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Exposing the Arms Trade

Reviewed by Edward J. Laurance

The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade

By Andrew Feinstein

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 704 pp.

At the beginning of July, delegates from UN member states will meet in New York to negotiate an arms trade treaty (ATT). Andrew Feinstein’s book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade illustrates both the need for the treaty and the difficulty of successfully negotiating it. This review evaluates the utility of the book as a primer for those taking on this significant task.

The book is a welcome addition to the literature, mainly because of its depth and its new evidence from previously known cases, as well as from new ones. The chapter on South Africa’s purchase of European armaments, a deal first announced in 1999, rings truest as Feinstein had a front-row seat as a member of South Africa’s Parliament from the African National Congress (ANC). To put the book together, Feinstein hired two very experienced researchers; the 104 pages of notes and references are the result.

In the main, however, those academics and policy professionals who follow the arms trade will find little in the way of new themes or types of negative effects from the arms trade in this book. Rather, its main value, in addition to new evidence and sources, is its comprehensiveness (531 pages of text). One reviewer described it as “possibly the most complete account that has ever been written.”[1]

In a video promoting the book, Feinstein states that the book is about “corruption, massive wastage, and huge profits.”[2] That is a good description; the book is more about corruption than the arms trade per se.[3] Feinstein relies on Transparency International to provide him with the view that 40 percent of the corruption in the world is due to the global arms trade. His chapters on the United States include the titles “Legal Bribery” and “Illegal Bribery.” His excellent chapter titled “Making and Killing: Iraq and Afghanistan” is the comprehensive telling of how U.S. arms manufacturers and their agents made billions of dollars off these two wars. It is also the familiar story of the “revolving door,” in which defense company executives get appointments in the U.S. government, then leave for another stint in defense industry, go back to government, and so on.

Feinstein also revives the age-old debate about guns versus butter. For example, in the chapter on Iraq and Afghanistan, after pages of detail about the corruption, profiteering, arms dealing, and sheer cost of the wars, he gets to what seems to be his major problem with the arms trade: “What has been explicitly avoided in such discussions is the opportunity cost of such expenditure—what could have been bought or achieved if the money had been spent elsewhere.”

Feinstein is even angrier about the arms deal in which defense companies BAE and Saab sold South Africa fighter and trainer aircraft. The companies paid bribes to senior ANC party officials and others involved in reviewing the competitive bids. The deal was estimated to cost roughly $3 billion at the time it was announced in 1999, but may cost some $6 billion when the contract ends in 2018. “South Africa continues to pay for this deal in lives,” Feinstein writes. He cites a Harvard University study that concludes, in his words, that, over the five years following the deal, “365,000 South Africans died avoidable deaths because the state, in thrall to [President] Thabo Mbeki’s Aids [sic] denialism and fiscal discipline on everything but the purchase of unnecessary weapons, would not provide the antiretroviral medicine they needed to live.”[4]

He goes on to say that money spent on these weapons could have been spent on jobs and housing. This is quite a stretch. The history of the guns versus butter debate is replete with similar charges that money was spent on defense at the expense of domestic programs, with little evidence that the two phenomena are causally connected.

There are many other references in the book to wasteful defense spending, an issue that has proven difficult to resolve. The reality is that the peace dividend rarely materializes. In the end, it is up to sovereign states to make choices on spending priorities, and no amount of attention, publicity, policy, or legislation, including at the regional and global levels, has made much difference.[5] Yes, the arms trade writ large and its “dramatis personae” are always at the ready to accommodate states that emphasize guns over butter. However, the debate over whom to blame, supplier or recipient, is a long way from being resolved. Feinstein makes a good case for renewing that debate.

Yet, an ATT negotiated in the UN General Assembly’s First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) may not be the best place to resolve the matter. The social welfare implications of the arms trade have received scant attention in most negotiations in the committee since the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the United Nations did debate guns versus butter, mainly in the Special Sessions on Disarmament held in 1978, 1982, and 1988.[6] The result was thousands of words and no effective action to spend less on defense and more on development.

