Foreign Policy in Transition? Human Rights, Democracy, and U.S. Arms Exports


  • Author's note: I would like to thank Mariko Hammett, Alana LaCombe, Betsi McGraw, and Jennifer Tison for their data entry and research assistance. I also thank Rob Blanton, York Bradshaw, Ross Burkhart, Chris Joyner, Quan Li, Jon Pevehouse, and David Richards for their helpful comments at various stages of this project. Thanks are also due to the anonymous reviewers. Any errors remain mine alone. The data set and supporting materials can be accessed at


During the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy was dominated by the strategic goal to contain Communism. Human rights and democracy were of secondary importance. In the post-Cold War period, the promotion of human rights and democracy as foreign policy concerns rose in prominence. In the spirit of Andrew Pierre, who once characterized arms transfers as “foreign policy writ large,” this study questions whether the transfer of U.S. arms mirrors America's foreign policy goals. To what extent do U.S. arms transfers reflect a concern for human rights and democracy? As a foreign policy instrument, do U.S. arms transfer patterns mark a transition between Cold War and post-Cold War worlds? To address these questions, I examine the empirical linkage between U.S. foreign policy goals and arms export agreements with developing countries for the years 1981–2002. I use a two-stage model to evaluate the decision-making process. The first-stage addresses whether a country is eligible to receive U.S. arms. If a country successfully passes through the selection stage, it progresses to the second stage where a decision is made about the amount of arms transferred. I use a Heckman model to estimate empirically the determinants of arms at both the initial selection stage and the subsequent amount stage. The findings indicate that during the Cold War years, human rights were not a significant determinant of arms transfers—although democracy was positively linked to U.S. arms in the selection stage. In the post-Cold War period, both human rights and democracy had a meaningful impact in determining the eligibility of a country to receive arms.