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The cost of US export controls

By legislative and executive fiat the United States has created an increasing web of linkages between export policy and foreign policy.

The ostensible justifications are obvious enough: by controlling the access of foreign countries to American markets, the US punishes adversaries, rewards friends, induces (or attempts to induce) changes in the internal or external policies of particular regimes.

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However, it would appear that export policy may be highly ineffective in achieving the desired objectives. Moreover, it may well create more foreign policy problems than it solves.

Consider first the effect of denying access to US markets to a particular government. In any case in which even roughly comparable products are available elsewhere, the only effect will be to limit the selection available to the purchasing country. A purchase which might have been made in the US, because of lower price or higher quality, will be made somewhere else. At most, the target government incurs higher costs or lesser quality.

Even casual knowledge of international markets for most products, including military materiel, is sufficient to indicate the relatively slight costs imposed on target regimes.

Military aircraft with capabilities comparable to those available in the US, for example, can be acquired from France and the Soviet Union. The same is true of most technologically sophisticated weaponry, not to mention less glamorous armaments such as tanks and rifles.

On the civilian front, pipeline equipment, computers, and agricultural commodities are available on the world market to anyone who can pay the price. In short, by refusing to export to a particular country the US may impose some costs on that country, but the costs will generally not be great.

The most obvious costs for the US are the economic costs of refusing to trade. But when one includes noneconomic factors as well, the net costs associated with the intertwining of export and foreign policies become even clearer.

Specifically, this linkage creates foreign policy complications which would otherwise not exist.

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Under current circumstances, the export of any product to any country effectively implies a foreign policy decision that this transaction is in the US interest. When the US sells weaponry to a repressive regime, it places an imprimatur on that regime, signalling that the regime is becoming less repressive, or is preferable to any alternative.

Similarly, in agreeing to trade with an adversary, the US must assert that it has obtained some reciprocal advantage, risking the demonstration, sooner or later, that this was an illusory advantage, showing up the US to have been naive , and raising questions concerning the general intelligence and credibility of US foreign policy.

In effect, use of export restrictions as an instrument of foreign policy creates foreign policy issues and requires foreign policy decisions where these are in fact unnecessary.

Simply because the US sells wheat or armored personnel carriers to country X does not require that it confer approval on the government in power in country X , or that it make a determination that a particular transaction will affect the government's behavior, at home or abroad, in ways that are in the US interests.

To insist on this will ultimately deflect attention from truly significant foreign policy issues, as foreign policymakers are increasingly absorbed in making arbitrary, irrelevant decisions concerning export transactions which have little, if any, significance for the international objectives of the US.

This deflection of attention from the really important issues of foreign policy is nowhere more apparent than in public discussion and debate. Many governments in the world, on both the right and the left, pursue foreign and domestic policies which the vast majority of Americans view as inconsistent with their interests and values.

When, by fiat, the US converts a purely economic transaction into an expression of US foreign policy, it virtually guarantees a public debate in which attention focuses on values and intentions rather than on the real effects of concrete alternatives. If a refusal of trade has little effect, then an excess of moralization can have no greater effect.