For all of the recent noise in the United States about gun control, one glaring issue has been notoriously absent: the United States’ position as the central player in the global arms trade. The United States government pursues a joint politico-economic strategy in both facilitating and actually funding the sale of American-made weapons around the world. Domestic defense contractors, specifically the executives of these companies, reap profits from subsidized sales to foreign militaries. At the same time “friendly regimes” around the world are bolstered by easy access to products ranging from tear gas and rubber bullets to attack helicopters. To put the scope of our concerns quickly into perspective, simply consider the fact that the defense industry is the United States’ largest net exporter, and accounts for over 40% of total arms sales globally.

In 2012 the United States dispersed roughly $17.8 billion in foreign military aid, ranging from training programs to arms transfers to “tied” aid, which gives the receiving country cash on the condition that it only be used to purchase arms from U.S. companies. According to the State Department, “foreign military financing promotes U.S. national security by contributing to regional and global stability, strengthening military support for democratically-elected governments, and containing trans-national threats including terrorism and trafficking in narcotics, weapons, and persons.” But why do democratically-elected governments need military support? Aren’t they ostensibly supposed to have the support of their own people? Here’s a list of the top ten recipients of U.S. military aid from 2010:


$U.S. millions





















Notice a bit of a democratic deficit? Afghanistan is an oligarchic kleptocracy and the third most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International. Israel is often erroneously celebrated as a “Middle Eastern liberal democracy” despite its 60 year occupation of Palestine, frequent discrimination against minority groups within the state of Israel itself, and constant and flagrant abuses of human decency in the Occupied Territories. This dataset shows military aid to Egypt before the revolution – ostensibly to support the widely popular, ever reliable Mubarak government in its battle against domestic dissidents. Even now our foreign aid goes to prop up the military and security apparatus of an Egyptian government that tortures protestors, incites mass murder, and has to retake its own cities from protesting citizens. It would perhaps be too tedious, or too obvious, to continue detailing the depth of the American government’s commitment to democracy and human rights abroad.

Does U.S. military aid and training contribute to internal security and repression in authoritarian regimes? Yes:

“During the Cold War, the global struggle against the Soviet Union led the United States to provide internal security assistance to numerous repressive regimes. However, this practice eventually triggered a domestic backlash, leading Congress to adopt Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974. It prohibited the United States from providing internal security assistance to foreign governments and specifically stated that the U.S. government could not “provide training or advice, or provide any financial support, for police, prisons, or other law enforcement forces for any foreign government or any program of internal intelligence or surveillance on behalf of any foreign government within the United States or abroad.”1 Despite the existence of Section 660, the United States has increasingly provided internal security assistance to repressive regimes in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.” (p. 161)

It should also be noted that in each and every recipient country listed above the military is frequently deployed to suppress domestic dissent and/or occupy resistant spaces. Even if Section 660 were legally enforceable, it would do virtually nothing to prevent the use of U.S. military aid on civilian populations and protestors.

A Palestinian boy is arrested by Israeli soldiers for throwing stones in protest against the settlement of Karmi Tsour in the occupied West Bank, in October of 2010. Israel received $2.8 billion in U.S. military aid in 2010 alone.

A Political Economy of Violence

The gap between the $31.6 billion in defense industry sales to foreign militaries and the $17.8 billion in dispersed military aid is made up, as you would expect, by taxes on the citizens of foreign nations. It goes without saying that our half of the contribution is paid out of the pockets of the American people. The defense industry manages not only to expropriate capital from the American majority, as it were, but also from working people all across the globe. We are expected to pay for the arms that make possible our continued subjugation.

