The United States (US) has long been one of the world’s leading exporters of arms, with its arms transfers accounting for a significant portion of the global arms trade.

As such, the country’s arms transfer policy has come under scrutiny, particularly regarding its focus on human rights.

While the US has made some efforts to incorporate human rights considerations into its arms transfer policy, there is still room for improvement in this area.

White House has recently announced the release of its long-anticipated newly updated US Conventional Arms Transfer Policy in National Security Memorandum 18 (NSM-18).

This new policy aims to ensure that all conventional arms transfers by the United States comply with all international, domestic, and legal standards.

Under the new policy, all transfers of arms will be subject to rigorous consideration and review, taking into account human rights considerations, regional security concerns, international humanitarian law, security sector governance, and other relevant criteria.

In addition, this policy states that there will be a comprehensive set of licensing requirements for all arms exports, in order to ensure that the highest standards are being met.

This revised policy also endorses actively advocating for US defense manufacturers worldwide by promoting transfers and commercial sales when they are in the US national interest, being consistent with defense trade advocacy procedures.

In the bargain, the updated policy emphasizes the importance of building strong partnerships with allies and partners in order to collectively address pressing global security challenges.

It also includes a commitment to strengthening human rights protections in US arms transfers. The policy includes provisions to ensure that US arms exports do not contribute to armed conflicts, forced displacement, terrorism, human trafficking, or other illegal activities.

The US Conventional Arms Transfer Policy reflects the United States’ ongoing commitment to upholding global and domestic standards of arms transfer and export regulations.

It has been designed to promote the security and stability of the global community and ensure responsible stewardship of arms transfers.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “security cooperation is an important tool of US diplomacy”.

He called it an “important step” in ensuring transparent and effective arms transfer alongside safeguarding human rights by preventing the commission of actions such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and breaches of the Geneva Conventions or serious violations of international law.

But the updated guidance also states that the US “will exercise restraint in international arms transfers that may be destabilizing or threaten international peace and security.”

The White House’s new policy notes for the first time the US government can stop an arms transfer before it’s completed, even after the State Department has approved it, “if it determines that a transfer is no longer in accordance with United States foreign policy objectives, national security goals or legal obligations.”

The State Department can also cease support for weapons systems that have already been transferred.

Unveiling US Conventional Arms Transfer Policy

The United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy plays a vital role in advancing the country’s foreign policy and national security objectives.

By facilitating the transfer of defense articles and services to allies and partners, the US strengthens its collective security and promotes global stability.

However, it is important to exercise restraint in arms transfers to prevent the proliferation of weapons that could be dangerous to international peace and security.

The policy emphasizes the importance of responsible international transfer of conventional arms, taking into account human rights and international humanitarian law.

The US will continue to require adherence to end-use monitoring requirements and conduct defense institution-building to promote compliance with international law.

The US CAT Policy aims to enhance interoperability with allies and partners, promote respect for human rights and international law, and prevent arms transfers that could contribute to violations of these principles.

By adhering to these objectives, the US can continue to be a global leader in promoting stability and protecting human rights.

In my opinion, the US CAT Policy strikes a balance between promoting the transfer of defense articles and services to allies and partners while also ensuring that these transfers are responsible and aligned with US foreign policy and national security interests.

It is crucial to exercise restraint in arms transfers to prevent proliferation and to promote stability and respect for human rights. This executive order sets forth the policy of the United States regarding conventional arms transfers.

It outlines the considerations that should be taken into account when making decisions about such transfers, including support for US foreign policy and national security objectives, the recipient’s respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, and the stability of the recipient country’s political system.

The order also emphasizes the importance of promoting respect for human rights and international law in the context of arms transfers and ensuring compliance with end-user requirements.

Finally, the order makes clear that if the United States determines at any time that a transfer is no longer in accordance with its foreign policy objectives, national security goals, or legal obligations, it may cease the transfer of or future support for the transferred defense article or service.

Expected drawbacks of this policy

On one side, where this new policy has a language for human rights promoters to applaud, it can also have some negative effects such as increased bureaucratic requirements to obtain approval for certain types of export transactions, potential conflicts with allies over certain types of weapons transfers, unintended consequences resulting from changes to the arms export system, increased cost, and complexity associated with obtaining approval for certain types of exports heightened risk of corruption or other illicit activities associated with export transactions.

Additionally, it could lead to the destabilization of certain regions if certain types of weapons are transferred to areas that already have a volatile security climate.

Also, the policy’s emphasis on promoting arms transfers to support US national interests could lead to a perception that the United States is more interested in advancing its own agenda than promoting global stability.

To conclude, this policy marks an important step forward in US arms transfer policy and should be appreciated for its efforts. However, it is important to be aware of the potential risks associated with this policy as well.

However, it remains to be seen how this policy will be implemented in practice and how it will impact US arms transfers in the coming years.

Although, this memorandum provides a clear framework for the United States’ approach to conventional arms transfers and highlights the importance of balancing national security interests with restraint.

*The writer is a Fellow at The Diplomatic Insight, published by the Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies 

**The Diplomatic Insight does not take any position on issues and the views, opinions & findings represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Diplomatic Insight and its staff