Come you Masters of War

I was thinking about the global arms trade the other day in the context of reading an article in The Economist about the role of the Sunni-Shia schism in the Syrian civil war.

Many parties are calling on the West to ‘arm the rebels’, which as we know from history, is a policy fraught with danger and unpredictable long-term consequences. The mujahideen in Afghanistan for example, were armed and aided by the US in the 1980s to resist the Russian invasion. The Taliban then turned those same weapons against the US after they in their turn invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

The awful wars that have ravaged Africa for the last half-century have been made possible by mass imports of arms, originally by the antagonists of the Cold War, and after the Wall came down, by independent arms dealers. It’s been said that the arms industry is the biggest in the world, and our governments certainly spend more on it than any other single thing.

So who’s doing the selling, and who’s doing the buying? This might (or might not) surprise you, but according to Wikipedia the biggest arms exporter is none other than the United States ($8.7bn in 2012), with Russia a close second at $8bn and everyone else way behind:


The biggest importers came as a shock to me though:


Who’d have thought Australia would be number three? These are trend indicators and a pretty broad brush, but even so, I was amazed. What exactly do we have to show for it?

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