US Supplies Weapons to 57% of ‘Authoritarian’ Regimes

“These findings fly in the face of Biden’s preferred framing of international politics as a ‘battle between democracies and autocracies,'” says the author of a new report.

President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz bump fists at Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, on July 15. (Saudi Press Agency, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

By Kenny Stancil
Common Dreams

President Joe Biden claims that the United States is leading “democracies” in a fight against “autocracies” to establish a peaceful international order, but his administration approved weapons sales to nearly three-fifths of the world’s authoritarian countries in 2022.

That’s according to a new analysis conducted by Security Policy Reform Institute co-founder Stephen Semler and published Thursday in The Intercept.

The U.S. has been the world’s largest arms dealer since the end of the Cold War. Data released in March showed that the U.S. accounted for 40 percent of global weapons exports from 2018 to 2022.

As Semler explained:

“In general, these exports are funded through grants or sales. There are two pathways for the latter category: foreign military sales and direct commercial sales.

The U.S. government acts as an intermediary for FMS acquisitions: It buys the materiel from a company first and then delivers the goods to the foreign recipient. DCS acquisitions are more straightforward: They’re the result of an agreement between a U.S. company and a foreign government. Both categories of sales require the government’s approval.

Country-level data for last year’s DCS authorizations was released in late April through the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. FMS figures for fiscal year 2022 were released earlier this year through the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. According to their data, a total of 142 countries and territories bought weapons from the U.S. in 2022, for a total of $85 billion in bilateral sales.”

To determine how many of those governments were democratic and how many were autocratic, Semler relied on data from the Varieties of Democracy project at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which uses a classification system called Regimes of the World.

“Of the 84 countries codified as autocracies under the Regimes of the World system in 2022, the United States sold weapons to at least 48, or 57%, of them,” Semler wrote. “The ‘at least’ qualifier is necessary because several factors frustrate the accurate tracking of U.S. weapons sales. The State Department’s report of commercial arms sales during the fiscal year makes prodigious use of ‘various’ in its recipients category; as a result, the specific recipients for nearly $11 billion in weapons sales are not disclosed.”

“The Regimes of the World system is just one of the several indices that measure democracy worldwide, but running the same analysis with other popular indices produces similar results,” Semler observed. “For example, Freedom House listed 195 countries and for each one labeled whether it qualified as an electoral democracy in its annual Freedom in the World report. Of the 85 countries Freedom House did not designate as an electoral democracy, the United States sold weapons to 49, or 58%, of them in fiscal year 2022.”

Despite the White House’s lofty rhetoric, it is actively bolstering the military power of a majority of the world’s authoritarian countries, from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to dozens of others, including some overlooked by researchers at the University of Gothenburg.

For instance, the Varieties of Democracy project characterizes Israel as a “liberal democracy” even though human rights groups around the world have condemned it as a decidedly anti-democratic apartheid state. Washington, meanwhile, showers Israel with $3.8 billion in military support each year, resources that the government uses to violently dispossess and frequently kill Palestinians at will.

As Semler put it Saturday in his “Speaking Security” newsletter, “These findings fly in the face of Biden’s preferred framing of international politics as a “battle between democracies and autocracies.”

The president’s narrative “lends itself more to a self-righteous foreign policy than an honest or productive one,” Semler argued. “Dividing the world between democratic and autocratic countries—in the spirit of ‘with us or against us’—makes conflict more likely and has had a chilling effect on calls for diplomacy and détente. It’s also harder to cooperate with the international community while insisting you’re locked in an existential fight with roughly half of them.”

Kenny Stancil is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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8 comments for “US Supplies Weapons to 57% of ‘Authoritarian’ Regimes

  1. delia ruhe
    May 17, 2023 at 06:35

    I think Biden’s arbitrary division of the globe into democracies and autocracies will probably last only until he leaves office–and thereafter, no complaints about selling arms to autocracies will have much meaning. Besides, the US has a tradition of using handy covers in order to (thinly) disguise its real reasons for not wanting to include a given country on its customer list.

