Modern norms of conflict resolution oblige states to attempt all measures short of war before intervening militarily. Sanctions—coercive or punitive measures used to improve behavior—have become the most popular foreign policy instruments of states and intergovernmental organizations. The most common sanction is the arms embargo, a unilateral or multilateral prohibition on the supply, sale, or transfer of weapons, military equipment, or military services. Arms embargoes have three goals: to signal disapproval of an actor's behavior; to maintain a neutral standing in a conflict; and to limit the potential for violence.

Apart from those imposed by the US, the world's top exporter, unilateral arms embargoes are rarely effective because arms can be readily purchased from states that are not operating an embargo. Regional embargoes, such as those undertaken by the EU, also face this effectiveness problem. UN arms embargoes—the focus of this paper—can be voluntary or mandatory, the latter being more common and legally binding on Member States. Mandatory multilateral arms embargoes are often imposed on human rights violators, warring parties, and those seen to be compromising international peace and security. Ostensibly, UN arms embargoes have the highest potential for success due to the involvement of a majority of Member States; yet, they are frequently, and often flagrantly, violated.

Why, and how, do arms embargoes fail? This paper seeks to answer those questions, first by outlining how the global arms trade works—the underlying principles, main categories, and major trends. It then identifies and analyzes a set of seven factors that predict, or contribute to, the failure of an arms embargo. The more factors present, the weaker the embargo. Some factors, like conventional weapons' long lifespans and high potential for diversion, are always present and inherently diminish an embargo's prospects for success. To be clear, this paper is not arguing that arms embargoes never work or are destined to fail. Rather, the purpose of this paper is to recognize the circumstances that undermine arms embargoes—some of which can be addressed, some of which can only be accounted for.

Understanding the Global Arms Trade

A. Underlying Principles

The arms trade discussed in this paper is the trade in conventional weapons. Unlike weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons), conventional weapons are recognized as legitimate tools of governments, militaries, law enforcement, and civilians. The conventional arms trade is the exchange of a broad range of equipment, including armored combat vehicles, combat aircraft, combat helicopters, warships, small arms and light weapons (known collectively as "SALW"), landmines, cluster munitions, artillery, and ammunition. States and state-authorized actors are privileged participants in the conventional weapons trade. Article 51 of the 1945 UN Charter guarantees sovereign states the inherent right to individual or collective self-defense. This is understood to mean that states, and licensed entities within states, have the right to produce, trade, and retain conventional arms.

In addition to state governments, major participants in the arms trade are state intelligence agencies, manufacturers, non-state actors (including organized crime, militias, and transnational networks), arms brokers, traffickers, and financiers. As in other trades with strong criminal elements, the arms trade operates under the competing authorities of legal, what states consider legitimate in accordance with norms and laws, and licit, what the actors involved consider legitimate. Transactions can thus be illegal in the eyes of the law and 'licit' in the eyes of the participants. In theory, all participants are constrained by laws and norms to only those transactions that are both legal and licit. In practice, states and their intelligence agencies regularly collude with arms brokers, traffickers, and financiers to funnel illicit arms to non-state actors or states under embargo.

B. Four Main Categories

According to Nicholas Marsh and Lauren Pinson, the global arms trade can be divided into four categories, listed here in descending order of legality: 1) Authorized Trade; 2) Semi-Legal Trade; 3) State-Sanctioned Illicit Trade, termed "the grey market"; and 4) Wholly Illicit Trade, known as "the black market." The authorized trade is entirely legally compliant and accounts for most state-to-state trade in major weapons systems and equipment, like aircraft and warships. In the semi-legal trade, different aspects of the trade, like components of the supply chain or the chain of custody, may be authorized or unauthorized. It is usually used to supply larger groups involved in organized crime or political violence and often involves high transaction costs and complex arrangements for covert acquisition of weapons under state control. State-sanctioned illicit trade is typically used to supply unauthorized non-state parties or groups involved in political violence. Grey market trade is employed as a foreign policy tool and involves "direct complicity of government officials who have political approval for their actions." In most cases, as in the infamous Iran-Contra Affair, the intent is to destabilize unfavorable regimes. Most embargo violations occur in the semi-legal and state-sanctioned illicit trades. Finally, wholly illicit trade is entirely illegal and, while pervasive, is usually small-scale. Arms transfers between criminal organizations would constitute black market trades.

