How compatible is the UK’s National Self-Interest and its Arms Trade? – BFPG Student Ambassador Series

The BFPG Student Ambassador series provides a platform for well researched UK foreign policy thoughts and opinions from UK students.  By promoting these views alongside those of the rest of the UK the BFPG aims to provide a range of national perspectives on foreign policy in the UK.

Arm exports are often defended on the basis of jobs and security. After Brexit, the UK must scrutinise these arguments to address whether our arms policy truly advances or undermines British interests in such volatile political circumstances.

Self-interest has rarely featured in arguments against the arms trade. In 1997, the then Labour foreign secretary, Robin Cook, proposed a so-called ‘ethical foreign policy’, which was met with widespread scepticism. The Conservative Peer Lord Carrington, a former holder of Cook’s office, predicted that Cook ‘will run into quite a lot of difficulty about exports and retaliation’.

As Cook spoke, Britain was preparing to take over the presidency of the European Union. Twenty years later, Brexit has created a new diplomatic environment and Labour have pledged a return to Cook’s vision, with reducing arms exports at the forefront. The question of how best to preserve our global standing and advance British trade has gained in urgency. Should we follow Cook or Carrington?

Theresa May’s stance has been that continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia – which accounted for between 66.5 and 83 percent of our arms exports in 2015 – ‘keeps people on the streets of Britain safe’. But does this claim hold up?

The Prime Minister argued that restricting arms sales to the Saudi kingdom might damage a strong relationship that helps combat international terrorism through the sharing of resources and information. UN resolution 1373, which obliges terror information sharing between member nations, was potentially overlooked.

Additionally, the Saudi regime have long been suspected of funding terrorists and advocating extreme Wahhabism – the root ideology of Isis. We risk repeating mistakes made in Libya after selling £110.1m worth of arms licences to the former Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi between 2005 and 2009. The 2011 Libyan civil war created a power vacuum and access to caches of weapons which have allowed both al-Qaeda and Isis to grow in the country since.

Even where functioning states are concerned, attempts to control the final destination of exported arms are often ineffective. This has been the case with end-user certification, which was promoted in the 2017 Liberal Democrat manifesto.

Yet, if at least 66.5% of our arms exports are to Saudi Arabia, abruptly ending this trade could have serious consequences for British jobs. According to the Aerospace, Defence and Security group (ADS), which represents arms companies, ‘defence exports’ accounted for roughly 55,000 jobs in the UK in 2010. Arms exports of both goods and services are estimated to be worth around £7bn a year, or 1.4 percent of total exports.

There is a huge degree of understandable uncertainty over international trade after Brexit and what impact this will have on British jobs and industries. It is therefore no surprise that reforming arms policy is low on the government’s agenda and the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has made it clear that he believes the arms industry will be instrumental in establishing new trade deals.

As the second largest arms exporter in the world after the United States, now is perhaps not the time to be gambling with existing relatively stable trade deals.

It is arguable, however, that it is an ideal time to refocus: arms industry jobs are in long-term decline according to Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and taxpayers’ money might be better spent in growing manufacturing industries. President of ADS, Robin Southwell, even described the arms industry as “flatlining at best” in 2012.

One option that would mitigate the losses that an abrupt halt to arms trading would cause would be a progressive decline in the volume of arms sold to volatile regimes alongside a proportional increase in support to other industries that do not have the same pitfalls yet can be equally beneficial to the UK, such as renewables.

There is also the argument that if the Brexit vote indicates a desire for greater economic independence, moving away from resource dependence on countries with security issues and weak governance by supporting our own alternative energy industries could provide part of the answer.

Perhaps now is the moment for Britain to learn from past mistakes. The economy does not have to rely on relationships with dictatorships. What is practical for the long term is to build our plan for economic prosperity on sustainability, not declining industries.

After Brexit, our main goals for promoting British interests should be: tackling the roots of terrorism, finding a sustainable economic plan, and working towards greater harmony in the international community. The arms trade as it is works to the detriment of these things. Ideas for improvement have been put forward by NGOs and political parties, and with one Opinium poll suggesting that nearly two thirds of the British public no longer support arms trade with Saudi Arabia, it appears our policy is falling behind the times.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Molly Johnson
molly@bfpg.org.uk

Molly is an undergraduate history student at the University of Leeds and has been working as a programme coordinator for the BFPG’s Student Ambassador Programme.