Global leaders who style themselves as military strong men may weaken United Nations negotiations over the trade in arms.
As states gather in Geneva this week for the Eighth Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), it is important to understand how the dynamics of countries led by right-wing populist leaders will inform the negotiations. A significant number of arms exporters are now led by populist regimes. Amongst these, several countries have fallen below the threshold of democratic rule, while others are likely to follow suit.
The erosion of democracy associated with rising populism is problematic for compliance with the ATT. Borderline authoritarian regimes are less transparent and do not value accountability. These are two tenets of multilateral disarmament embedded in the Arms Trade Treaty. Authoritarianism is also associated with a short time horizon, where political leaders discount the future in favour of more immediate benefits, for example, campaign contributions from interest groups, including weapons groups. As the late political scientist James Q. Wilson pointed out, this makes it hard to advance the agenda of public policies where benefits are perceived as diffuse while costs are perceived as concentrated. And finally, democracy is key to promoting ‘principled’ (as opposed to interest-based) enforcement of legal commitments by nations. Principled enforcement has special relevance in the context of the ATT, because regulation of the trade in conventional weapons is not prone to tit-for-tat actions: reciprocity won’t work to promote compliance.
For example, since June 2020, China has agreed to the provision of the ATT that prohibits the transfer of conventional weapons if these weapons are likely to be used for the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity or grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Enforcement based on the principle of reciprocity would ask of any country that wants to reprimand China for violating that provision, to incur the same treaty violation by endorsing illegal arms transfers. This is not only absurd, but it would amount to a dangerous race to the bottom. That’s why principled enforcement, the need to uphold the rule of law and countering the erosion of democracy, is important.
The latest report from democracy advocate Freedom House confirms the decline in democracy and the associated rise in right-wing populism. The phenomena no longer spares any continent in the world: from the United States under Donald Trump, to India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to Central and Eastern Europe. Latin America is no exception. Given the sheer size of Brazil and its share of the international arms trade, analysts should keep a close eye on President Jair Bolsonaro and the Brazilian arms industry. Despite the country’s ratification of the ATT, the government has steered away from a commitment toward disarmament to rather a celebration of the ‘armed civilian’ as guarantor of their own safety.
Since Bolsonaro was elected President in January 2019, he has sent repeated messages and enacted public policies encouraging Brazilians to carry guns – in a direct confrontation with the Brazilian Statute of Disarmament. This rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with a foreign policy that has departed from the usual tenets of Brazilian diplomacy, such as respect for legally binding commitments, for example the ATT. Brazilian arms exports and sale of ammunition are on the rise; underreporting of Brazilian foreign arms trade is a recurrent problem; while handguns amongst civilians and heavy weaponry amongst criminal organisations are spreading. With respect to disarmament and gun control, the international stage mirrors domestic politics. Or perhaps it is the other way around.
Should President Jair Bolsonaro be reappointed in the upcoming October 2 national elections, Brazil could be a few steps from withdrawing from the ATT. This is a function of both the erosion of the rule of law in Brazil as well as a loud demonstration of right-wing populism.
Beyond Brazil, in India under Modi, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Russia under President Vladimir Putin, right-wing populist leaders have a predilection for arms exports and often stylise their leadership as the ‘military strong man’.
María Esperanza Casullo analyses the phenomenon extensively in a book chapter, “How to Become a Leader: Identifying Global Repertoires for Populist Leadership.” The ‘military strong man’ exploits feelings of insecurity among the population of a country – both with respect to domestic as well as international threats. Arming the average civilian conveys a (false) sense of security, while arming the country to communicate a sense of the infallible dominance of the sovereign state.
Both strategies are informed by political survival in that the leader embodies the strength — often physical strength — that is required to protect the citizen and to safeguard state sovereignty. The imagery abounds of Bolsonaro in Brazil riding motorcycles and jet-skis; other leaders prefer riding horses. Security within and outside national borders then becomes contingent on the political tenure of the populist leader; his constituents are tasked with assisting the leadership with patriotic vigilance.
In 2022, more than ever before, the delegations and organisations present at the Eighth Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty should emphasise the cooperation-enhancing features of the treaty. Conventional disarmament and the regulation of the trade in conventional arms should be seen as public goods, wherein the collective effort of all states parties is essential to counter the temptations embodied in right-wing populism.
Cristiane Lucena Carneiro is Associate Professor at the University of Sao Paulo and a member of the Acaua Newsletter editorial team. She declares no conflict of interest.