GOOD news: Sales of weapons to the war-ravaged developing world plunged dramatically last year. The Big Five supplier nations - the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and China - sold 44 percent less in 1991 than in 1990, down from $41.6 billion to $24.7 billion. This decline offers the best opportunity in years to bring the lethal arms trade under control.
The bad news, however, is that even this diminished market is more than enough to wreak immense and unspeakable suffering on cities and villages from Bosnia to Burma. As the specter of sudden death by nuclear blast has retreated from the northern industrialized world, the threat of slow death by bleeding wounds has engulfed the South. The legal and illicit international commerce in weapons large and small facilitates the slaughter of multitudes whose only error is being in harm's way. Whole societies suf fer in the form of shattered communities and opportunities lost when scarce resources are squandered on wasteful weapons.
The downward trend in global arms sales is the result of several factors - a slowing of the superpower arms race with the demise of the cold war; the dissolution of the Soviet Union, formerly the world's largest arms supplier; the United Nations arms embargo against Iraq, which had long been a major buyer; and a worldwide economic recession that has hit the developing world hardest, leaving little to spare for guns.
But while the general trend has been decidedly downward, the US market share has risen dramatically since the end of the cold war. Seizing the sales opportunity opened by the collapse of its chief competitor, the US arms industry, aggressively assisted by the Pentagon and Departments of State and Commerce, roared past the Soviets in 1990 to earn the dubious distinction of being the world's leading arms dealer.
This year, the US market share rose from 40 percent to 57 percent, nearly three times more than its nearest rival. While France's sales dropped 87 percent (to $400 million), China's 86 percent (to $300 million), and the Soviet Union's 55 percent (to $5 billion), US sales dropped a modest 22 percent, from a record $18.2 billion to $14.2 billion.
Fearing further unemployment in an already depressed economy, the Bush administration is eager to exploit its competitive advantage in one of the last major technologies in which US industry still excels. In the wake of the Gulf war, the world clamors for American arms while Slovak tanks go begging for $50,000.
But this is a dangerous game to play. In weapons as in computers, cars, and steel before them, the American advantage may well prove ephemeral. The very technologies that have fueled the postwar resurgence of Japan and Germany are the precision electronics that will form the brains of tomorrow's brilliant bombs. Only a fragile and diminishing postwar taboo against massive overt participation in the arms trade constrains these two nations from plunging in - and challenging current US dominance.
MOREOVER, the third world itself is rapidly developing its own arms-production capacity. Brazil, China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and other newly industrialized nations form a second tier of arms suppliers eager to provide the necessities of war to every ethnic faction at a deep discount with clones developed in part through lax licensing agreements with the Big Five.
Russia and the rest of the former Soviet bloc also retain a vast arms-production capability. Desperate for hard currency, all will be tempted to sell weapons at prices any warlord would be willing to pay. Former Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel was forced to rescind a decision to reduce his nation's traditionally high volume of arms sales in response to fierce protests from Slovaks affected by the cutbacks. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has made no secret of his plan to seek $15 billion to $20 billi on in Russian arms sales in 1992 alone.
In short, the good news could soon turn bad if we don't capitalize now on the positive momentum. Negotiations among the Big Five arms suppliers initiated after the Gulf war have thus far produced little other than vague rhetorical promises that cleverly avoid committing the parties to any real restraint.
Agreements are needed to ban sales of major weapons systems by all nations to exceptionally volatile areas like the Middle East and to prohibit commerce in egregiously destructive, inhumane, or offensively-oriented weapons (e.g., napalm, cluster bombs, deep-strike aircraft, ballistic missiles, and battle tanks).
Also, the economic incentives driving the arms trade need to be eliminated. In the absence of alternative products and employment, politicians and arms producers will continue to oppose efforts to foreclose any potential markets. Converting excess-arms production capacity to civilian uses has become a global imperative. A tax on all international arms sales could, among other things, support a global conversion fund to assist all military-dependent nations in weaning their economies from excessive arms p roduction.
In each of these measures, the US is best situated to make the decisive difference. As the dominant player in the global arms bazaar, it can decide to redirect its immense productive capacity and utilize its vast political influence to lead the world both in converting the arms industry and restraining the arms trade.
Unfortunately, nothing in current Bush administration policy indicates that this opportunity will be exploited. Only by breaking our arms-sales addiction once and for all can we hope to recover our own economic well-being - and in the process, to relieve the sufferings of those at the wrong end of the guns sold by the world's arms peddlers.