The arms merchants

Is the growing export of arms around the world becoming an irreversible trend? It would appear so from the leap in the sale of military weapons in the past few years. Unless public conscience can be aroused, the world promises to become increasingly militarized. Global arms budgets now run more than $500 billion a year. The figure is hard to grasp; a United Nations study says it about equals the gross national product of all the developing countries combined.

Not surprisingly, the United States leads the way in arms exports. Former president Jimmy Carter sought to put restraints on sales, if only with limited success. President Reagan, however, regards arms sales as a central tool of foreign policy. According to Andrew Pierre in his new book ''The Global Politics of Arms Sales,'' Mr. Reagan offered to supply some $15 billion in weapons and military aid to other nations in the first three months of office.

But the US is not alone. The Soviet Union uses arms sales even more pointedly as an instrument of diplomacy and is catching up with the US in sales and deliveries. Unlike earlier years, Moscow's military sales today far outstrip its foreign economic assistance in value. The West Europeans, notably Britain and France, are also becoming large exporters of weapons. So are the smaller industrial nations like Brazil, South Africa, Israel, and India. Global arms sales have risen from about $9 billion in 1969 to over $20 billion in 1980 in constant dollars.

Why this mania for selling arms, a development on the face of it so excessive?

In theory, pursuing a policy of restraint sounds simple and logical. But there are political, economic, and diplomatic factors driving such exports which need to be understood. The NATO allies, for instance, which have been pressured to bolster their defenses and are heavily dependent on oil imports, seek to recover some of their costs by exporting arms. The United States, unable to find other ways to promote its goals, has used arms to demonstrate its commitment to such countries as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan. Mr. Carter, for example, in effect ''bought'' the Camp David peace accords, providing billions in military aid to Israel, Egypt, and others once the agreement was signed. Also, for the US, arms transfers have become a major means of countering Soviet penetration in third-world countries. The Russians, meanwhile, sell arms both to establish a Soviet presence in third-world countries and to earn hard currency to keep their five-year plans going.

''Arms sales are foreign policy writ large,'' comments Mr. Pierre, ''they have become the common coin of contemporary world politics.''

The question to be asked is whether the short-range advantages of arms sales outweigh the long-range disadvantages. To begin with, the US has learned from experience that largesse in guns does not guarantee political stability, or make permanent friends. Iran is a prime example. Pouring arms into troubled corners of the world -- and this is usually where most of the arms go -- tends to heighten the potential for conflict and to assure that, if war comes, it will be increasingly devastating.

What should also concern policymakers and public, however, is the negative impact of arms sales on the economy of the poor countries. It is obvious that a dollar of foreign exchange spent on defense is that much less spent on economic development. Arms imports use up loans that could be financed to purchase capital goods, divert skilled labor and other scarce resources to the military sector, and reduce civilian investment and productivity. Studies show that the nations which register the best economic growth devote least to their military.

Allowing the arms trend to continue unchecked seems utter folly. In the interests of global stability and economic progress, the United States and its allies should be seeking ways of bringing about restraint. As suggested by Mr. Pierre, regulating arms sales with the West European suppliers -- by, say, a market-sharing approach -- would help eliminate wasteful political and economic competition. It would certainly make the world a safer place. True security of the third-world nations lies in removing those dismal social and economic conditions and political conflicts on which the Soviet Union preys -- not in piling up more and more guns.

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