Do as I Say, Not as I Do

It's hard to tell France not to sell warships to Russia when the United States is also placing profit over policy.

Sometimes a ship is more than just a ship. The diplomatic two-step between Washington and Paris over France's planned delivery of amphibious warship frames to the Russian military continued on June 5, as French President François Hollande dined with U.S. President Barack Obama in Paris -- two hours before Hollande held a separate dinner for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, the Obama administration has been aggressively urging Paris to suspend the sale, as it would provide the Russian military with new capabilities. On June 6, however, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed that the sale of Mistral-class warships to Russia would happen. "They represent many jobs," he said.

In some ways, this dance looks similar to past transatlantic debates on transfers of war materials to troubling destinations. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has struggled to persuade European countries to curb arms transfers to countries of concern such as China, Iran, and Libya. Typically, the United States urges its European allies to prioritize global security concerns over supporting its domestic arms industry. And in the past, the U.S. government has succeeded in helping stem European exports to countries such as China, Iran, and Libya -- because the United States practices what it preaches.

But America's responsibility and the leverage it provides, however, appear to be evaporating. As part of the Export Control Reform Initiative, a 2010 initiative aimed at increasing the competitiveness of the U.S. defense industry abroad, the Obama administration has been gutting critical national controls on many types of arms exports. The initiative, implemented in October 2013, means that the administration will now weigh U.S. economic considerations in its decisions to export weapons of war -- just like France is doing with Russia. In April, the White House updated the initiative to include 14 out of 21 categories of weapons. "While we do not approve transfers strictly based on the health of the U.S. industrial base," said Gregory Kausner, deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security and security assistance, said on April 23, "we would be foolish not to consider its impact."

That statement may sound innocuous, but the effect is significant. Contrast it to what the then State Department senior advisor for arms control and international security, John Holum, said in 2000: "If there is a security reason not to export a munitions item, it will not be done whether or not there is an economic consideration in favor of it." Holum also supported a notion that appears anathema to the Obama administration: Exports of low-tech military items should also require U.S. government authorization before export as they can have a dangerous effect on less-advanced countries and regions. These controls also helped safeguard U.S. foreign-policy interests around the world, as the U.S. government can view and influence the bulk of U.S. arms exports.

Under the Export Control Reform Initiative, however, the State Department will now only strictly control arms that provide the U.S. military with a critical advantage, such as target drones and stealth technology. Tens of thousands of high- and low-tech war materials such as unarmed Black Hawk helicopters and radiation-hardened microchips, which are critical components in the operation of missiles and satellite systems, now fall under the Commerce Department's export controls. According to the White House, approximately 90 percent of the military vehicle-related items the State Department approved for export in 2009 would now be under Commerce Department control. (It's unclear how much this affects defense contractors' bottom line.) In doing so, the United States is devaluing the many export controls the U.S. government has adamantly urged other countries to adopt and is making it easier for U.S. and foreign arms to reach countries under U.S. and U.N. Security Council arms embargoes.

The administration has also created a new, narrow definition of "specially designed" in U.S. law. This definition -- which appears to contradict the U.S. federal judiciary's interpretation and the U.S. government's long-held position in several multilateral agreements on arms control and nonproliferation -- will allow companies to avoid export controls by deliberately designing items that can be used with controlled and uncontrolled items. In other words, if a company develops cockpit indicators for fighter jets with a secondary use in civilian planes, the indicators would likely no longer be subject to U.S. export controls.

Although the Obama administration has recently restricted arms exports to Russia, this new definition of "specially designed" allows companies to export many types of sophisticated military equipment to the Russian military without U.S. government review. Some of this equipment includes items used in radars, surveillance systems, and weapons guidance systems; the Russian military has already sought similar items through illicit means in the United States. If it were the United States and not France selling the warship frames to Russia, they could fall outside the scope of U.S. arms export controls -- as they are reportedly based on civilian merchant ship hulls with no armaments.

As governments around the world review the administration's loosening of arms export controls, many will weaken their own controls to better compete with the United States. Canada has already lowered some of its arms export control regulations and policies. And like France, countries may also start to claim that sales of arms with civilian uses should now be more weakly controlled. Foreign governments may also be less influenced by U.S. government pressure to curb arms transfers to countries such as Russia and China, now that U.S. companies can export many sophisticated U.S. military items to these countries.

