Defense Industries, Foreign Policy and Armed Conflict

This research program (2020-2022) was funded in part by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and carried out in partnership with the OpenSecrets. It asks:

Publications | Research Team

Project Overview

The global arms trade has proven remarkably resistant to effective controls – with direct enabling consequences on conflict situations—largely because it is driven by security relationships that are a mixture of: (a) foreign policy, (b) national security/defense industrial concerns, and (c) major corporate interests.

Despite the ubiquity of the problem, very little analysis has focused on capturing precisely how these drivers interact. Even less analysis has focused on how the globalized marketplace complicates single country dynamics. Both of these matters are crucial to understand in order to develop effective, new policy to control the trade.

This project aims to fill this gap by examining the significance of these channels of influence for broader arms export patterns. It further explores the ways in which arms supply decisions and defense industrial relationships interact with exporters’ foreign policy goals towards conflict-affected areas and belligerents.

The key research questions addressed by the project include:

  • How do exporters weigh defense industrial interests against the risk of use and misuse of exported arms in conflict?
  • What direct and indirect channels of influence are the arms industry able to use to seek to exert influence on these decisions, and how important are they? How does this industry influence interact with exporting states’ foreign policy considerations?
  • How important are long-term arms trade relationships between recipient and supplier countries in driving foreign policy, and how does the outbreak of conflict change this?
  • What policy measures might limit the influence of the defense industry on arms export decision-making to reduce the likelihood of arms being supplied to ongoing conflicts? How can policy actors with an interest in stronger arms export control best develop strategies for change in the light of the research findings on industry influence?

Who Arms War?: Interactive graphics

Explore interactive graphics on our special website, based on research for the report, “Business As Usual: How Major Weapons Exporters Arms the World’s Conflicts,” by Sam Perlo-Freeman (World Peace Foundation, 2022).

Graphs present information by conflict and by producing country.


“Weaponized storytelling à la française: Demystifying France’s narratives around its arms export policies,” by Emma Soubrier (World Peace Foundation, April 1, 2022). Executive Summary (English)| Full Report: English / French.

The Report argues that French storytelling about its weapons exports include that its processes are already “strict, transparent and responsible” enough as they are and that weapons sales are an intrinsically essential support to the country’s strategic autonomy and foreign policy interests. Analysis of exports to five conflict zones suggests that this self-perception is at best incomplete, at worst, erroneous.

“On the Front Lines: Conflict zones and U.S. Arms Exports,” by Jennifer Erickson (World Peace Foundation, March 23, 2022). Executive summary | Full Report.

The Report finds that conflict does little to alter existing intergovernmental arms trade relationships, even when recipients’ policies and practices do not serve US interests. In contrast, there is unlikely to be an established pre-conflict arms trade between supplier states and armed rebel groups. Instead, the United States may initiate or facilitate arms supplies – small arms especially – as a form of political and military support during conflict. This occurs despite the risk that small arms are frequently diverted to illicit markets or to groups opposed to the United States. Access the executive summary.

“Missing in Action: UK arms export controls during war and armed conflict,” by Anna Stavrianakis (World Peace Foundation, March 15, 2022). Executive Summary | Full Report.

The Report finds that despite over twenty years of controls that include commitments not to aggravate conflict, adversely affect regional stability or contribute to violations of human rights or international humanitarian law, the outbreak of war or conflict has little or no restraining effect on UK arms exports, even where violations of human rights and humanitarian law are documented. The UK has participated in wars, transferred weapons to its allies and partners involved in those wars, and supplied weapons to states involved in wars, and continued to do so well after violations become known. Such exports are typical of UK export policy, not the exception to it. Exports to countries involved in war are among the UK’s largest and longest-standing arms customers. 

Business As Usual: How major weapons exporters arm the world’s conflicts” by Sam Perlo-Freeman (World Peace Foundation, March 3, 2021). Executive Summary: English / French / Arabic | Full Report.

This report provides comprehensive analysis of the sales records of the top eleven major arms exporting states, including the U.S., several European countries, the U.K., Russia, China, Ukraine, and Israel. It finds that the business of selling weapons is rarely, if ever, impacted by the outbreak of armed conflict, massive repression, or widespread violations of international humanitarian law.

“Capitalizing on conflict: How defense contractors and foreign nations lobby for arms sales” by Dan Auble (Center for Responsive Politics, February 25, 2021). Defense companies spend millions every year lobbying politicians and donating to their campaigns. In the past two decades, their extensive network of lobbyists and donors have directed $285 million in campaign contributions and $2.5 billion in lobbying spending to influence defense policy. To further these goals they hired more than 200 lobbyists who have worked in the same government that regulates and decides funding for the industry. Access the full report, with graphs, maps and more through OpenSecrets.

“Introducing the special section on ‘arms export controls during war and armed conflict'” by Anna Stavrianakis (Global Security, February 2023). Four common themes emerge from the export patterns and control systems of the United States, UK and France. The articles that follow explore these in more detail in an attempt to demystify complex and opaque decision-making systems or debunk myths that have grown up around arms exports.

“Debunking the myth of the “robust controls regime”: UK arms export controls during war and armed conflict” by Anna Stavrianakis (Global Security, February 20, 2023). This article explores the function of the UK’s arms export control regime given that its primary effect is not to restrict arms transfers. I argue that the mantra that the UK has one of the most robust control regimes in the world is not a plausible description of the realities of UK export policy – rather, it is a myth that needs to be debunked. 

“Unpacking the storytelling around French arms sales: Demystifying the ‘strategic autonomy’ argument” by Emma Soubrier (Global Security, February 20, 2023). This article looks at the way France’s arms exports have historically been framed as an inherent part of the country’s core policies to achieve “strategic autonomy” at the domestic and international levels. It posits that taking this argument for granted without subjecting it to critical scrutiny is hazardous because it enables the continued unquestioned support for French arms sales and hampers the development of more stringent export control processes. 

“Demystifying the ‘gold standard’ of arms export controls: US arms exports to conflict zones” by Jennifer L. Erickson (Global Security, February 20, 2023). This article examines why US-made and US-supplied weapons consistently ap- pear in conflicts around the world, despite the United States having what is com- monly lauded as the ‘gold standard’ of national arms export control systems.

Research Team

In addition to Project Manager, WPF’s Bridget Conley, the research team consists of:

headshot Jennifer Erickson

Jennifer L. Erickson is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Boston College.

Sam Perlo-Freeman is a Research Coordinator at Campaign Against Arms Trade, with a particular focus on militarism and security, and the political influence of the arms industry. 

Dr. Emma Soubrier is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University, in Washington DC.

Headshot Anna Stavrianakis

Anna Stavrianakis is a Professor in International Relations at the University of Sussex, UK.

Project staff includes:

B. Arneson is the Outreach Coordinator for the project and a Research Coordinator for the Corruption Tracker.

This project is made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.