CSS Research and Policy Seminar with Jon Caverley

Jon Caverley, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, presented a draft manuscript of his next book on November 18. The book explains the United States’ dominant position in the international arms trade and how it controls conventional weapons proliferation and access to advanced military technologies.

Caverley was inspired by a seeming contradiction: How is it possible that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter can be almost universally reviled within the United States as a programmatic disaster, and yet has never lost a competitive tender abroad and continues to attract considerable demand from foreign air forces? The answer, he suggests, lies with the unique abilities of the United States to develop and control cutting-edge military technologies. Investment in these technologies produces diminishing returns as complexity and quality increase. As a result, in order for the most expensive and exquisite to be produced at all, the market requires a hegemonic power with strong internal demand for power projection capabilities that is willing to fund and develop them. At present, only the United States fills this role.

The United States can bind its allies to its arms production network by offering them access to high-end technologies—stealth aircraft being only one example—and thereby limit the autonomy of their indigenous weapons industries. This hierarchical relationship prevents the maturation of new competitors in the international arms market, such as Israel, South Korea, and Turkey, while limiting the growth of already existing producers, such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The United States allows these countries to compete over contracts for older technologies and in markets that the United States has completely ceded (such as diesel submarines), but it uses its role as a supplier of technologies and components to influence arms sales decisions as well.

While the United States has a checkered history in its arms sales practices, hegemonic dominance of military technologies may actually be the best hope for limiting conventional weapons proliferation and preventing arms races. Additionally, an appreciation of the strength of the U.S. position in the international arms market helps fill out existing hegemonic stability theories.

A common theme in questions from seminar attendees was the possible emergence of a balancing network, potentially led by China, and its effects. What would the rise of new great powers with strong internal demand for expensive weapons systems do to the hierarchy currently led and directed by the United States? Attendees were also deeply interested in Caverley’s use of networks, regimes, and orders as descriptions and analogies for the U.S.-led hierarchy.

U.S. arms sales policies will always be important considerations for the conduct of foreign relations, but Caverley’s success in tying these topics to the prospects for lasting U.S. hegemony and potential decline is particularly valuable. CSS thanks Professor Caverley for his timely and engaging presentation and looks forward to the publication of his book and other future projects.

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