International Relations Arms Trade
Richard A.I. Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0215


The international arms trade is unique because it is a sector of trade that receives a larger amount of attention than its size deserves from an economic perspective. The reason for this attention is obvious: the international arms trade has the potential to fuel interstate conflict, intrastate conflict, and, to a lesser extent, enables repressive policies within states. While there is no overarching theory of interstate arms transfers, scholars generally agree on the base motivations of states to engage in arms transfers. The motivation to import revolves around domestic and international security concerns—no matter whether they are perceived or real. The motivation to export is related to strategic, political, and/or economic interests. Strategic transfers often occur to alliance members, political transfers go to similar states or where an exporter is attempting to gain influence over the foreign and/or domestic policy goals of the importer, and economic transfers are carried out for the benefits that occur for the industry and for the state exporting the arms. Of particular concern to some scholars is the shift in the motives after the end of the Cold War as the seller’s market shifted to a buyer’s market. An issue within the literature is that scholars from different disciplines often account for other fields only in a cursory manner; for example, economic research accounting for politics and strategy by mentioning regime type and alliances while political scientists may look only at gross domestic product (GDP) and trade to account for the economics. In specific regards to conflict and war, the linkages with the arms trade is studied extensively, yet there is not, once again, an overarching theory of the causal processes. One specific area where a significant amount of research exists on the linkages of arms production and transfer with war is that of arms races. However, arms races are the extreme outcome of what Barry Buzan and Eric Herring refer to as the “arms dynamic” in The Arms Dynamic in World Politics (see Buzan and Herring 1998, cited under General Overviews). The focus is not on arms races here as the subject is covered in the Oxford Bibliographies article in International Relations Arms Races.

General Overviews

A significant number of books provide a general overview of international arms transfers and military production dating back to the 1960s. A benefit of reviewing many of these books in temporal order is that doing so allows the reader to grasp shifts in the international arms trade during the Cold War, post–Cold War, and post-9/11 periods. The primary shift to identify is the change in the production of arms, which inevitably leads to new arms exporters and changes to the market. The secondary shift to take note of is the perception of the current state of the arms trade, particularly during the Cold War, where the author(s) expectations and predictions about the future can be judged by looking at the next book in chronological order. These overviews also vary in their approach. Some titles are descriptive and historical (Frank 1969, Krause 1992, Pierre 1982, Stanley and Pearton 1972, Stohl and Grillot 2009); some are theory driven (Buzan and Herring 1998, Harkavy 1975), and others present significant amounts of data or case studies related to conflict (Brzoska and Ohlson 1987, Catrina 1988, Pearson 1994). While these volumes take different approaches to the study of arms transfers they generally agree on the base causes and discuss the major suppliers in some detail.

  • Brzoska, Michael, and Thomas Ohlson. Arms Transfers to the Third World, 1971–1985. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

    Great overview that separates supply side patterns, demand side patterns, and analysis of the major suppliers from the height of the Cold War until its cooling. Extensive data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) are presented as summary statistics to further increase the depth of information being presented.

  • Buzan, Barry, and Eric Herring. The Arms Dynamic in World Politics. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998.

    This book begins with a thorough overview of the literature, including ongoing debates and controversies, before settling in to present the two models of the arms dynamic. The first model is the action-reaction model, where states acquire arms based on international security threats in a similar manner to an arms race. The second model is the domestic structure model, looking at factors within the state that lead to arms acquisition.

  • Catrina, Christian. Arms Transfers and Dependence. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1988.

    The sole purpose of this book is to evaluate which export and import structures with arms transfers lead to dependent relationships; however, before Catrina gets to these factors in chapter 8, a great deal of time is spent examining why states export and import arms from political, security, and economic perspectives.

  • Frank, Lewis A. The Arms Trade in International Relations. New York: Praeger, 1969.

    Extremely thorough overview of arms transfers during the height of the Cold War. Frank focuses on arms transfers between 1965 and 1968 and the demand for arms. He then focuses on the principal arms suppliers (ten states), secondary suppliers (nine states), and potential suppliers (twenty-nine states). Almost no other book covers this many states (though the discussion of potential suppliers can be quite brief). The book concludes with a discussion on types of transfers and linkages with war.

  • Harkavy, Robert. The Arms Trade and International System. Cambridge, UK: Ballinger, 1975.

    Classic book that examines the different system-level factors affecting the arms trade before comparing the arms trade in two different diplomatic periods.

  • Krause, Keith. Arms and the State: Patterns of Military Production and Trade. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511521744

    Krause examines the modern arms transfer system in place since the end of World War II. He focuses on the production and supply of arms by separating states into three tiers. First-tier producer/suppliers are the superpowers. The European industries constitute the second tier. The third tier are those that make arms of a lower quality or that are dependent on the import of important components.

  • Pearson, Frederic S. The Global Spread of Arms: Political Economy of International Security. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994.

    This book is more compact than the others in this list, but it is still worth noting. Pearson succinctly identifies the major suppliers, why states transfers arms, and attempts to control their spread. Additionally, the conclusion of the book identifies the current situation with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the potential future of the arms trade following the collapse of the bipolar system.

  • Pierre, Andrew J. The Global Politics of Arms Sales. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400854271

    Four-part book looking at why arms transfers occur, the major suppliers, import patterns by region and states, and the necessity for increased arms control agreement.

  • Stanley, John, and Maurice Pearton. The International Trade in Arms. New York: Praeger, 1972.

    Early book on arms transfers looking at the different motives to sell weapons and the controls in place during the 1960s. It finishes with case studies on the effect of transfers on a few Cold War conflicts. Differs from other work by accounting for the role of the government in pursuing arms exports.

  • Stohl, Rachel, and Suzette Grillot. The International Arms Trade. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009.

    The most recent book-length overview of the international arms trade and is easy to read. Stohl and Grillot provide an overview of the history of the arms trade before looking at the current legal and illicit markets. The authors provide a unique chapter on the effects of the arms trade by taking a human security approach.

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