THE United States has clearly become the preeminent arms dealer of the post-cold-war world.
According to new figures from the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the US share of the globe's arms exports increased from 19.3 percent in 1981 to 37.8 percent in 1991. With the arms-sales infrastructure of the old Soviet Union now collapsed, that makes the US the major weapons supplier in the world today, by far.
Between 1987 and 1991, the US dealt $59 billion in weaponry, with about 60 percent of that shipped to developing countries.
But being the No. 1 arms seller in the globe does not signify what it used to mean. Part of the reason the US has risen to the top position is that the end of many exports from former Soviet republics, coupled with a general market softening in recent years, means that the overall world trade in arms has been falling.
In 1987, world weapon deals peaked at a near-record high of $68.7 billion, according to ACDA. In 1991, the last year for which ACDA has solid contract figures, that number fell to $25.5 billion.
``Arms imports dropped sharply in all regions of the world after most of them reached high points in 1987-89,'' notes the new ACDA World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers study.
Whether the US has fallen into its arms leadership position by default or not, it is well-positioned as a weapons supplier of the future. Major growth areas for arms in the 1990s, notes ACDA, will be sophisticated munitions and support equipment - things the US excels in producing. Major US systems such as the F-16 jet fighter and Patriot missiles remain well-known and sought after in countries around the globe.
US officials have long defended arms sales to friendly nations as an extension of American security policy. Helping an ally help itself, goes this thinking, bolsters stability and US interests around the world.
Nations that want arms will find places to buy them - if not from the US, then from another supplier. France, for instance, has been an aggressive arms exporter, as have several other Western European nations. Weapons contractors are undeniably a major industry in the US and other developed countries, and with military budgets shrinking many weapons-makers are looking overseas for new sales.
Critics claim, however, that these arguments no longer have the resonance they did during the cold war. As the major arms dealer in the world, the US now has an unprecedented chance to help craft restraints on the world conventional arms trade. ``With US leadership, significant progress is possible,'' says a new study on arms transfer controls by the World Policy Institute.
US arms sales often boomerang, the WPI study claims. The last three times the US has sent large numbers of troops into a combat situation - Panama, Iraq, and Somalia - they have faced forces that previously received US weapons. US arms sales fuel instability and keep regional conflicts going around the globe, according to the WPI.
Among the steps the WPI contends the US should take to slow the arms trade:
* Reinvigorize the big-power talks on conventional arms sales that deadlocked last year. Chinese opposition was a large reason talks got nowhere. But even if Beijing continues to balk, the other major suppliers - the US, France, Britain, and Russia - could move forward, since between them they control 80 percent of the world arms market.
* Provide greater openness about conventional weapons sales. The new United Nations Register of Conventional Weapons is a good start, according to the WPI, but it needs to be expanded to include names of specific systems, rather than generic figures on types of weapons sold.
* Raise the standards for US arms customers. Some members of Congress, for instance, have pushed for a specific code of conduct, detailing such matters as human rights, that purchasers of US weapons would have to meet.
* Reduce the US arms-export infrastructure. The WPI study claims the US spends up to $5 billion a year to subsidize weapons sales. The Clinton administration has already made some small moves in this area, such as reducing Defense Department support for US contractors participating in last year's Paris Air Show.
The US might also work to ease security concerns of potential customers, ``by promoting regional talks on confidence building, transparency, and arms reduction,'' the WPI says.