    But to return to Biden: His desire to live in a world split into two opposing camps is merely nostalgia for the good old days of the binary Cold War. Because, if you’ll remember “We won the Cold War!!” claimed the American ruling elite. That is also very much in US tradition. If there’s a war, it will either be won or lost, reason the binary-minded elite, forgetting that it (i.e., America, the new US occupier of the Asia-Pacific) walked away from the Chinese civil war and the Korean war, leaving the Chinese and the Taiwanese, the North Koreans and South Koreans, in a limbo that has caused those countries nothing but problems ever since–and has given Washington a few handy ways of controlling those four nations.

    Back to Biden: I think he dreams of being the hero of his new cold war. In that dream, he will be the one to tell the world “We won Cold War II !!”

    But if you think a country under Biden rule is unacceptable in several ways, just wait till Trump is back. He learnt a few things during his “first” term, so this time you will get to see what a real autocrat looks like–and believe me, it doesn’t look like Putin. Although the army of propagandists who’ve spent years demonizing Putin as a killer and a thief who eats children for breakfast might have provided Trump with a role model.

  2. firstpersoninfinite
    May 16, 2023 at 11:51

    Using any reasonable definition of “electoral democracy” as a guide, I’m not sure even the U.S. qualifies – and we’re the ones selling the weapons. Didn’t Jimmy Carter point out over fifteen years ago that we are no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy? When two ossified parties are the only emblems of our democracy, one of which doesn’t recognize elections as legitimate even if they are, and one which doesn’t believe in open primaries because they don’t want to endanger their lies, I think the point is moot.

  3. Vera Gottlieb
    May 16, 2023 at 10:09

    When any organization has good writers telling lies is no big deal. And so it is withe the Yanx’s propaganda…the same lies but wrapped differently every time to keep the sheeples off balance.

  4. Jeff Harrison
    May 15, 2023 at 15:46

    Surprised? No. The US has been the greatest supporter of authoritarian regimes in the world. Why? The US wants a world order with the US as the Queen Bee. Democracy is that messy political system that can give us results we don’t like. As Tom Lehrer so aptly sang:
    For might makes right,
    And till they’ve seen the light,
    They’ve got to be protected,
    All their rights respected,
    Till somebody we like can be elected.

    Somewhere along the way, the US decided that it was safer to install dictators.

  5. Greg Grant
    May 15, 2023 at 13:48

    Meanwhile you can read on counterpunch today by some clown named Melvin Goodman about how Biden is some sort of peace-nick desperately trying to de-millitarize the third world.
    That piece doesn’t even rise to the level of stupid.
    Consortium News is the only outlet left that has not been taken over by right wing propagandists.
    To me the faux-left propagandists for the right like counterpunch are far more insidious than the overt right wing press, because they siphon off and divert the energies of those who might actually make a difference.
    Consortium News now stands alone.
    Well, there’s Covert Action Magazine but they’ve gone off the other deep end posting conspiracy theory articles like the one on covid that read like a QANON treatise.
    It’s hard to have hope when almost the entire spectrum of media has gone nuts, save one.

      May 15, 2023 at 15:34

      Thank you very much for your comment. CounterPunch has viciously attacked Consortium News on more than one occasion so this is very gratifying to read.

    • shmutzoid
      May 15, 2023 at 21:43

      Like Common Dreams , and CN, Counterpunch publishes/reprints pieces by a variety of journos/writers from around the world, as well as pieces by their own editors/staff. …….It’s up to the reader to discern what makes sense or what seems more propagandistic. ………. I’m not aware of CN being attacked by Counterpunch. ………. If I’ve missed it and there’ve indeed been such attacks, that’s very disappointing.
      ……. To me, Joe Lauria’s take on things is spot on. His recent refutations of Newsguard’s accusations concerning CN coverage of Maidan coup were brilliant.
      ……. For sites like Scheerpost, CommonDreams, Counterpunch and InternationClearingHouse , one must ‘pick and choose’ articles to separate the wheat from the chaff. …………. For me, both CN and are sites I rely on most.

      • Tim N
        May 16, 2023 at 15:48

        It’s true that CP publishes a lot of things from a large group of writers, and I don’t mind them assuming I’ll read who I want. But the quality there has gone downhill since Trump showed up.

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