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.
- 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.
- But ethical questions arose even before the Khashoggi affair, as the U.S. has for years sold weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in support of their war in Yemen — which has caused "the world's worst humanitarian disaster."
- In August, a bomb responsible for killing 40 Yemeni children on a school bus was reported to have been sold to Saudi Arabia through a State Department-sanctioned arms deal.
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.