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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT KUTTNER

The U.S. Shouldn't Be Arms Broker

The administration should embrace Oscar Arias' attempt to curb sales to the Third World.

April 26, 1998|ROBERT KUTTNER | Robert Kuttner is co-editor of the American Prospect

A side effect of the end of the Cold War has been a perverse escalation in arms sales to the Third World. U.S. arms makers are by far the leading weapons merchants, accounting for nearly half of all such sales.

Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for brokering peace in Central America, is currently in the United States, giving lectures and trying to shift U.S. policy. But with American arms makers seeking new customers and U.S. officials using arms sales as diplomatic leverage, this will not be easy.

After receiving the Nobel, Arias donated his prize winnings to endow a foundation dedicated to ending the Third World arms race. It is fitting that a Costa Rican president should lead this crusade. Costa Rica, for half a century, has been a country with no military.

Arias' predecessor, Jose Figueres, abolished the armed forces in 1948, leaving only a civilian constabulary. Costa Rica, not coincidentally, has also been the region's most stable democracy.

Arias observes that if just 10% of world military spending, now approaching $1 trillion a year, were devoted instead to human development, preventable disease and hunger would be wiped out and basic education and sanitation would be universal.

Oscar Arias is one of perhaps three living global leaders who represent a kind of moral witness that the world seldom sees in national statesmen--the others being Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

In bringing peace to Central America, Arias had to win over a skeptical Reagan administration, which was reluctant to cede diplomatic power to a mere leader of the region and suspicious that Arias might be too soft on leftists. But Arias' differences with U.S. foreign arms policy today are, if anything, even more serious.

"In the past four years," he observed in a recent lecture at Harvard, "85% of U.S. arms sales have gone to undemocratic governments in the developing world. During President Clinton's first term, his administration gave $35.9 billion to the militaries of nondemocratic governments for arms and training."

According to Arias, half of the world's governments devote more resources to arms spending than to health. They do not have the sophistication to manufacture advanced military products, such as fighters, missiles and bombers, so American arms makers are happy to provide them for a price. Even in sub-Sarahan Africa, the world's poorest region, arms spending totals $8 billion a year.

Last year, Arias convened a meeting with seven other Nobel Peace laureates, joined by Amnesty International, the American Friends Service Committee and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, to create an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. The code is now endorsed by 16 Peace Prize honorees, including Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and this year's winner, Jody Williams.

The code would commit advanced countries not to sell arms to nations that failed to recognize basic human rights or that engaged in armed aggression or terrorism. All countries would have to report their weapons sales and purchases to the U.N.

The U.S. is cool to the Arias initiative. In fact, last August the Clinton administration lifted a ban on the sale of high-tech weapons to Latin America. Tenuous Latin democracies long plagued by hyperactive generals can buy sophisticated and astronomically expensive weapons, like the F-16, consuming resources desperately needed for education and health.

On the eve of Clinton's recent trip to a Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile, Arias and former President Jimmy Carter proposed a two-year moratorium on weapons sales to the region. They were rebuffed by Clinton.

The administration, lobbied hard by arms manufacturers, argues that if we don't sell these weapons, somebody else will. Arias retorts that this logic is not unlike Colombia contending that if they don't supply cocaine to North Americans, Bolivia will simply take over the business. The obvious solution, in both cases, is a universal moratorium.

At Santiago, Clinton spoke eloquently about the advancement of human development, democracy and free trade. But if we truly wish to promote the former, we need to restrict government-promoted trade in arms.

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