Who Benefits from the International Arms Trade?

Oliver Ramsay Gray

The arms trade is big business, with global military spending last year totalling just over $1.5 trillion. Although the (legal) international arms market was only a fraction of this, at $83 billion, this still represents a significant market for potential profits. But who really benefits from the international arms trade, and what about the non-financial costs and benefits?

The clearest beneficiaries of the arms trade are, unsurprisingly, arms companies themselves; last year, the largest ten in the US and Europe had revenues of $203 billion (excluding non-military sales), the lion’s share of the international arms business. These international revenues, as David Cameron never fails to insist, contribute jobs and economic prosperity to the exporting country. For instance, the 1985 Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia has brought the UK $45 billion already and could bring in another $40 billion. However, the picture is not as simple as that. A shift in resources and demand over the long-term towards non-military economic sectors would likely bring about greater increases in standards of living. Although a challenging aim, this holds the greatest potential benefits to any exporter and can be seen in the past, for example when military spending fell by over 1% of global GDP in the years following the end of the Cold War. We must recognise that although the arms industry will always benefit from the international arms trade, the idea that the exporting nation inevitably benefits as well, as David Cameron persistently argues, is flawed in the long-term view.

Arms exports can also be used as a political tool, another means by which a state can strengthen strategic relations, bring others under its sphere of influence and project its power into other parts of the world. This is visible in Russia’s relationship with Syria, which has been tied up with the sale of missile defence systems and fighter jets – in part, a means to increase Syria’s dependency on Russia. Recent years in Syria serve to show how these exports have also helped Russia secure its strategic aims in the country by buttressing the Assad regime and so have worked as a type of limited intervention (though this was of course escalated last year). Clearly the exporter benefits in numerous ways here, as does the does the direct recipient, though the picture muddies when wider considerations are taken into account. Was Assad’s strengthening a “beneficial” development?

Arms sales are well known to increase the frequency and intensity of conflict. Even the legal international arms trade is closely tied up in this damaging situation and the costs of conflict are huge in both human and economic terms. This hurts not only those directly involved in conflict but has damaging knock-on impacts around the world. Although war might benefit its few victors politically, its costs are huge to everyone else involved. However, with the current international arms trade system the actions of one state can do little to affect the legal supply or demand for arms. Thus, in terms of the benefits to the exporter laid out above it makes sense for arms exporters to not take a unilaterally moral position. Of course, in the longer term, the benefit shifts towards a situation in which the supply of arms is restricted. However, this can only be achieved at a multi-state level rather than by one state taking it upon themselves.

We can see that it is overwhelmingly arms companies and, to a lesser extent, exporting states who benefit from the international arms trade. The situation is more complex when looking at recipients and considering the wider world. What does seem apparent, however, is that it would be counter to an individual state’s interests to clamp down on its own arms exports unilaterally when, without multi-state agreement, the benefits would shift to other exporters while the damaging impacts of supplying arms remain.

Syrian peace talks suspended

Hubert Cruz

The Syrian peace talks mediated by the United Nations (UN) have been suspended just two days after its commencement. UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who is responsible for channelling negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition forces, admitted that more work has to be done by all sides before the peace talks reconvene on 25 February.


The breakdown of the peace talks was catalysed by the Syrian Army’s most recent military breakthrough, where they breached a three-year siege of two towns in the Aleppo province with the aid of Russian aerial bombardment. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) that represents opposition forces announced they will not be returning to the negotiating table unless there is a cessation of airstrikes and improvement of ground conditions.


Meanwhile Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that its airstrikes against terrorists would continue. Nevertheless, the United States argues that only 10% of Russian bombing has targeted Daesh, with the vast majority striking opposition groups instead. Local human rights organisations and opposition forces also report that Russian airstrikes have extended into civilian areas in the past few days, where refugee camps in the west of the country are being targeted.


