direct commercial sales. Currently, the reports Congress receives on direct commercial sales — that is from a U.S. manufacturer to a foreign buyer — aggregate summaries of weapons categories, rather than listing weapon names. And unlike foreign military sales, direct commercial sales are not made public when Congress is notified. Previously, this information was more transparent. For example, this representative 2008 report gives considerably more information than this more recent 2021 report. Restoring transparency would give the public insight into a significant segment of America’s arms trade, one that was worth more than $40 billion in 2021.
Providing public reporting on firearms exports licensed for sale. In 2020, certain defense items on the U.S. Munitions List, including certain semiautomatic firearms, were transferred from the State Department to the Commerce Control List, which does not require congressional notification. Firearms are easier to transport and more likely than major weapons systems to end up in the wrong hands and so are at least as important to track. Returning those items to the U.S. Munitions List would restore congressional oversight and public visibility to these sales.
Providing congressional notification ahead of arms deliveries. Weapons approved for sale can take years to be delivered to a recipient country. Providing a congressional notification ahead of when they are actually delivered would allow Congress to weigh in on arms sales at this important stage of the process. If deliveries occur in tranches, notifications for the first and final deliveries would be valuable for members of Congress.
The institutions that make up America’s arms sales regime have remained remarkably consistent across administrations. It will take much more than a new president to change them. So far, President Biden has not shown the requisite political will to start the process. If nothing else, increased transparency could help push his administration to do more.
Lauren Woods is Director of the Security Assistance Monitor, a program at the Center for International Policy that analyzes security cooperation and maintains the most comprehensive publicly available databases on U.S. security assistance, arms sales, and foreign military training to countries around the world.