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  • Writer's pictureJames Christensen

­­­­­­­­­­­Selling Weapons the Nice Way?

Throughout the Yemeni Civil War, Saudi Arabia has been supplied with arms by a number of democratic states, including Britain, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the US. While a number of these states have now ceased supplying weapons, others – including Britain, Canada, France, and Italy – have continued.

Given that the UN has condemned Saudi military operations in the conflict as indiscriminate and disproportionate, these arms transfers are both morally and legally questionable. Indeed, the legality of British sales is being challenged in the High Court by Campaign Against Arms Trade.

Politicians have offered various defences of arming the Saudis, one of which I shall briefly consider here. In 2016, Boris Johnson – then serving as Britain’s foreign secretary – claimed that if Britain were to terminate arms transfers it “would at a stroke eliminate [its] positive ability to exercise [its] moderating, diplomatic and political influence.” In a similar vein, Jeremy Hunt later claimed that halting transfers would be to “surrender our influence”, which, he suggested, would be “morally bankrupt”. Johnson added that by ceasing transfers Britain “would be vacating a space that would rapidly be filled” by other states with “less respect for humanitarian law.”

The argument being made seems to be that the British are exchanging weapons for influence, and using the influence obtained to encourage Saudi compliance with humanitarian law. Moreover, they are using their influence more benignly than alternative suppliers would use any extra influence that they could gain if Britain were not on the scene. Because it provides weapons, Britain is able to station personnel with the Saudi military, and these personnel can supervise Saudi operations. In the words of government officials, British personnel are able to “lobby” the Saudis “on priority issues” and to “help support Saudi compliance with International Humanitarian Law”.

The argument being made seems to be that the British are exchanging weapons for influence, and using the influence obtained to encourage Saudi compliance with humanitarian law.

The idea, then, is that Britain is acting permissibly because it is substituting itself for other, less scrupulous, suppliers, and thereby mitigating the amount of unjust harm that the Saudis can be expected to inflict. Elsewhere, I have referred to this kind of argument as a “substitution argument”, and to the practice being defended as a form of “substitution intervention”.

While the quotes given above come from British politicians and were made specifically in relation to arming Saudi Arabia during the Yemeni Civil War, the general argument could potentially be invoked by a variety of different states in a variety of different contexts. Moreover, while an official has stated that British personnel in Yemen “are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process”, we can imagine other cases of substitution intervention in which participants do use sales to acquire some degree of influence over targeting decisions. There is no reason to think that the substitution argument could not be extended to cover cases of this kind. Whether the argument could be successful, in any particular context, is, of course, a different matter.

One difficulty that should be flagged straightaway is that politicians invoking the substitution argument will encounter certain epistemic deficits. In many cases, there will be a number of states that could potentially step in to make sales (or expand the sales that they are already making) if another drops out of the market, and politicians will struggle to determine with any confidence which of these states would in fact step in as an alternative supplier. This information deficit has moral implications. If exporters had full information, then, in order to satisfy the normative criteria embodied in the substitution argument, they would have to ensure only that the influence they acquire is used marginally more benignly than influence would otherwise be used by the actual alternative supplier. But since politicians will not possess full information, and since there will often be several potential alternative suppliers – each of which could be expected to use its influence with varying levels of benevolence – satisfying the relevant criteria will be less straightforward. When there are several potential alternative suppliers, and there is a small chance that some very benevolent state would be the one to actually step in, the amount of good that that state might use its influence to achieve would have to be taken into account by politicians in other states when deciding whether or not to sell (though it may be permissible to discount for probability). If politicians in one state intend to use their influence to achieve a level of good that is smaller than the (probability-discounted) level of good that another state might use its influence to achieve, the substitution argument will not support the former’s decision to sell.

Another consideration that must be borne in mind when assessing applications of the substitution argument concerns the effect that arming aggressive regimes may have on international norms. Arms sales could perhaps secure some influence over the recipient, and that influence could perhaps be used to reduce the amount of unjust harm that the recipient inflicts, but arms sales might do more harm in the long run by undermining the establishment and maintenance of a general norm against arming aggressive regimes. Such a norm could be firmly established only if it were consistently and clearly respected by powerful and influential states. When states fail to demonstrate such respect, the moral losses associated with that failure must be deducted from any gains that might be won by exchanging weapons for influence.

[W]hile sales might secure influence, they can also have important moral opportunity costs.

A further point to consider is that while sales might secure influence, they can also have important moral opportunity costs. One example of such costs comes into view once we recognize that arms exporters are not always engaged in discrete activities unrelated to those of their counterparts. The sales of one exporter often complement those of another. For example, among Britain’s exports to the Saudis is the Eurofighter Typhoon, a jet manufactured by a consortium of British, German, Italian, and Spanish companies. When Germany announced that it would sell no more weapons to the Saudis, British politicians complained that the moratorium would prevent BAE Systems (the British partner in the Eurofighter consortium) from fulfilling its contracts with Riyadh. What this reveals is that by terminating their arms exports, states can sometimes disrupt the potentially harmful arms trading practices of other governments. When a state continues to make sales, and thereby declines to engage in such disruption, it squanders opportunities that, in certain cases, could be morally more valuable than any influence that sales can secure.

It is worth pausing to reflect on this point. Globalization is often associated with a neutering of the state. Global commerce is thought to endow capital with the agility to outmanoeuvre the political forces that had traditionally been relied upon to keep it in check. But the foregoing observations suggest that the internationalization of production also renders the operations of certain arms firms – already inordinately dependent upon their respective governments – vulnerable. Policies introduced by one state can have significant effects on firms beyond their jurisdiction. This appears to be one way in which globalization actually magnifies the state’s power and enables governments to pull the rug from beneath some of the more malign manifestations of the international political economy.

In short, the case for exchanging arms for influence is more difficult to make than might sometimes be presumed. In order to stand any chance of being vindicated, such an exchange must produce benefits that are large enough to outweigh the various moral costs – including moral opportunity costs – that the exchange will also entail.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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