During the Cold War, the United States abandoned concerns for democracy and human rights by arming anti-democratic insurgent groups throughout Central America and bombing and invading impoverished developing countries throughout Indochina in the name of defeating its superpower rival – the Soviet Union.
The US emerged victorious in 1989 with the collapse of the Communist Empire, only to be faced with a new cold war today against a rising and increasingly militaristic China. However, rather than an ideological struggle between communism and capitalism, the US-China rivalry is being framed as a contest between authoritarianism and democracy.
“In the face of the sustained and alarming challenges to democracy and universal human rights around the world, more than ever, democracy needs champions.”
“In the face of the sustained and alarming challenges to democracy and universal human rights around the world, more than ever, democracy needs champions,” said President Joe Biden on December 9, 2021, to announce the first-ever Summit for Democracy, a forum for leaders from more than 100 allied countries to discuss the challenges confronting democracies in the 21st century.
A non-exhaustive list of said “challenges” include China, Russia, Islamic terrorism, and right-wing populism, like the pro-Trump movement, with Biden identifying an array of remedies, including supporting free and independent media; fighting corruption; bolstering democratic reformers; advancing technology for democracy; and defending free and fair elections.
But critics have rightly slammed the Biden administration for espousing the virtues of democracy on the one hand, while supporting authoritarian governments on the other, such as providing cover and legitimacy to Israel’s apartheid rule over the Palestinians, the dismantling of democracy by the Narendra Modi government in India, and a few theocratic and despotic Arab states, which is why his Summit for Democracy has been described as a “joke” and “the height of hypocrisy.”
An appropriate tagline for the two-day virtual summit would have read, “Democracy for our adversaries, and whatever goes for our allies.”
One must wonder to what extent does the sale of weapons by the United States and its democratic allies to repressive and anti-democratic regimes reflect a concern for democracy and human rights. US policymakers have adopted a view that “supplying arms was far better than risking the lives of American forces in Cold War battlegrounds throughout the world” since the disastrous Vietnam War, according to Jennifer Washburn, a foreign policy scholar.
“Supplying arms was far better than risking the lives of American forces.”
To that end, the US and its democratic allies face increasingly hostile and militaristic competition from Russia and China, with the Middle East remaining a focal point of strategic interest for the three global powers.
Therefore, given that arms sales constitute a major tool for securing a geopolitical advantage, “America’s approach to defense sales is unlikely to change substantially,” observes Shimon Arad for the national security journal War on the Rocks. “The values of democracy and human rights, as always, will remain secondary to geopolitical calculations.”
In other words, this is the way it’s always been, and this is the way it will continue to be. This is a reality emphasized by a report published by the Center for International Policy in 2000, which found that 54 percent of US arms transfers to the developing world went to undemocratic governments, representing nearly $6 billion in weapons.
More recently, the online magazine CounterPunch revealed that roughly 75 percent of the world’s dictators and autocrats, representing 57 nations, receive US weapons and military assistance— that percentage would be far higher were the apartheid state of Israel included in the list.
Since taking office in January 2021, President Biden has given a green light to nearly $200 million in arms sales and military assistance packages to a whole swag of serial human rights violators, including Egypt ($197 million worth of surface-to-air missiles), Saudi Arabia ($500 million defense maintenance contract), Israel ($1 billion upgrade for Iron Dome missile defense program), India ($2.4 billion worth of maritime surveillance aircraft), and the United Arab Emirates ($23 billion military package).
The US isn’t alone. Its democratic allies, including Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, count among the world’s largest arms exporters.
US-friendly democracies are guilty of transferring arms to regimes that have committed genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Worse – these US-friendly democracies are guilty of transferring arms to regimes that have committed genocide and ethnic cleansing, as illustrated by how Israel sold more than 100 tanks, light weapons, and patrol boats to the Myanmar military even as it carried out the systematic murder and rape of the country’s Rohingya minority.
Earlier this year, a report by Action on Armed Violence found the UK government approved arms sales to nearly 80 percent of countries subject to arms embargos, trade sanctions, or other restrictions during the past five years, including naval equipment to China, gun sights to Nigeria, and assault rifles to Kenya.
This, according to the authors of the report, “demonstrates the frailty of the UK’s commitment to human rights abroad.”
It’s almost impossible to think of a single moral or lawful transgression disruptive to the flow of arms from democratic states to authoritarian regimes. This was typified by how the Italian government continued to sell billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Egypt after the Italian Parliament accused Egyptian officials of murdering Italian student Giulio Regeni in 2016.
The parliamentary commission directly implicated Egypt’s National Security Agency for torturing and killing Regini, who was researching labor unions in Egypt as part of a graduate program at Cambridge University, United Kingdom, at the time of his death.
But to the chagrin of human rights defenders and advocates for global democracy, the international system is one in which nation-states must fend for themselves, leaving them with no other choice but to amass as much power as possible and then balance the power of their adversaries via the formation of security alliances.
To that end, US allies in the Asia Pacific are threatened by China’s increasingly aggressive and unlawful military activities in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, while Russia presses ever harder against former Soviet states Ukraine and Georgia. The movement of weapons to allies, democratic or otherwise, will be a major tool to mitigate these threats and insecurity.
Realpolitik trumped concerns for democracy and human rights during the Cold War against the Soviet Union and will continue to do so in the rivalry between the US and the People’s Republic of China.