C. Major Trends in the Global Arms Trade

The global arms trade is incredibly vast and lucrative. Estimates of its size for the year 2019 ranged from $118 billion to $212 billion. The illicit arms trade is nearly impossible to quantify but is likely worth multiple billions. Aging estimates of illicit SALW sales alone hover around $1 billion. Given continued SALW proliferation, it stands to reason that total grey market transfers in today's dollars are worth at least that, likely more.

From 2017-2021, the world's largest arms exporters were the US (39 percent of global exports), the EU (24 percent), and Russia (19 percent). Over the past two decades, the US has solidified its dominance in global arms exports, while a declining Russia has ceded market share to China, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and others. While the EU operates under a Common Foreign and Security Policy, it is misleading to think of Europe as a single actor in the global arms trade. Arms export decisions are considered a matter of national security and are therefore the sole responsibility of Member States, who are free to act independently of each other. For the period 2017-2021, Asia and Oceania overtook the Middle East as the principal destination for global arms imports. The world's largest arms importers were India (11 percent of global imports), Saudi Arabia (11 percent), and Egypt (5.7 percent). While not factored into official tallies, illicit arms continue to flow into and out of Libya, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and other states under UN embargo, EU embargo, or both.

The Seven Factors Undermining Arms Embargoes

  1. The long lifespan and high potential for diversion of conventional arms.
  2. Fragile state dynamics in the embargoed state.
  3. High weapons prevalence or production capacity in the embargoed state.
  4. Access to financing among embargoed actors.
  5. Variety of import entry points to embargoed states.
  6. Collective action problems among embargo implementers.
  7. Lack of arms embargo enforcement mechanisms.

1. The long lifespan and high potential for diversion of conventional arms

First, arms embargoes are ineffective because weapons are durable goods with long lifespans. Conventional weapons can be easily reused, repurposed, or used for parts. They can be stored and transported without spoiling, and even single-use "consumables," such as landmines and ammunition, can remain active or functional for decades. Problems arise because the exporter has little control over how the weapons are used through the years. Suppliers cannot shut down or retract the weapons if they are deployed against civilians, illicitly re-exported, reverse-engineered and replicated, or if the importer becomes a future threat. Perhaps the most egregious example of this last point was the CIA's multi-billion-dollar program from 1979-1982 to arm and finance the Afghan mujahedeen—many of whom went on to form Al Qaeda.

Overwhelmingly, conventional weapons are manufactured legally. Diversion to illicit or illegal markets is a consequence of trade. SALW, small arms (weapons for personal use, like pistols or assault rifles) and light weapons (weapons for small team use, like heavy machine guns or portable anti-aircraft missiles, known as "MANPADS"), are frequently diverted or trafficked due to their prevalence, easy operability, compact size, and vast utility. For these reasons, arms embargoes are less effective at capturing SALW transfers than they are at preventing trade in larger, more sophisticated weapons. As a result, combat in embargoed states tends to be more chaotic and have a higher incidence of human rights violations, as is typical of conflicts characterized by small arms and light weapons.

2. Fragile state dynamics in the embargoed state

Arms embargoes fail when states are unable to regulate the weapons present within their jurisdictions. Fragile states are unable to perform this crucial task because they have lost their monopoly on the legitimate use of force within their territory—defined by Max Weber as the essential feature of a functioning state. In fragile states, weak institutions and low capacity to deliver basic services diminish citizen faith in government. This creates a gap between the state's theoretical right to exercise power and its actual ability to do so. The resulting legitimacy vacuum gives rise to new power structures, controlled by factionalized elites and militias who operate with little regard for international rules and norms. Lacking the authority and capacity to enforce laws or project power, fragile states are vulnerable to intervention or co-optation by enterprising external actors.

Unfortunately, arms embargoes may only exacerbate fragile state dynamics. Politicians and scholars have argued that arms embargoes impede the state's ability to re-establish control and infringe its inherent right to self-defense. The argument is that the state is compelled to respect international law (i.e., the terms of the embargo), while non-state actors are free to operate by their own rules. Therefore, an arms embargo creates an asymmetry where the state is prevented from weapons resupply while non-state actors can continue filling their arsenals and coffers by illicit means. In this way, arms embargoes can inadvertently empower co-opted elites and entrench a culture of criminalization in the embargoed state—to the detriment of both short-term conflict resolution and long-term governance prospects.

