IFAIR-Panel on Weapons Trade with Experts from SIPRI and BICC

IFAIR-Panel on Weapons Trade with Experts from SIPRI and BICC

Do arms exports lead to more violence or can they contribute to establishing peace? Opinions on that question differ significantly, and existing data only allows drawing an inconclusive picture. The controversies about German military support for the Kurdish Peshmerga are a recent example of this antagonism and highlight the ethical difficulties policy-makers face when confronted with decisions about arms proliferation. IFAIR, in collaboration with the Chair of Empirical Political Research and Policy Analysis of LMU Munich, put together a panel of experts from think tanks and academia to learn about the potential of scientific research to help us out in this dilemma. The panellists emphasized the need of more systematic and quantitative studies in order to contribute to an evidence-based peace science.

‘What do we know about weapons trade with conflict regions?’ To gain insight into this up-to-date question, IFAIR staged an essay competition and invited Lukas Hafner, student of political science and author of the winning contribution ‘Determinants of Arms Exports Decision-Making’, to discuss with leading experts in the field of arms proliferation at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. Fellow panelists and keynote speakers at the event were Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher with the Arms and Military Expenditure Programme of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and Jan Grebe, researcher on arms exports controls at Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). The panel was chaired by Prof Dr Paul W. Thurner, professor for Empirical Political Research and Policy Analysis at LMU Munich, who runs a research project on mapping global arms trade networks. 95 people in the audience followed IFAIR’s invitation and witnessed two insightful keynote speeches followed by a lively debate.

Siemon Wezeman presented an overview on recent trends in international arms transfers based on data collected by SIPRI (see slides). After a massive drop of weapons proliferation after the Cold War, total global arms exports have been increasing again since the early 2000s (see figure below). The main importers of military equipment in recent years have been South East Asian countries, in particular due to an arms race between China and its neighbours. Increased demand has also been coming from the Middle East and Latin America. Siemon Wezeman emphasized that SIPRI’s goal is to provide data and trigger debates about trends in arms trade but not to make value judgements. Still, he pointed out that the economic significance of weapons exports is persistently being exaggerated as arms exports merely amount to 0.4% of total volume in global trade.

Jan Grebe drew the attention towards the changing structure of arms trade in Europe and particularly Germany (see slides). He found that in Germany – still the third largest arms exporter in the world – three current trends are visible: First, the federal government has delivered on its promises to increase transparency about export decisions. However, while this makes it easier to have timely discussions on weapons proliferation, it does not solve the existing structural deficit that merely the financial volume of deals is published but no details about the basis of decision-making and the actual persons or organizations that receive military goods. Second, despite repeated declarations of the German government to restrict arms exports, policy implementation is going in circles. Main reason is that proponents and opponents are talking past each other: The former stress the internal side and argue with the negative impact of export restrictions on the German economy, whereas the latter argue externally and see the negative impact on conflict regions. Third, the military support of the Kurdish Peshmerga is evidence that German export policies are no longer primarily determined by economic rationales but turn into a tool for security policy.

The keynote speeches gave rise to a lively discussion among the panellists and the audience. The discussion touched upon reasons for (non)compliance with export regulations. Lukas Hafner argued that an increasing transparency on arms exports would empower national and transnational interest groups monitoring the compliance of nation states, which in turn would likely lead policy makers to further restrict exports. On the other hand, it was stressed that the market power of exporters like Germany and their ability to control the dissemination of the latest military technologies has sharply decreased in recent years. The rise of newcomers from emerging market economies thus lead to a more and more demand side dominated market, which increases competition and thus poses a potential threat to non-proliferation. Additionally, the experts underlined the European dimension of weapon proliferation: The production of military supplies is ‘Europeanized’ because production chains are integrated across borders. Additionally, the European Commission pushes constantly towards a bigger European arms market. Overall, the discussion emphasized the role of science to gain new insights on the consequences of arms trade. With the data made available by, amongst others, SIPRI and BICC, scientists are in a good position to assess more systematically the underlying structures of arms trade in order to contribute to an evidence-based peace science.