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by Anna Stavrianakis

Anna Stavrianakis critiques nation-centric theories that dominate International Relations as a discipline, as well as offering newer ways of studying the arms trade and emphasising the need for a more global approach. 

September 2015, ExCel Centre, London: Stop The Arms Fair activists block the road and prevent military vehicles entering the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition. They are protesting against one of the largest arms fairs in the world – sending a message to the UK government and arms companies that ‘inviting representatives of repressive regimes and their armed forces to hob-nob and do dodgy deals at DSEI … with representatives from the UK government and unscrupulous arms companies from around the world IS NOT OK.’ Two weeks previously, Cancun, Mexico: Control Arms activists build a life-size sand sculpture of a Stormer 30 tank on Baracuda Beach, Cancun, calling on states to save lives! by ensuring the toughest possible standards at the first Conference of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, the biggest game in town for contemporary international arms transfer control.

These two campaigns share the language of ‘dodgy deals’ but are otherwise quite different visions of the arms trade and its control. The Control Arms campaign focuses on encouraging, informing and embarrassing diplomats into agreeing a multilateral treaty that enshrines higher common international standards and establishes stronger norms against arms transfers that violate human rights and international humanitarian law. The Stop The Arms Fair coalition, meanwhile, takes direct action to halt the operation of arms fairs in the UK by physically blockading the exhibition centre, in protest at the relationship between arms companies and the UK government, and the relationships between the UK government and authoritarian, repressive and war-fighting foreign governments.

I’ve written in the past about the international politics of NGO and campaign group strategy – whether reformist, insider approaches are more effective than transformist, outsider ones – in the context of debates about global civil society. Yet what continues to trouble me, intellectually and politically, is a raft of questions about the operation of the arms trade itself. Namely: where, or with whom, does political responsibility lie for the negative effects of the arms trade in a world of formally national states that are home to internationalising arms companies and operate in a multilateral system based on sovereignty? What social forces drive the arms trade, how does their power operate, what is the character of the problems they generate, and how should scholars and activists best respond? Competing understandings of the operation of the arms trade can be seen in the varied activist responses to it: is the problem one of lack of regulation, the need for improved multilateral action, improved normative standards and international law, as per the Arms Trade Treaty? Or is the problem the relationship between the state and arms capital, and government promotion of the trade, as per the anti-DSEI protests? In the case of DSEI, how are we to understand the operation of internationalising arms capital that has an intimate yet fractious relationship with national states? And in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty, how should we make sense of efforts to create a level playing field of respect for human rights and humanitarian law in the context of a vastly asymmetric and hierarchical world military order?

Thinking theoretically, I have come to see that a large part of the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the grip that methodological nationalism continues to hold on IR as a discipline. Contemporary scholarship on the arms trade and arms transfer control tends to operate within the realist-liberal-constructivist triangle that dominates the mainstream of the wider discipline. Realist accounts of balancing or threat perception sit alongside liberal accounts of multilateral regimes for arms transfer control and constructivist accounts of the symbolic politics of arms acquisition or human security approaches to normative change and protection of human rights and humanitarian law. Despite their many differences, these approaches all think in terms of relations between states (seen as autonomous from both the arms industry and unscrupulous private brokers as a social force), and between the domestic and the international. This is particularly so because of the privileged claim that the arms trade has on national defence and state sovereignty.

Both in scholarship and policy circles, the arms trade is a key bastion of methodologically nationalist claims. The international appears as the sum of its constituent parts, of nation states. What falls out, though, is the North-South dimension, which is probably the most significant dimension of the arms trade as a practice. The South features either in the often blanket and sometimes stereotyped, but usually under-theorised guise of the repressive, authoritarian regime, the conflict-affected zone of disorder, or fragile state. Even in cosmopolitan approaches that probably do most to transcend methodological nationalism, in which the international features in the form of international humanitarian law and universal human rights, the South primarily features as a site of intervention, and we are left with few intellectual or political resources for understanding either the dynamics of the role of the arms trade in repression or conflict, let alone southern resistance to seemingly obvious public goods such as the Arms Trade Treaty.

