THE Reagan White House's covert sale of arms to Iran illustrates the prominence today of arms sales as a Washington central foreign policy tool. Rejecting the Carter administration policy of restraint on arms exports, the Reagan team has plainly promoted arms sales as a way to win friends, increase stability, and counter Soviet influence in the third world. In practice the theory seldom works that neatly; there are often long-term disadvantages. In the case of Iran, arms sales apparently influenced the freeing of three American hostages. But in the process three more hostages were seized, explicit Reagan policies on neutrality and antiterrorism were violated, and several American laws may have been broken.
Over the years both superpowers have been deeply involved in the arms-for-influence game. Yet results are seldom long-lasting. Consider the ample supply of arms by the United States to Iran before the Shah's overthrow. The Soviet Union's payoffs have been similarly slim from arms shipped in past years to Egypt and from current sales to Iraq and Syria. Many countries reexport arms, making influence peddling that much tougher. The 1986 yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute flatly states that the Iran-Iraq war would have been stopped long ago if there had been a concerted effort to control the arms flowing into it.
Basic, troubling questions underlie such international arms maneuvering: Are nations any safer for the circulation of so many millions of weapons? Who really benefits? What of struggling third-world nations that buy three-fourths of the arms but need every penny for their own economic development?
Every nation has a right to protect itself. But, as with nuclear weapons, many countries have long since passed the point of need in stocking arms. Weapons buildups can often lead to more problems than they solve, increasing the potential for violence and destruction.
Though 1986 has been dubbed ``The International Year of Peace'' by the United Nations, more than 40 countries are officially at war. The number of global armed conflicts, often internal, has been pegged at well over 100.
The easy availability of arms for sale has played a strong role in fueling such disputes. The global arms trade, particularly for manufacturers, is a highly profitable business:
Governments selling arms are paid $30 billion a year for the latest variations.
Military budgets of nations around the world now add up to well over $800 billion, an amount far exceeding the combined gross national product of the developing world.
The US, the Soviet Union, and Western Europe dominate the arms sale business. In the world market, the US has long been No. 1. It sells close to 40 percent of all government arms on the market. The preponderance go to the NATO allies, Australia, and Japan.
In the third world, the Soviet Union has been the chief single weapons supplier for most of the '80s. Western European nations have also increased their share of that market, meeting about one-third of the demand. In France, the per capita leader, arms exports are second only to wheat. And developing countries themselves, from North Korea to Brazil, have recently begun to produce and export arms.
At the moment one of the few controls on global arms sales is the tapering demand for weapons in the developing countries. As the Monitor's Peter Grier reports, the international arms trade is slower now than at any time since 1978. Some nations have full arsenals. Most face serious economic problems, partly as a result of the sharp drop in oil prices over the last year.
With more producers and fewer shoppers, the arms business has become a buyer's market. It is an apt moment to reassess the proper role of arms sales in foreign policy. As a practical matter, selling arms to any country has rarely improved stability or secured a friend. Beyond that, it is certainly in the common interest of all nations to invest their capital in projects with a more productive payoff. Indeed, the US should find that as developing nations improve economically and socially, the Soviet Union is less likely to find fertile soil for influence.
Mankind has long faced the choice between the plowshare and the sword. An increase in economic aid rather than arms sales should prove a more direct path to building friendship and stability.