Oct 18, 2018

Where Saudi Arabia fits in the global arms trade

Data: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

President Trump has said it would be "foolish" to cancel billions of dollars in weapons deals with Saudi Arabia over the kingdom's involvement in the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — a remarkably blunt admission of the role the international arms trade plays in U.S. foreign policy.

The big picture: The U.S. is the world's top arms exporter, competing directly with Russia and increasingly China in a global market that's worth upwards of $89 billion annually. Saudi Arabia is currently the No. 1 buyer of U.S. weapons, purchasing nearly three times as much as any other country over the past two years. Arms deals tie ethics to economics, and they can exacerbate geopolitical tensions in high-risk areas like Yemen and North Korea.

Driving the news: India's planned purchase of a S-400 missile system from Russia has put it on a collision course with the U.S., which sanctioned China last month for buying the same system.

  • Unlike China, however, India is an important strategic ally that is viewed as essential to the U.S. fight against militant groups in Pakistan and other regional threats. If the U.S. imposed sanctions against India, it could stoke domestic backlash and close off U.S. defense sales to India for the foreseeable future.

Trump has suggested that arms deals with Saudi Arabia are too valuable to risk over a missing journalist.

South Korea is a key military ally to the U.S. that has played an essential role in ongoing denuclearization talks with North Korea.

  • But if the Korean peninsula moves closer to peace, the need for arms deals and joint military exercises — which continue as a means of deterring nuclear threats from King Jong-un — may diminish.

The bottom line: The U.S. uses arms sales as a carrot to further its foreign policy aims. But as Trump's statement on Khashoggi shows, the lucrative deals involved can also shape U.S. policy, rather than the other way around.

Go deeper: The global arms race between the U.S. and Russia

Go deeper

WHCA: Trump's failure to disclose meeting with Saudi envoy is "disturbing"

President Trump with Prince Khalid bin Salman in the Oval Office, Jan. 7. Photo: via Khalid bin Salman, Twitter

White House Correspondents' Association President Jonathan Karl called the lack of transparency surrounding President Trump's meeting with the Saudi Arabia's deputy defense minister "disturbing," adding Monday's unannounced Oval Office visit broke precedent.

The big picture: Photos of the meeting, which included several senior White House advisers, were tweeted out Tuesday by Saudi Arabia's deputy defense minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman, indicating he delivered a message to Trump from his brother, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Go deeperArrowJan 7, 2020

Exclusive: John Bolton hits Trump for bluffing on North Korea nukes

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Ed Jones/AFP, Saul Loeb/AFP, Brendan Smialowski/AFP, and Sergei Gapon/AFP all via Getty Images

In his sharpest criticism yet of his old workplace, John Bolton suggested the Trump administration is bluffing about stopping North Korea's nuclear ambitions — and soon might need to admit publicly that its policy failed badly.

Driving the news: Bolton told me in an interview that he does not think the administration "really means it" when President Trump and top officials vow to stop North Korea from having deliverable nuclear weapons — "or it would be pursuing a different course."

Go deeperArrowDec 22, 2019

Trump brushes off North Korea "Christmas gift"

President Trump on Dec. 24. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump on Tuesday dismissed North Korea's threat of a "Christmas gift" for the U.S., saying the military would “deal with it very successfully," Reuters reports.

Why it matters: North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un said in October that the U.S. had until year’s end to propose new concessions in talks over his country’s nuclear arsenal and warned the U.S. to not ignore the deadline.

Go deeperArrowDec 24, 2019