3. High weapons prevalence or production capacity in the embargoed state

Arms embargoes are less successful when there are already significant quantities of weapons on the ground prior to the embargo. Bulging inventories can sustain intensive warfare in embargoed states for months or even years. At least initially, arms embargoes on heavily armed countries are more symbolic than anything else. For example, when Yugoslavia descended into violence in the early 1990s, it was awash with arms. Yugoslav depots housed some 3.5 million infantry arms, 11,000 large-caliber artillery pieces, 3,500 tanks, and two years' worth of ammunition. A 1991 UN arms embargo was therefore unable to prevent the outbreak of the Bosnian War in 1992 and did little to stem the tide of violence that followed. Weapons stockpiles in fragile and conflict states are also problematic because they are often poorly guarded and pose major risks for arms proliferation. Stockpiled arms are frequently diverted to belligerents and unauthorized users via theft, battlefield capture, and illicit sales.

A high production capacity in the embargoed state, or at least guaranteed access to each element of the supply chain, will also undermine the efficacy of an arms embargo. If a state is a self-sufficient manufacturer of arms, a restriction on arms imports will have little impact. North Korea is a good example of this. The totalitarian state has been building its production capabilities for decades, developing networks for covert technology procurement and preaching a "military first" doctrine to justify spending scant state resources on weapons systems (nuclear, chemical, and conventional). Additionally, comprehensive UN sanctions, in place since 2006, have proven ineffective at curbing the production and proliferation of North Korean weapons. North Korea has been a major supplier of illicit arms (particularly SALW) to Syria, Iran, and non-state actors in Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, Uganda, and Sri Lanka.

Most states—let alone states under embargo—are unable to replicate North Korea's domestic defense industrial base. Increasing production capacity is difficult. It requires massive capital investments, industrial facilities, technical know-how, and time—all of which are in short supply in fragile or conflict-ridden embargoed states. That said, some commentators have suggested that arms embargoes catalyze self-sufficiency, pointing to the case of South Africa, which substantially increased indigenous arms production while under embargo (Voluntary UN arms embargo, 1963-1977; Mandatory UN arms embargo, 1977-1994). Others disagree. They attribute South Africa's production surge to extensive illicit arms and technology transfers from embargo-violating states—rather than a necessity-driven spike in homegrown capacity. In the modern era, emerging technologies (e.g., 3D printing) and online platforms (ranging from dark web sites to Facebook) are lowering the threshold for building capacity and circumventing embargoes. So far, use of these technologies in the arms trade has been too small-scale to have an impact, but this will change in the coming years.

4. Access to financing among embargoed actors

Arms embargoes fail when embargoed actors have access to a steady stream of money to finance arms purchases. Stand-alone arms embargoes are almost never successful. Usually, they are accompanied by other 'targeted sanctions' in a multi-pronged effort to restrict financing and penalize influential political and economic players. Such sanctions include asset freezes, travel bans, diplomatic sanctions, and commodity interdiction. One of the most effective arms embargoes—the 1990-2003 embargo on Iraq—was so successful because the international community was able to capture and monitor the use of Iraqi oil revenues, which were deposited in a UN-controlled fund tied to the "Oil-For-Food Programme" (OIP). While the OIP suffered from corruption and abuse, the UN fund was able to prevent enough covert financing to make the embargo successful.

Fortunately for embargoed actors, such UN funds are uncommon and the international arms trade is a buyer's market. Since the mid-2000's, arms suppliers have multiplied and diversified, lowering the cost of weapons and tempting suppliers to be less restrictive in their exports. Therefore, a buyer with the means to pay will inevitably find a supplier—embargo or not.
Embargoed states and actors employ various techniques to finance their arms purchases. In fragile states, well-armed elites and militia groups leverage their relative strength to rearrange economies and regulate the flow and distribution of other goods. They parlay the threat of violence into financial gain by: opening or closing trade routes (especially for the smuggling and trafficking of goods, humans, drugs, or arms), crowding out legitimate economic activity, artificially inflating prices, evading taxes, levying arbitrary taxes, taking bribes, exploiting natural resources, commandeering private and state resources, and engaging in state capture. Illicit economic activities—especially smuggling and trafficking—are primarily cash-based and are often transacted through third-party intermediaries, making it difficult to target the states and actors involved using asset freezes or other economic sanctions.

In the arms trade, the use of brokers as third-party intermediaries is significant. Working with arms brokers is not illegal; they are often contracted by states and organizations to coordinate the logistics, transport, insurance, and financials of authorized trades. That said, arms brokers have developed a reputation for exploiting loopholes and differences in countries' legal systems to facilitate grey market operations. In the illicit trade, brokers help forge documents and end-user certificates, divert shipments, and manage front companies to conceal and launder illicit proceeds.

