Born Arming? The Inevitability of State Arms Procurement

When I worked for Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson, Arizona, my morning drive almost always consisted of, at some point, passing protesters outside of the campus. So I was not surprised when I read a Defense News article about protestors blocking the entrance to a Raytheon facility in Rhode Island to protest Raytheon sales to Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and other States with a less than stellar record when it comes to human rights. One protestor was quoted as saying, “Raytheon profits from the killing of civilians, families, and children in Palestine, Yemen and elsewhere”. Raytheon remained dignified yet defiant, stating, “We respect the right to lawful and peaceful protest”. 

After being in the defense industry for some time after spending the bulk majority of my graduate school career studying arms transfers and arms control behavior, I can sympathize with the protestors in that the arms trade is hardly ever retrospective its damage. However, protestors and the arms control community should be dismayed about the lack of productive efforts to stem the flow of arms worldwide after years of struggle.

Our current understanding of procurement decision-making

Although complex and occasionally fruitful, the dominant paradigm seeking to explain procurement behavior is nested in the assumption that performance issues govern procurement decision-making within the State. This is the traditional view espoused in the vast majority of International Relations (IR) scholarship. This dominant paradigm suggests that the State will procure weapons due to strategic choice, based on calculations about national objectives, perceived threats, and strategic doctrine within technological and budget constraints. It makes sense, right? States arm themselves when they feel threatened. Yet, even in the most peaceful regions, States continue to procure weaponry at stable rates and choose weaponry that is far more expensive than alternatives that could easily match neighboring threats.

Changing the locus of decision-making

Why, after so much research on procurement behavior, is the arms control community still at a loss? Traditional paradigms used to explain procurement behavior focus on “consequential action”. As described by March (1981), this paradigm sees decision-making as a 4 step process.

  1. Determine one’s goals.
  2. Determine one’s alternatives.
  3. Determine how one’s alternatives map onto one’s goals.
  4. Select an alternative that maximizes goal attainment.

Consequential action produces classic rational choice behavior. However, we have to remember that decision-making is inherently a human or social behavior, and therefore, consequential action is only one theory of many that seek to explain human behavior. I’m sure that you can think of instances where you have operated outside of rational choice theory. Like the time you bought an Audi instead of a Honda. States are no different. Although the international relations scholarship leaves us at a loss, institutionalist literature provides a fruitful avenue to help explain State procurement behavior. Institutionalism provides us with a different paradigm to help explain human behavior called “obligatory action,” which instead focuses on one’s constructed identity and how this identity affects decision-making. Similar to consequential action, obligatory action is also a 4 step process. (March, 1981)

  1. Determine one’s socially constructed identity or label. (Who am I?)
  2. Determine the nature of the situation, as defined by the “rules of the game” (What is going on?)
  3. Determine one’s role. (What does a person like me do in a situation like this?)
  4. Perform the role as accurately as possible. (Do it)

The obligatory action model focuses on norms and social definitions rather than needs, interests, and objectives in decision-making. It forces us to view the State as a role player and not a utility maximizer.

States, like people, are forced to play a role in a big play we call the international state system. To even make it to the international stage (pun intended), the State has to fulfill some basic requirements to assume the role of a “State”; requirements such as having a flag, a centralized government, and a military to control the territory in which it governs. None of these rules are written down, but they are implicit in how we define “statehood”. The ability of the State to exert control over its territory is termed ‘sovereignty,’ and it is arguably the most fundamental element of “statehood”. So fundamental that it has become the foundation upon which international law has been built. Take away a State’s sovereignty, and it ceases to be considered a State.

Linking Sovereignty to Military Capability

According to international law, borrowing from Article I of the 1933 Montevideo Convention, a State as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: 

  1. Permanent population
  2. Defined territory
  3. Government
  4. Capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Sovereignty, the supreme authority within a territory, is a pivotal principle of modern international law. Building upon the Montevideo Convention, The United Nations system itself is based, albeit not directly on the principle of sovereignty, on a necessary corollary of that principle: the principle of sovereign equality of its Member States as guaranteed in Article 2 (1) of the UN Charter:

The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.

McNeely (1989:64), when tracing the changing conception of sovereignty fostered by the League of Nations and later by the United Nations, observed that “to be recognized as possessing a ‘full degree of statehood’ a country must…. be capable of maintaining its territorial integrity and political independence.” Again, sovereignty plays a pivotal role in defining “statehood”.

Are we born arming?

So now we have to ask ourselves, how do we guarantee “sovereignty”? One could easily argue that the deployment of armed forces, even of dubious agency, unequivocally symbolizes the capability of a government to ensure sovereignty and, therefore, be considered a State. States then, borrowing from Mullins (1987), could be deemed to be “born arming”. This would explain why in the vast majority of cases, militaries are formed by the State regardless of the actual need for such organizations, and of course, to equip these armies, States must seek to procure military arms. Therefore military procurement, or the transfer of weapons, may be an inevitable by-product of the international state system and is unlikely to be changed or controlled unless our understanding of “Statehood” shifts.

Unfortunately, for many of the protestors of arms sales and the arms control community, the act of arms sales, arms procurement, and proliferation is a natural consequence of the international State system. So, the question of whether disarmament and arms control is even possible is nested in a much larger set of epistemological quandaries such as “What is a state”, “How do we define a State”, “How did States learn their parts,” (feminist critical theory has some good ideas), and “How do we begin to change our understanding of “statehood”?”. Answers to these questions will move us much closer to disarmament and, if not disarmament, much more effective arms control regimes. Much closer, anyway, than protesting outside of a Raytheon facility in Rhode Island will get us.

March, James. “Decisions in organizations and theories of choice” in Perspectives on Organization Design and Behavior. New York: Wiley, 1981.

McNeely, Connie. Cultural Isomorphism among nation-states: The role of international organizations. Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford University.

Mullins, A.F.. Born Arming: Development and Military Power in New States. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Print


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