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Analyzing Arms: Brandon Kinne

By Griselda Jarquin and Ben Hinshaw – In the fight against domestic terrorism and other non-traditional threats, the efficacy of traditional weapons is limited. But since the end of the Cold War, global arms trading has increased. In a recent paper, Assistant Professor of Political Science Brandon Kinne traces that increase in part to a surge in bilateral defense treaties called "weapons cooperation agreements."

It was while conducting research in his chosen areas of specialization—international relations, international law, conflict, and defense—that Kinne first became aware of the proliferation of bilateral defense treaties. Some relate to holding joint military exercises and training, others to counterterrorism operations. Taken together, they reflect a broad acknowledgment across the international community that the multilateral agreements of old may no longer be sufficient. “NATO was designed to combat the Soviet Union,” Kinne says. “Organizations like NATO aren’t going to get at these non-traditional security threats like ISIS.”

In his first paper addressing these bilateral treaties, titled “Agreeing to Arm: Bilateral Weapons Agreements and the Global Arms Trade”, Kinne focuses on weapons cooperation agreements (WCAs) signed between 1995 and 2010. Traditionally, bilateral treaty cooperation in the global arms trade involves military aid between a powerful state (the U.S., for example) or a former colonizer (such as France) and a much weaker state. WCAs represent a departure from this historical trajectory, since they represent “deliberate efforts to establish long term cooperation on a broad range of weapons-related issues.”

Such issues, Kinne writes, include procurement and acquisition, defense industrial cooperation, and research and development. WCAs also set general standards for bilateral cooperation on the design, production, and exchange of conventional weapons. In other words, they help to make such weapons more effective and more affordable. In doing so, Kinne concludes, WCAs have “significantly increased weapons flow.”

Tracing treaties 

Before he could assess their impact, Kinne first had to obtain copies of as many bilateral treaties as possible. This proved quite a challenge—especially for agreements involving one or more developing countries. The UN Treaty Collection, he learned, actually represents only 15 to 20 percent of international treaties. Those treaties are supposed to public, he says, “but that doesn’t mean they always are.”

As a result, Kinne had to spend a couple of years sourcing material directly from ministries of foreign affairs, which he contacted however he could—by mail, email, or phone. Ministries in Europe, Asia, and South America proved fairly responsive, he reports, but “Israel said no.” And in the case of some developing countries—especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Chad or Mozambique—it was almost impossible to track down the right person to ask.

Quality and quantity

Once he had compiled the treaties, Kinne conducted complex network analysis, modelling the relationship between WCAs and weapons flow as a “coevolutionary process” in which a “state’s position or ‘centrality’ in the WCA network influences the state’s arms trade activity.” The coevolutionary approach confronted the broader social-scientific dilemma of influence versus selection, where individual actors “may either be influenced by their social relations, or instead select their social relations on the basis of individual attributes.” It also allowed Kinne to model “the myriad interdependencies that plague international relations data,” ensuring more accurate estimates of crucial relationships.

So, why do WCAs increase weapons flow? Analyzing the language of the treaties, Kinne notes that increased arms flow is typically one of the explicitly stated goals. In addition, the treaties establish “standards, procedures, and rules that govern arms transactions—often by mandating subsequent ‘implementing arrangements.’" 

In addition, the quality and quantity of domestic production increases through WCAs. For instance, if states improve domestic production of arms, they can become more competitive in the global arms market. Lastly, WCAs reduce strategic uncertainty by eliminating concerns about “servicing, training access to replacement parts, and other sources of hidden costs.”

Consequences and concerns

The political, diplomatic, and economic consequences of the surge in WCAs remain uncertain. Kinne notes that while international cooperation and information-sharing are positive outcomes in themselves, the heightened flow of weapons around the globe is potentially destabilizing. “The more weaponized countries are, the more likely they are to use their weapons,” he says.

That’s particularly concerning in light of the fact that the U.S. remains the world’s most prolific exporter of arms, selling weapons to almost every country on Earth. “The moral and ethical concerns are pretty dramatic,” Kinne says, noting that American-made weapons were used to suppress pro-democracy protestors in Egypt.

Such concerns, however, are not typically the focus of contemporary academic political science. The emphasis of Kinne’s chosen discipline is more analytical than editorial, he says, making commentary uncommon. So, while securing the attention of policymakers is an appealing prospect, for now Kinne simply hopes to see “some recognition among people who study these topics that there’s something new and interesting going on in international relations.”

Still, as he continues his broader work on bilateral treaties—he currently has five different working papers in progress that draw on his vast store of data—Kinne remains convinced that WCAs reflect a worrying trend. “You can’t address domestic terrorism with military measures. You have to use civilian measures.”

Learn more about Brandon Kinne.