Dangerous Trade: Humanitarian Arms Export Governance and International Reputation

Event summary by our intern Rory Weaver:

In her fascinating talk, Dr Jennifer Erickson of Boston College highlighted the often under-appreciated scale of the international arms trade, and the surprise decision by major arms exporters to sign the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in 2009. Why did these countries suddenly decide to approve a treaty that had the potential to be so costly to a key tool of foreign policy and economic growth? Based on analysis of arms export data and interview with key actors in policy-making and the defence industry, Dr Erickson finds that in the top arms-exporting democracies, public pressure and concern for human rights do not offer adequate reputations explanations for this change. Instead, she offers a convincing explanation that international social status–the importance of being seen as a good “international citizen”–was the driving force behind the ATT. Because the appearance of commitment, and not compliance or enforcement, was the overriding concern of signatory states, and because the ATT has no mechanisms for enforcement or punishment, compliance will depend on NGO and public pressure, which has mostly been lacking.

Dr Erickson also offered an interesting twist on what is often seen as conventional wisdom – the UK defence industry does not necessarily always get its way in policy decisions, and was caught off-guard by New Labour’s commitment to arms control in the late 1990s. The Obama administration, despite its positive image, continued to export arms in a similar way to its predecessors. Most importantly, her talk highlighted that genuine compliance with a reputation-driven treaty is unlikely in the absence of significant pressure from the public and NGOs.