Sovereign Rights

Not only do states have the sovereign right to spend their money as they see fit, but the UN Charter provides a legally binding safeguard for them. Article 2(7) states that “[n]othing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” Article 51 declares that “[n]othing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence.” It is also noteworthy that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, promulgated in 1947, and its successor, the World Trade Organization, intentionally excluded trade in arms from these agreements and processes.

Feinstein’s major target in the book is the “merchants of death,” the arms brokers and dealers who make the legal, gray, and illegal markets in arms possible. He provides an accurate narrative of many of these men, such as the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, and how they work. He concludes that “the secret netherworld of arms dealers and swindlers has been exposed to the public gaze…and yet not a single member of the network had faced a successful prosecution for arms dealing.”[7]

Arms dealers have been in the “public gaze” for many years. However, the public seems to be of two distinct minds about them. On the one hand, those campaigning for global action on small arms and light weapons in the 1990s tirelessly produced reports, books, and documentary films intended to show them as evil and immoral.[8] One major text on the trade in small arms had “Running Guns” in the title, attempting to draw on the negative image such a phrase connotes.[9] Starting in the 1990s, the UN and the network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) addressing small arms and light weapons took up the issue of brokers and how to control them. The UN issued a major report in 2007, and the Small Arms Survey, the major research organization addressing the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, including trade issues, gave the issue prominence in its work in the mid-2000s. Yet, Feinstein reports that little has changed. The dealers and brokers continue to operate with a free hand. Why?

One reason is the lack of national or international laws making their activities illegal. Fewer than 10 governments have serious laws with regard to controlling the activities of their citizens who are arms dealers and brokers operating outside their national boundaries. A second reason is that the focus on dealers and brokers has had little impact because the public tends to glorify or, at a minimum, become fascinated with and excuse the lives of the men who work “in the shadow world.” Another possibility is that the public and their governments think it is a hopeless cause. Feinstein’s book certainly paints such a picture.

As noted above, highlighting wasteful defense spending seems doomed to failure as a tactic for preventing and reducing the negative effects of the arms trade. On another front, states continue to insist on their right to supply armed groups, an activity that requires arms dealers and brokers who are operating under the radar of public scrutiny.

Impact on Security

Feinstein does not seem to emphasize the different effects of the trade in arms based on the class of weapons: major conventional weapons such as tanks, artillery, and aircraft versus small arms and light weapons, such as hand grenades, assault rifles, and mortars. The arms trade rarely produces a war or even serious conflict with major conventional weapons. The last such case was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The response to this war was the UN Arms Register of Conventional Arms, which has basically failed to stem the arms trade largely because it was designed to prevent “excessive and destabilizing buildups” of major conventional weapons, a rarity in the post-Cold War era.[10] In fact, most of the trade is benign when it comes to traditional national security requiring major conventional weapons. This is certainly true in most of the major deals presented in Feinstein’s book.

The chapter on the Al Yamamah arms deal, which involved the United Kingdom, its newly privatized BAE, and Saudi Arabia, is full of details of despicable behavior; but the deal had little impact on security, including human security.[11] If anything, it was a winning deal for both parties. Saudi Arabia gained prestige, and the United Kingdom got jobs. The same would be true for the billions of dollars in weapons and equipment that the United States has sold to Saudi Arabia in the past 30-40 years. The United States was fairly confident that these major conventional arms would not have any negative security consequences from a traditional national security perspective. For example, there was little fear that Saudi Arabia would use these major conventional weapons to invade another country or otherwise act against U.S. national interests, and the arms deals resulted in strategic access to the region, which was critical in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and beyond.