To stem this dangerous threat to global security and U.S. foreign-policy interests, the U.S. Congress should heed some of Holum's advice. Requiring U.S. companies to obtain U.S. government approval before exporting military-related items or services to countries or institutions under U.S. arms embargoes would help curb U.S. arms transfers to these entities. The U.S. Congress should also evaluate the risks to U.S. and global nonproliferation and enforcement efforts arising from the deregulation of U.S. export controls on military technology and war materials.

Without effective controls added to U.S. arms exports, the U.S. government will continue to lose its leverage to encourage European and other countries around the world to stem problematic arms exports and proliferation to countries such as Belarus, China, Russia, and Somalia. If things continue down this path, the Obama administration may one day be blamed as the administration that helped weaken many arms export controls around the world and caused the resulting dramatic increase in arms proliferation.

Photo by YEVGENY ASMOLOV/AFP/Getty Images


What Can Obama's $1 Billion Investment in European Security Actually Buy?

Is just a drop in the bucket or a real commitment to stem threats from Russia?

President Barack Obama has announced that he will ask Congress for $1 billion in funding to reassure U.S. allies in Europe who are shaken by Russia's recent aggression against Ukraine. Coupled with the president's speech in Warsaw, the $1 billion package is clearly intended to send a resounding signal that the United States takes the new Russian threat seriously and will not neglect its European allies for national security interests elsewhere in the world.

On the surface, $1 billion is an eye-catching sum, but measured in terms of overall U.S. defense spending, it is a mere drop in the bucket. How much will this $1 billion actually buy? Is it worth it? Will it make a difference in the long run?

When events in Ukraine took a turn for the worse back in February and March, NATO responded by deploying fighter aircraft and airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) to Eastern European allies. NATO ships steamed into the Black Sea and later toward the Baltics. The United States deployed a battalion of airborne rangers across Poland and the Baltic states.

Eastern allies exposed to Russian revanchism welcomed these reassurance measures. But the truth was that they were largely temporary, done for effect and symbolism, and did little to resolve the deeper problems that have sprung up in European security since Russia's annexation of Crimea. 

Many factors limited the initial U.S. response. To begin with, some NATO allies doubt that the security environment in Europe has changed fundamentally and worry that NATO deployments might provoke Russia. No less important, the appropriate military response to the threat posed by Russia's sophisticated, unconventional strategy in Ukraine is elusive.

Above all, questions about U.S. resolve in Europe and have fed some allied concerns. In a speech in Brussels in March, President Obama affirmed the U.S. commitment to the security of its European allies, but doubts have lingered that the United States is ready and able to pony-up for European defense against a new, complicated threat from Moscow. At current funding levels, the United States would be hard pressed to maintain even the reassurance measures it has in place through the end of 2015.

If approved by Congress, the $1 billion in funding would be a huge step in the right direction. It would allow the United States to expand existing commitments enormously and keep them up and running much longer. 

The graphic below shows what $1 billion actually buys in terms of troops, ships, and aircraft. It is not a paltry sum. Three notional packages -- and what they would cost on an annual basis -- are depicted.

As the graphic shows, $1 billion dollars won't fund new permanent bases in Europe, but it would allow for significant, persistent rotations of air, ground, and naval forces through the continent, and offer lots of leeway for additional robust military exercises.

(Data derived from: Lostumbo et al., Overseas Basing of U.S. Military Forces. RAND, 2013.)

The challenge posed by Russian revanchism will not be resolved by military means alone. It will require a sustained U.S. re-engagement with Europe that lasts far beyond the current crisis over Ukraine. That re-engagement needs to have political and military dimensions, and must be backed by parallel steps to engage and deter Russia simultaneously. Military measures, moreover, cannot be undertaken by the United States only. 

Nevertheless, if the attention to the challenge posed by Russia dwindles as the immediate crisis in Ukraine fades out of the headlines, the problem will only get worse and more costly. A $1 billion investment will not solve the problem itself, but it's an important step in the right direction.