The arms trade has long been an international, and primarily North-South, phenomenon. The North-South dimension is fairly easy to see: two-thirds to three-quarters of contemporary international arms transfers are to developing countries. In the postwar era, the world’s major arms suppliers have been the USA, West European states and Russia, and the most significant importers have been found in the Middle East and Asia. Yet this remains stuck on the terrain of methodological nationalism: we are still talking about states, even though gesturing towards the hierarchy and asymmetry captured in the notion of tiers. And most data generated on arms transfers is organised in terms of national states as exporters and importers. Whilst the terms ‘North’ and ‘South’ generally map on to other binaries such as ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’, the arms trade often throws up examples that complicate things and remind us that these are primarily political rather than geographical categories.

Israel, for example, is a niche high-tech producer and supplier, integrated into western production networks, engaged in a colonial war with part of its population, and located in a region generally understood as southern. China is now a top five arms exporter and is nurturing asymmetric relations with African states but still sees itself a developing country. The growth of Chinese arms exports should be seen as a return rather than a rise from nowhere – it was a major arms supplier when it supplied weapons to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war; and gunpowder was invented in China as early as the 9th century, troubling Eurocentric accounts of western military superiority. And whilst most accounts of North-South politics focus on the liberal West’s engagement with the South, don’t forget that the USSR, and now Russia and former Soviet states also engage in various forms of core-periphery relations with arms clients.

So we need to capture core-periphery relations without assuming a world of national states. Rather than seeing the arms trade as the outward-facing activity of pre-given national units, then (as happens in the predominant supply-demand and import-export models), we should rather think in terms of the circulation of weapons as part of practices that constitute those units as they prepare to fight, and do the fighting. That means prioritising the significance of the transnational exchange of military techniques between the European and non-European world, and of colonialism in shaping the development, production and transfer of weapons (through practices such as the dumping of obsolete weapons in the periphery). Armsregulation is similarly marked by its imperial past, with some remarkable resonances in the tropes and patterns of control. Drawing on the work historians of empire and sociologists of the postcolonial, as well as IR scholarship on imperial warfare, an imperial perspective can help transcend methodological nationalism. What does this involve, and how can it help us unravel the significance of the arms trade for contemporary international politics?

First, an imperial perspective emphasises the ongoing resonance of the historical legacy of formal empire. The modern international arms trade is usually deemed to have started with the Industrial Revolution. But this is a Eurocentric position that assumes military innovation emerges from within the European world and then spreads outwards – much of the oldercritical literature on the arms trade shares this perspective, even as it identifies itself as politically progressive. Yet colonialism was not something that happened after the European world industrialised and became modern – it was part of the process through which the European world industrialised and became modern, and through which the non-European world got called under-industrialised and pre-modern. Non-Eurocentric accounts of military production and trade are rare, but valuable. They help us understand the international circulation of techniques, practices and ideas in the arms trade, and challenge entrenched notions of superior western military ingenuity.

Second, methodologically, this means reading the history and contemporary politics of North and South together, as a single shared story. It encourages us to think in terms of feedback loops and mutual constitution, rather than transmission, diffusion or other linear metaphors that we often use to think about the spread and circulation of military technologies and practices. Such linear metaphors dominate both liberal and leftist accounts, as the rise of the West and transmission of its good ideas or domination of the developing world, respectively.

Third, and relatedly, thinking in such a way requires taking seriously Southern agency (albeit under conditions of hierarchy) and considering it as central rather than an add-on. In arms trade terms, this means we have to pay attention to Southern autonomy in weapons acquisition; the importance of blowback and the controversy that ensues when patrons are unable to control the use of weapons they transfer; and the ways that relations with the South shape developments in the North, such as when export concerns distort domestic weapons acquisition.

Fourth is the importance of avoiding technological determinism and bean-counting. That is, it’s not technology per se that matters but how weapons are incorporated into military practice and social relations. For me, this is the importance of a militarism frame for analysing the arms trade, one inflected through an imperial perspective. It means we cannot simply count the number of tanks or sniper rifles exported and cite that as evidence of complicity in repression and militarisation. This is not to toe the government and arms company line that assumes innocence as to the likely use of weapons. But it does require us to demonstrate the entrenched patterns that mean weapons are likely to be misused, even if this particular technology or that one hasn’t been directly used previously. Whilst some of this is being done by NGOs such asAmnesty International, they remain on the same terrain as the government in pursuing a case-by-case approach to arms export decisions. What a militarism frame adds is that the direct use of weapons is just the tip of the iceberg: their indirect role in repression and war through the climate of fear, as well as political economy and patronage networks they facilitate is equally significant.