What might succeed is an effort to focus on the negative impacts of the trade in small arms and light weapons, especially violations of international humanitarian law. This has been the approach taken by Control Arms, an NGO coalition promoting an ATT. The 1990s saw the growth of human security as a supplement to traditional national security. One scholar makes the case that global disarmament agreements have begun to reflect this move toward people-centered security.[12] Her cases include the conventions on anti-personnel land mines and cluster munitions, the UN program of action on small arms, and potentially an ATT. The ATT negotiations will be a test of how much the human security approach has influenced the thinking of the negotiating states. In other words, will states be more concerned with the effects of the trade on the citizens of their states and other states than the security of the state itself?

Reaching agreement on a treaty that links the arms trade with violations of human rights and international humanitarian law will be a challenge for a committee thus far steeped in the traditional national security paradigm. The traditional paradigm will have held true if the states that are not arms producers resist any conditions that limit their options to buy weapons for their own national security purposes. It likewise will hold true if arms-producing states fight to preserve the freedom to sell arms.

To sum up, those negotiating an ATT need much more knowledge than Feinstein provides if they are to understand the global arms trade fully, beyond the “corruption, huge profits and massive wastage” he accurately describes. In the very beginning of the book, Feinstein quotes Henry Ford: “Show me who makes a profit from war, and I’ll show you how to stop the war.” The historical record suggests, however, that any global or national effort to control the arms trade by targeting corrupt, immoral, and perhaps evil people is doomed to failure. Many have tried, but few have succeeded. Feinstein correctly bemoans the fact that defense contractors rarely get caught and prosecuted as part of national and global efforts to address the negative effects of the arms trade.

This record is not surprising. National governments have had formal control over defense industries since the end of World War II. It is governments that can create the environment for reducing the abuses of the arms trade so well documented by Feinstein. They are the ones that will meet in July and hopefully take the next step in the form of legally binding norms and standards that can then be the centerpiece of the necessary hard work of building the capacity and political will of governments to truly control the arms trade in all its aspects.

Edward J. Laurance is a professor of international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He was a consultant to the UN Register of Conventional Arms (1992-1994), the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (1996-1997), and the UN program of action on small arms (2000-2001) and currently serves as an expert for the UN project developing international standards to control small arms. He is author of The International Arms Trade (1992).


1. John Tirman, “‘The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade,’ by Andrew Feinstein,” The Washington Post, November 4, 2011.

2. “The Shadow World - Andrew Feinstein,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=yG09qjWYwuk.

3. Feinstein is now the co-director of Corruption Watch in London.

4. See Pride Chigwedere et al., “Estimating the Lost Benefits of Antiretroviral Drug Use in South Africa,” JAIDS Online, October 16, 2008.

5. The legally binding EU conventional arms export regime, as well as U.S. law, asserts that arms should not be sent to states that cannot afford them. This has not always deterred sales to such countries, as national security and foreign policy concerns have trumped concerns about wasteful spending.

6. See www.un.org/disarmament/HomePage/SSOD/.

7. Bout was convicted last November of four conspiracy counts, including conspiracies to sell surface-to-air missiles, to kill Americans and to provide material support to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The conspiracy to sell missiles carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison. Bout received a 25-year sentence in April. Chad Bray, “Suspected Russian Arms Dealer Sentenced to 25 Years,” The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303302504577326183705420436.html.

8. See Brian Wood and Johan Peleman, “The Arms Fixers: Controlling the Brokers and Shipping Agents,” Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers, November 1999.

9. Lora Lumpe, ed., Running Guns: The Global Black Market in Small Arms (London: Zed Books, 2000).

10. For an account of the impact of this war on arms trade control, see Edward J. Laurance, “1991 Arms Trade Control Efforts and Their Echoes,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2011.

11. According to one author, “Human security is about the everyday security of individuals and the communities in which they live rather than the security of states and borders.” Mary Kaldor, “Human Security in Complex Operations,” PRISM, Vol. 2, No. 2 (March 2011), www.ndu.edu/press/human-security-complex-operations.html.

12. Denise Garcia, Disarmament Diplomacy and Human Security: Regimes, Norms, and Moral Progress in International Relations (New York: Routledge, 2011.)