Let’s not forget about the domestic utility of America’s military aid. American defense corporations, which make up 15 of the world’s 20 largest weapons manufacturers, are the explicit beneficiaries of “tied” military aid – which requires the recipient to purchase weapons from private manufacturers in the donor country. Of course, the most significant business in the defense industry comes from the U.S. empire itself – the Defense Department spent $104 billion on arms procurement in 2012 alone. American weapons contractors can count on the United States’ “global security” interests to provide a constant stream of subsidies from American taxpayers, which executives then disperse to lawmakers in the form of campaign contributions to keep the cash coming. Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign received over $1,100,000 in defense contractor contributions. Buck McKeon, the House Armed Services committee chairman, received around $566,000 in 2011 and 2012. Scott Brown, a leading member of the Senate Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, received $280,000 in 2011 and 2012 as well. These sums are actually quite small when compared to the industry’s roughly $300 billion dollars in annual sales, but of course, it’s an open secret in Washington that politicians are remarkably cheap.

Who’s reaping the benefits of the arms trade? The top executives at Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms dealer, brought in a total of $51,926,028 in compensation in 2011. Robert J. Stevens, Lockheed’s CEO, was paid $25,369,641 in that year alone. That’s over 790 times what one of Lockheed Martin’s plant assemblers can expect to make. Boeing, the world’s second largest defense company, paid its top fourteen executives $48,789,774 in 2011, with CEO W. James Mcnerney raking in $22,958,313. Can we say that these people have a crucial interest in perpetuating conflicts around the globe? Certainly. Do they directly profit from the arms and repressive instruments they sell to non-democratic governments? Absolutely.

And just what are we exporting around the world? Everything including tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, naval vessels, combat aircraft, helicopters, missiles, and of course, small arms, ammunition, riot control gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Our manufacturers provide anything and everything that authoritarian regimes desire. Globalized military-capitalism culminates in triumphant defense industry conferences (Eurosatory, IDEX, IMDEX, DefExpo, MSPO, SOFEX – need I go on?) where the world’s generals come to find and purchase the arms they need to cement their increasingly precarious position in domestic kleptocracies.

Focus: SOFEX and Jordan

For a specific example of how this works, let’s take a look at the Special Operations Forces Exhibition, an arms industry conference held in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. (SOFEX is appropriately located next to Marka, a Palestinian refugee camp.) Around 60% of the delegations at SOFEX in 2008 were from the Middle East and Africa, a region of the world renowned for its stable democracies, transparent politics, and permissive treatment of dissidents. The 2012 conference, held in the aftermath of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, saw a healthy increase in weapons purchases – it seems that the Arab Spring was good for the arms business.

Jordan is one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid, due to take in $300 million in 2013. [Note: With the last reported military expenditure figures of Jordan at around $1 billion annually, U.S. aid makes up almost a third of the nation’s military budget.] This aid is offered in exchange for Jordan’s cooperation in maintaining its peace treaty with Israel – effectively supporting the Israeli occupation – and assistance in the perpetual War on Terror, which largely consists in the monitoring and suppression of Palestinian groups in Jordan and abroad. It should be noted that much, if not almost certainly most, of the work of the country’s ubiquitous intelligence service is focused on monitoring domestic dissent. A 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service highlights the need for U.S. assistance to maintain “the stability of the Jordanian regime (particularly in light of ongoing political change and/or unrest in several other countries in the region).” That’s right: A U.S government report highlights the need to prevent and/or suppress Arab Spring inspired resistance in Jordan as a central aim of aid policy. The veneer of “supporting democracy” is nearly impossible to maintain, even in the sanitized corners of official discourse. Let’s make this very clear, despite the American infatuation with the Jordanian government, Jordan is nothing like a democracy.

SOFEX is a great example of the flexibility of the market when greed and power are at play. Weapons systems are more complicated and computerized than ever, which has given rise to modular systems. Essentially, states (and of course, cartels and other criminal organizations) can purchase the various parts that make up, say, an attack helicopter from different places – the helicopter itself from one company and weapons systems from another. This is how Jordan can claim that it doesn’t sell arms to Iran – the Iranian government can purchase a “civilian” plane from Jordan and upgrade it with military hardware from other sources. All buyers are equal – yes, even Syria, Iran, and North Korea – in the international arms trade, so long as they have the capital.

