Recent congressional efforts to prevent a US arms sale to Saudi Arabia mark a watershed moment in opposing lobbying efforts and bringing these activities into the public eye. Each year, more than 300 governments, organizations, and individuals spend half a billion dollars on lobbying activities. This lobbying works to create US political support for various policies, but due to the US’ outsized role in world affairs, lobbying efforts have an outsized impact on world politics. Usually, this occurs without much attention or awareness from the media or the American people. That’s beginning to change.
The US arms industry is one of the biggest areas for lobbyist activity. The US is the world’s largest arms exporter, with an increasing market share of the global arms trade comparable to the next five biggest countries combined. In 2020, US companies controlled a 37% market share of the global arms trade, with around half of these exports going to the Middle East.
The importance of US weapons transfers in equipping various countries’ militaries creates powerful incentives to ensure that Congress and the president will not regulate or restrict these weapons sales. For example, in 2020 alone, Saudi Arabia spent more than $30 million dollars on lobby activities and campaign contributions in Washington, DC. The United Arab Emirates, another major purchaser of US-made weapons, regularly spends millions of dollars influencing US policies and improving its image in the US. As a consequence, nations that abuse human rights face almost no repercussions or international backlash. Not only that, but in many instances, they receive weapons to continue these abuses.
In its sales to the Gulf monarchies, Washington supports the human rights catastrophe in Yemen. Saudi Arabia and the UAE regularly conduct air raids in Yemen that kill dozens of civilians. These airstrikes have targeted Yemeni civilians’ public markets, weddings, funerals, as well as hospitals run by Doctors with Borders. Despite this egregious track record, the Biden administration has approved the sale of $23 billion in Aircraft and Armed Drones to the UAE, and $650 million in drones and missiles for Saudi Arabia. There is no US interest served by facilitating the continued slaughter of Yemeni civilians or enabling a blockade of food and fuel that puts five-million people at risk of a man-made famine. Ending US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE can stop the slaughter in Yemen and foster a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
As the Biden administration prepares to put democracy promotion at the center of US foreign policy at the Summit of Democracies, it’s time to re-evaluate whether continuing to support authoritarian regimes makes the US safer, and how authoritarian governments market themselves and influence public debate in democratic societies. By becoming more transparent, there is an opportunity for US policymakers to stop supporting authoritarian governments through the arms trade and inadvertently enabling human rights abuses through foreign policy influenced by lobbying activities.
Greater transparency and public debate around lobbying is key to creating a foreign policy that protects American interests while promoting American values.
Greater transparency and public debate around lobbying is key to creating a foreign policy that protects American interests while promoting American values. This is for two reasons. First, Americans do not actually support many policies lobbyists in the arms industry crave. Yet, the arms industry has around 700 lobbyists for every member of Congress, and captures just over $1,000 dollars in defense spending for every dollar spent on lobbying. Public opinion polling shows the massive gap between what Americans think about defense and foreign policy and the positions advocated by lobbyists. A majority of Americans and more than 70% of veterans supported the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and less than 20% of Americans support an increase in defense spending.
Second, progressives and conservatives can both gain from more open discourse about how US foreign policy can secure American interests while strengthening American values, while ensuring that the funding and identities of different voices in the foreign policy conversation are transparent and widely known. Ending American support for the war in Yemen is an initiative with significant bipartisan support. An end to the flow of US arms into Yemen satisfies progressive priorities by preventing human rights issues. Ending US support for the war in Yemen would also fulfill conservatives’ counterterrorism goals by ensuring that arms from the conflict do not end up in the hands of extremist groups.
Foreign lobbying activity is a $250 million-dollar blind spot that distorts our political conversation, decreases the effectiveness of US efforts to promote democracy and human rights, and allows authoritarian governments to avoid accountability for major human rights abuses. Think tanks, university centers, media outlets, and public relations firms should be required to publicly disclose funding from foreign governments to clarify potential conflicts of interest. It should also be a priority to close campaign finance loopholes that allow foreign lobbyists to donate to political campaigns and political action committees. Broader public and media awareness of the way that authoritarian governments attempt to influence US political discourse can help bridge the gap between public opinion and public policy, make the political process more effective, and enable greater bipartisanship to address a variety of foreign policy issues.
Dan Baxter is currently an intern at a DC-based think tank and a recent graduate from George Washington University, where he studied International Affairs. As a Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society, he published a report with recommendations on US negotiations with North Korea. His writing on American foreign policy has also appeared in the Realist Review.