Fifth, a key advantage of an imperial perspective on the arms trade is that it allows us to overcome one of the key distinctions drawn in most extant scholarship, namely that between the West and non-West on the basis of human rights and other supposed liberal values. Even when there is criticism of western suppliers for transfers that violate human rights, the commitment to human rights itself is generally taken as genuine, and forms the key line of distinction with suppliers such as Russia and China. But to my mind, the separation between western and non-western practices on the basis of liberal values is one of the key tropes obscuring the operation of the arms trade. Justifications based on values of human rights (as per European suppliers), and justifications based on legal strictures around sovereignty (as per Russia and China) facilitate some remarkably similar practices: the arming of proxies, cultivation of patronage relations, the core trying to organise force in the periphery.

Take the arming of non-state actors as an example: a central and divisive issue in contemporary multilateral arms transfer control discussions. States such as Russia, China and India abstained on the final vote for an Arms Trade Treaty in part because of the absence of a ban on transfers to non-state actors; several African states had also called for such a ban. The US, meanwhile, was the leading delegation opposing any such ban, as it would constitute interference in its ability to conduct its foreign policy as it sees fit – which includes arming proxies. The Russian and Chinese position is a historically recent one, mind you: it emerges post-decolonisation, in contrast to the Cold War when they would arm rebels quite freely. But now their justifications are based on sovereignty because of changes to the international system – and sovereignty remains a core trope for them, especially given the increased emphasis on human rights and humanitarian law by western states. We shouldn’t let the differences in form of justification distract us from the imperial politics of transfers to non-state actors: this is a spat about the transnational constitution of force via the arming of proxies (whether state or non-state).

An imperial perspective encourages us to read shared stories together in another way, as well. I want to read the US redline against discussion of the regulation of civilian possession (which structured much of the negotiations around the Arms Trade Treaty) against the issue of transfers to non-state actors, as two sides of the same coin. If we refuse the bifurcation into ‘domestic’ policy and ‘foreign’ policy that allows the former to remain resolutely off the multilateral agenda, then the racialized politics around civilian possession and imperial politics of transfers to proxies are two sides of the same coin that need to be considered together. That is, while North Americans get to hold weapons to protect themselves against big government (the basic claim of the Second Amendment), the strong colonial roots of the American mythology of gun ownership have shaped gun control policy in racialized ways to contribute to white control.

Meanwhile, occupied populations around the world are denied access to weapons and their enemies arm themselves against them. During the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations, several southern states called for recognition of the right to self-determination of peoples under foreign occupation to be recognised as part of state sovereignty but were defeated by US-led opposition. As gun ownership is a marker of citizenship in North America from which blacks have long been either excluded or problematically incorporated (through gun control debates that attribute gun crime to black pathology rather than any broader social problems resulting from structural changes to the US and international economy), so the right to procure weapons is a marker of sovereignty in the international system, and populations under occupation are denied that too. In this way, the exclusion of civilian possession and the contestation over (a ban on) transfers to non-state actors during the negotiations of the Arms Trade Treaty, whilst usually treated separately as distinct domestic and foreign policy issues, actually go together. They are related as imperial practices that cannot be spoken about openly.

What, then, are the ramifications of an imperial perspective? I think it generates a more adequately politicised account of the significance of weapons circulation. This account requires a refusal of the separation of domestic gun control from international arms transfer control, and of the distinction between liberal and non-liberal justifications for arms transfers. The practices and effects of arms transfers are remarkably similar, whether justified or explained away in human rights or sovereignty terms. And strategically, getting states such as Russia and China on board with multilateral measures will continue to stumble at the first hurdle when western states assert their moral superiority. Meanwhile, whilst the capitalist state is crucial in supporting and legitimising the formally private arms industry, it remains the case that militarism has dynamics autonomous of capitalism – the arms industry is directly controlled by the state in Russia, China and elsewhere, making the precise mechanisms of its operation different to those in the US and European states. Corruption and bribery are central to the arms trade, regardless of the character of the state and industry – and are a form of core-periphery relationship, rather simply a southern pathology. And whilst international transfers are the most visible focus of campaign action, supposedly domestic production is itself significantly internationalised – and used in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by those states who claim to be their ardent defenders.


Anna Stavrianakis is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the arms trade, arms transfer control and militarism. This article was originally published on The Disorder of Things.