What is the way forward for the Syrian peace process? What could the international community do to support the millions who are threatened by airstrikes, starvation and military siege in Syria? Whatever your view, send it in - via Twitter, Facebook or our website. Check out the news articles below to find out more about the issue:


The Guardian – UN suspends Syria peace talks until end of February

Al Jazeera – Syria peace talks plunged into new crisis

The New York Time – Syrian Peace Talks Are Suspended

Crimea: Settlement and the problem with historical context in questions of sovereignty

One of the most frequent issues arising from questions of sovereignty is that of historical context vis-a-vis self-determination. When Woodrow Wilson put forward his Fourteen Points at the deliberations in 1918, his support for self-determination (if not consistently applied personally) appeared to many to be a powerful and decisive recognition of the ideal of the nation as ‘sovereign state', as fought for in 19th century literature and revolutions. The idea that a people, united by a common culture, language, or custom, should be able to govern themselves, is an important expression of liberty and its ideal. Stability is of course important, but the freedom of decision making, of self governance, is the very reason for stability in the first place — not the other way around.

What I argue is that the notion of self-determination has been applied inconsistently. Rather than respect the will of a people, commentators and governments often decline to accept self-determination when it conflicts with their own political pragmatic ends, even though this constitutes an inconsistent application of their own ideals.

Take Crimea, for example. Putin’s paramilitary sponsored invasion of Crimea can be seen as a gross violation of international law and a terrifying expression of thuggish, expansionist tendencies reminiscent of the 1930s. Amidst all the condemnation of Putin’s actions, and bewildering support of maverick sympathizers, what was lost was self-determination. Obama said in a 2014 press conference that the “United States supports [the Prime Minister of Ukraine’s] government’s efforts and stands for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic future of Ukraine.” The issue of ‘territorial integrity’ if referring to safety from invasion is absolutely essential. Yet the ambiguity of the term ‘territorial integrity’ is reflective of popular attitudes towards the Ukraine and Crimea – that’s to say that this is black and white: either you sympathize with Russian annexation, or you support Crimea being a part of Ukraine in absolution regardless of consequences. Given controlled and comfortable conditions, it seems right to say that the people of Crimea should be allowed to have a democratic, monitored plebiscite on their sovereignty.

Of course the difficulty with a plebiscite is that status-quo in Crimea has been severely challenged and altered – people have left, fears have been raised, and others have migrated to the region. Principally, fears of Russian intervention or pressure from other powers would undoubtedly affect the outcome of any democratic vote. In that sense, perhaps any democratic vote on Crimean sovereignty, whether to be Ukrainian or Russian, is a flawed venture. With the passing of time perhaps a vote is more conceivable, but equally integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation may simply increase Russification in the region.

Alternatively, perhaps Crimea can serve as an important historical example – a warning of the dangers of rejecting tensions of sovereignty and regional identity, if we take it that that Crimean uncertainty over being part of Ukraine is a factor prior to Euromaidan. The 'possibility' of Crimeans feeling like they should be part of Russia rather Ukraine should be acknowledged and treated seriously, rather than written off as a far-fetched oddity. People all too often forget that Crimea was part of the Russian SFSR until 1954, but also that the Crimea was up to 50% ethnically Tartar in the 1920s – until Stalin’s policy of forced-deportation and violence decimated the population. Foreign policy should not be about suiting the interests of a particular nation, but should serve to peacefully and democratically enable the freedoms of groups of people – particularly when it comes to questions of self-determination.

Nation-building in Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union

Occupied by Mongol and Russian Empires and forming part of the USSR, the question of independent Kazakh identity has always been fraught with complications. Soviet repression in the 1920s and 30s, resulting in crises of starvation, mass emigration, and purges of the Kazakh intelligentsia, led to a 38% decline in the population of Kazakhstan. Described in J. Melich's article on nation-building and cultural policy in Kazakhstan as Stalin's personal "dumping ground for ethnic groups whose loyalties were in doubt", in the 1930s and 40s millions of Russian political prisoners and "alien" ethnic groups were exiled to Kazakhstan. 

