Credibility is a crucial component in the successful execution of American foreign policy. Yet around the globe today, whether it be Buenos Aires, Paris, or Tel Aviv, our image is characterized as "indecisive," "weak," or "without determination." Our credibility has been tarnished, affecting our ability to maintain our position as a world power. This is nowhere more evident than in our attempt to restrain the world's conventional arms race.
The facts reveal that the United States is and has been the largest arms merchant in the world; the latest figures show that the US holds 39 percent of the world market. This figure is growing. While the rest of the economy is crippled by poor economic conditions, the arms manfufacturing business is booming, and getting better. Worldwide arms exports are nearing $25 billion each year with an increase of $5 billion expected annually.
President Carter realized the dangers of conventional arms proliferation early on in his service as the nation's commander in chief. "The virtually unrestrained spread of conventional weaponry threatens stability in every region of the world," he said in May, 1977, as he announced a new arms restrain program.
At the heart of his policy were a number of control mechanisms designed to curb the transfer of sophisticated US weapons to developing nations including (1 ) setting ceilings on the dollar amount of transfers allowable each fiscal year, (2) refraining from introducing newly developed or adcanced weapons systems into a region, and (3) preventing development or significant modification of advanced weapons solely for export. Our friends and allies applauded the new policy as a major step toward a worldwide reduction of conventional arms. The Congress, for its part, endorsed the President's proposal and streamlined legislation to enable the Congress to monitor large sales.
The stated administration goal was to "set a unilateral example of arms restraint for other countries to follow," but this policy has been a dismal failure. The price ceilings for fiscal year 1978 and 1979 have been honored, but only by the statistical mismanagement of actual arms transfers. Twenty-five percent of all US sales were exempted from the price celing for technical reasons. Arms agreements signed after the announcement of the policy have included some of the most advanced systems in the US inventory (F-15s, F-16s, AWACs, TOWs). In short, as concluded by a General Accounting Office report issued a year ago, there has been "no credible reduction in sales."
Without a genuine policy signal from WAshington, our European allies have never been convinced that the US was serious about arms restraint. Most European officials simply do not believe the US practices what it preaches in the field of arms control, and the facts have proven them right. Led by France, Britain, and West Germany, European producers have dramatically increased their arms exports.
The climate created by the hostage-taking in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has devastated any skeletal remains of arms restraint that may have underway. In a key reversal, the Carter administration announced in February that it would allow the US aerospace industry to proceed with the long-delayed development of a new, lower-cost fighter plane, the F-X intended mainly for export. And in another department, then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that " in the absence of agreed international restraint, we do not plan to reduce further the ceiling on our arms transfers." Instead of taking the lead and encouraging other countries to join our efforts, he retreated to a reactive "them-first" approach.
The United States can improve its unilateral restraint policies and regain a position of leadership. By developing country-by-country arms sale criteria and sticking closely to the arms sale ceiling, real reductions can be achieved.
As the President has indicated, and history has proven conventional arms sales can be a source of regional instability, rather than the answer to the world's ills. The recent world crises, rather than making the case for pouring in more weapons to already unstable regions of the world, point to the desperate need for arms control. It would behoove our government to choose its policies carefully and adhere to them. The likely result would be an increase in our credibility abroad, and in our safety here at home.