U.S. Arms Transfers, Diplomacy, and Security in Latin America and Beyond

by David Ronfeldt, Caesar Sereseres

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Latin America has participated in the global surge of arms transfers, seeking moderately advanced weapons from U.S. and European suppliers. Yet it remains a lightly armed region compared to the world at large. This paper discusses pros and cons of arms transfers — that they increase prospects for local border conflicts, and strengthen dictatorships that violate human rights; yet U.S. interests require some preemptive selling. In particular, the authors challenge the expectation that arms transfers lead to political influence and leverage. Also discussed are restrictive U.S. policies towards arms transfers that have cost the United States political goodwill, and Latin American military geopolitical views emphasizing the need for developing economic infrastructures and pursuing diplomatic initiatives rather than an arms buildup to protect national security. A unique contribution of this paper is the hypothesis that prestigious weapons are more significant for their diplomatic symbolism than for their military capability in affecting relations between Latin American neighbors.

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