Decades of war, famine, and Russian resettlements took their toll. By the 1960s, the native Kazakhs were an ethnic minority on their own soil, comprising just 30% of the population. Ethnic dominance became mirrored in linguistic dominance, and, even today, Russian is the dominant language of Kazakhstan. 

Twenty five years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the country's Communist-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is still in power. Severely criticised for his authoritarian style of leadership by Human Rights Watch, Nazarbayev has also been implicated in numerous human rights scandals, most notably his harsh suppression of political opposition. 

In the country's 2004 elections, opposition parties which were officially permitted to participate in the elections won just one seat. Subsequent victories in 2005, 2011, and 2015, saw Nazarbayev attain landslide victories of 90%, 96%, and 98%. Nevertheless, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe declared that the Kazakhstani elections fell short of international standards. While standards of living for ordinary Kazakhs continue to worsen, according to The Guardian, Nazarbayev has "amassed a fortune, making him one of the richest men in the world".  

The government's attempts to legitimise itself and its present power are implicit in the attempts to both reconnect with its traditional past and look to future in creating a modern vision of Kazakhstan. The government's concern with establishing a sense of Kazakh heritage is reflected in the rise in the number of national museums from 87 to 224 in the years 1995-2013. As an institution promoting patriotism and heritage, the inauguration of national museums in Kazakhstan within the context of nation-building is hardly surprising. 

Another manifestation of this nation-building is the country's young capital, Astana. Awash with futuristic architecture, Astana, meaning “capital” in Kazakh, certainly gives the sense of a purpose built capital. Naming the capital after Nazarbayev himself, the most popular alternative after "Astana", reflects the President's centrality in this creation of a national brand. 

The Bayterek monument and observation tower in Astana is one of the most spectacular expressions of this nation-building. 105m in height, enormous white girders branch out like arms of a tree to support a 22m wide golden sphere. The structure symbolises the ancient Kazakh folktale of a mythical tree of life in which a magical bird lays an egg containing the secrets of happiness. An observation deck inside the golden "egg" offers a panorama of Astana's skyline, dominated by President Nazarbayev's sumptuous presidential palace. After soaking up the view, visitors are invited to place their palms in a gilded hand print of Nazarbayev and make a wish. 

Another example of Astana's cutting-edge architecture is the Khan Shatyr shopping centre. Alongside its own flume ride and a 500m long monorail, the centre also boats of an artificial beach, complete with sand straight from the Maldives. The centre's yurt-like silhouette can be seen, like the Bayterek monument, as part of the deliberate fusion of neo-futurist innovation and ancient Kazakh tradition that is key to the national "image" sculpted, from above, by the Kazakh government. 

You need only drive a few kilometres out of the city, before the utopian skyscrapers and shiny glass structures come metaphorically crashing and crumbling down and you are confronted with the crushingly flat, undeveloped, expanse that characterizes most of Kazakhstan's remaining landscape. 

With such disparity between city and provincial life and between standards of living for ordinary citizens versus government leaders, the question arises of to what extent Kazakhstan's top-down nation building is in fact based around the needs, desires, and traditions of the Kazakhstani people.  

Increased Middle East Intervention

In the past week Western nations have ramped up the intensity of their attacks on Da'esh, with France increasing its air strikes and David Cameron pledging to also strike Da'esh positions in Syria. Meanwhile, further gains have been made by resurgent Assad regime forces, backed by Russian air strikes.

Is the Western response the right move at this time - and is it strategically motivated, or an emotional response to the recent terror attacks? Will closer intervention in Syria lead to co-operation with Assad, or further tensions with his sponsors in Russia? Whatever your view, send it in - via Twitter, Facebook or our website. The contributors best insights will be invited to explore their views further for our journal Sir!