It's pretty obvious that a country's importance in the world is determined in large part by its military strength. It's equally obvious that military strength depends on what kind of weapons a country has. Yet one of the most important things shaping who gets what weapons — the global arms trade — often isn't very well explained.
Here are four charts that tell you a lot about this shadowy, but really important, piece of the global political order.
The global arms trade is making a comeback
Though we see fewer wars today than at any point in human history, arms sales have risen of late.
We know this despite the fact that most governments don't discuss their arms purchases publicly, as they're a bit shy about revealing military secrets. But researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) have developed a method of estimating the volume of militarily-useful arms sales across the last 70 years or so. They call it the trend-indicator value, and it's been pretty clearly increasing for the last few years:
Here's what this means: arms distribution — meaning both sales and pure military aid — peaked during the Reagan Administration, collapsed after the Cold War, but have started creeping up since September 2001.
The United States and Russia sell way more than everyone else
What SIPRI doesn't tell you, in pure dollar amounts, is who's doing the most arms dealing. If you want that, the US government is somewhat surprisingly your best resource. It semi-regularly publishes an estimate through the Congressional Research Service (CRS) that's allegedly derived from classified sources.
The most recent CRS numbers on global arms transfers are pretty staggering. In sheer dollar terms, the US and Russia sell 61 percent of all government-to-government arms transfer agreements around the world.
Here's a chart of arms sales by the US, Russia, and the rest of Europe. Don't miss that little bar on the far-right: "all others." As in, the entire rest of the world.
These numbers are a little skewed by a one-time $30 billion US fighter jet sale to Saudi Arabia in 2011. But taking that out only knocks the number down by about 6 percentage points. Even in the post-Cold War World, the United States and Russia clearly dominate the global arms trade.
India and China are the world's largest importers — and that's bad for India
In terms of who is importing the most, India and China lead the way. In a certain sense, that's no surprise, as they're the world's two largest emerging powers. Also unsurprisingly, they both buy overwhelmingly from Russia. 75 percent of Indian purchases come from Moscow, as do 64 percent of Chinese.
But what's really interesting is that India and China switched first and second place around 2008 — India rapidly outpaced China as the world's largest importer, according to SIPRI.
That's not because India is suddenly overtaking China in terms of military power. Rather, the Chinese government has pretty effectively built up a domestic arms manufacturing and research sector. China is getting more self-sufficient, in other words. That's good in defense terms but it's also much better for China's economy to spend all that money domestically. India's arms sector is so sclerotic, by contrast, that it doesn't even make boots and uniforms all that well.
Chinese and European sales may be doing the most harm
It's pretty hard to assess the arms trade's effect on conflict, but it makes sense in theory that the flow of arms would be most dangerous in regions already prone to internal or external conflict, and that includes some parts of Africa. The generally higher rate of conflict and comparative weakness of states would make even a small influx of weapons more dangerous. Indeed, one study of 30 years of data on arms sales to sub-Saharan Africa found that arms sales were "significant and positive" predictors of war's onset around the continent.
So who's arming African states? Surprisingly, CRS data says it's neither of the big two exporters, America or Russia. The biggest is China, followed by Europe.
This makes a certain amount of sense. Wealthier West European countries maintain ties with some of their former colonies, while poorer East European countries often have former Soviet weapons they'd like to sell to a market that Russia doesn't already dominate.
China, for its part, is increasingly invested in Africa in both financial and military terms. Arms sales may be another tactic for building relations with African governments in may want to do business with.