International conferences like SOFEX don’t have the limits that U.S. soldiers would probably place on weapons trading. In the same conference halls one finds the sales booth of Rosoboronexport, the main Russian state-controlled arms exporter, which recently sold attack helicopters and heavy weapons to the Assad regime in Syria. As the Pentagon’s intelligence officers are quite aware, Syrian weapons are going to end up being used to kill American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is essentially irrelevant to the companies doing the trucking and bartering at SOFEX – they don’t care whose soldiers and civilians are getting murdered so long as there’s a steady profit involved. It’s all just business. But there’s a vanishing line between business and state repression.

Norinco, a Chinese arms manufacturer, classifies its weapons in the nebulous “Anti-Riot and Counterterrorism” category, which is one of the essential features of arms trade marketing. The lexicon of the War on Terror has been co-opted by regimes across the world, not to focus on terrorism itself, which has no potential to pose an existential threat to these states, but to provide a means of labeling domestic dissent and resistance as “terrorism.” Syrian government news reports refer to the Free Syrian Army as “terrorists.” The Bahraini monarchy used Western PR firms to manufacture rumors of Iranian involvement in that nation’s popular non-violent opposition movement. Of course, these categories make it easier for U.S. and NATO policymakers to sanction the naked violation of human freedoms in U.S.-friendly regimes across the globe, which we witnessed clearly in the Obama administration’s decision to allow Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council forces to invade Bahrain, impose martial law, and kill and torture protestors.

There is no longer any line between the military and militarized internal security. U.S. military aid has come to play a crucial role in state violence against civilians. [Note: The central function of the armed forces in most places and times has been domestic control.] This is how Egyptian revolutionaries end up on the receiving end of tear gas canisters boldly emblazoned with “MADE IN U.S.A.” (They’re still being shipped to the regime, of course, but this time the State Department decided to at least pretend it wasn’t happening.) But ours is an era of global unrest. They’re shooting the same canisters at us as well.

This is the real irony of conferences like SOFEX: Despite all of the fetishistic focus on heavy weaponry, interstate conflict has become more infrequent in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and increasingly irrelevant to the international power structure. Recent history shows that these weapons are being purchased for use against each militarized regime’s own people. That is, of course, when these weapons are not being expended on various civilian populations in the global perpetuation of American empire under the guise of a never-to-end War on Terror. Flashy presentation and the slick marketing language of 21st century firms belies the fact that these “systems” are designed for their “users” to kill people – preferably within national borders where “spillover” effects can be limited by no-fly zones and the occasional airstrike.

A Syrian man walks through the ruined streets of Aleppo after a missile attack, February 22nd of 2013. The Syrian government uses Russian-made Scuds and other missiles to attack civilian areas that are most likely purchased through Rosoboronexport.

The link between foreign aid, taxation, and the global arms trade has two logical purposes: First, to serve as a means of negative wealth redistribution from the general population all over the world to the executives of weapons manufacturers. Second, to provide a convenient means of allowing the U.S. to support non-democratic regimes, which are perceived by elites to behave in accordance with “U.S. interests” – interests that are quite literally only the interests of those elites. This second purpose allows the global dissemination of weapons as tools of repression in the hands of state authorities, the purpose of which is plainly to counter ever increasing popular unrest. This structure is deeply ingrained in our systems of state, finance, and industry, which are now becoming scarcely distinguishable.

Opposing this global military-financial network requires questioning the very authority and place of state violence within the framework of the nation-state. We now live in an era where the very term “defense” – or, in the prevailing context, “global security” – refers to the ability of the world’s elites to defend the existing political and economic order against the majority of the world’s population, whom it nakedly exploits. Tear gas and bullets are fungible – they are equally useful in dispersing anti-war protestors in the United States as they are in dispersing revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Jordan, Bangladesh, and so on and so forth. The industry and logic of war, which feeds on a pathology of insecurity, is deployed against the very people whose labor makes the continuation of global war possible. This is the logic of the global arms trade – the rest of us produce the capital necessary to manufacture and purchase the panoply of violence, which is then turned against us, all while the world’s elites redistribute the profits to themselves through the machinery of the military-financial complex. This is one of the most violent and inhuman frauds ever conceived in the history of our planet.


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