Another financing tactic is simply to print money. Governments generally avoid printing money for military expenditures because inflation, a politically unpopular consequence, ensues. That said, if the need is immediate, a state may prefer this to raising taxes or borrowing money. Parallel governments and non-state actors may print or import counterfeit money. The notable case of this Libya. Since 2014, the start of the Second Libyan Civil War (2014-2020), Libya has operated under competing authorities: the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), a faction of Libya's armed forces commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Libya is currently under a mandatory UN arms embargo and related economic sanctions. Nevertheless, UN Security Council member Russia has been a major arms supplier and financier for Haftar's LNA. During the course of the war, Russia printed over 12 billion counterfeit Libyan dinars to finance Haftar's insurgency, most of which the sovereign central bank in Tripoli was forced to accept.

Finally, sanctioned states may look to avoid financial flows altogether by employing the barter system. Arms can be used as currency in "arms-for-X" trades, where 'X' could be oil, drugs, steel, sugar, or any other commodity. The most common are "arms-for-oil" trades, which often occur between two sanctioned states as a practical means to withstand mutual isolation and to achieve respective security goals. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, South Africa and North Korea began cooperating with Iran on arms-for-oil deals. Iranian oil helped South Africa and North Korea power their industries and fuel their societies, while South African and North Korean weapons, training, and production materials helped Iran to (a Pyrrhic) victory over Iraq and provided a foundation for its now-significant arms industry.

5. Variety of import entry points to the embargoed state

Arms embargoes are less likely to succeed if embargoed actors are able to import weaponry through a variety of entry points. There are three mechanisms for delivery of illicit arms, with the third pertaining primarily to SALW: sea, air, and land (either by vehicle or cross-border concealed carry, also known as the "ant trade"). Detecting illicit arms shipments is already a difficult task; illicit arms are usually intermingled with, or moved along the same routes as, legitimate cargo. The more access points embargoed actors have to those shipments, the tougher it is to enforce the embargo.

The largest shipments and biggest individual items are sent by sea. According to a 2020 report on firearms trafficking by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), from 2016-2017, cases of illicit arms seizures from seafaring vessels involved more than five times the number of weapons intercepted from other modes of transport. Embargoes on landlocked countries should be easier to enforce, since access to larger shipments would be cut off by the embargoed state's coastal neighbors. A case study of the Bosnian War provides evidence to support this, but complications arise when the coastal neighbors are themselves under embargo, or when they have a vested interest in the outcome of affairs in the embargoed state.

During the war, Bosnia's 10-mile Neum Corridor on the Adriatic Sea was held by the Bosnian Croats (supported by Croatia), who were pitted in a three-way battle for much of the conflict against the Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian Serbs (supported by Serbia and Montenegro). This was primarily an issue for the Bosnian Muslims, who lacked the sort of coastal access and outside support enjoyed by the other warring factions. A December 1992 US intelligence estimate described the situation: "The Bosnian Army relies almost exclusively on Croatia and the Bosnian Croats for arms and supplies…Any outside assistance is subject to Zagreb's cooperation." The US advocated a "lift and strike" policy to level the playing field, but it was impossible to lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims without effectively lifting a separate embargo on Croatia. Arms shipments would have to pass through Croatian territory or otherwise be airdropped in at great cost. It was already an open secret that Croatia was skimming off the top of illicit arms shipments to the Bosnian Muslims—between 20-50 percent of arms went to the so-called Croatian "transit tax." As this example illustrates, Croat access to seaports significantly improved their import potential under embargo and, importantly, made them gatekeepers for other inland actors.

Despite the expense and traceability of arms trafficking by air, it remains a major threat to embargo enforcement and conflict resolution efforts. In areas that are sparsely populated, prone to banditry, governed by competing authorities, or lacking adequate infrastructure for timely land delivery, arms trafficking by air may be the only viable supply option. Unlike maritime transfers, airplanes cannot be stopped and searched in transit and, short of using military force, little can be done about aircraft that divert en route. Additionally, many of the same air cargo companies that are contracted by the UN to deliver humanitarian assistance are also involved in transporting or trafficking "conflict-sensitive" goods, like arms, diamonds, drugs, tobacco, and precious minerals. Since the 1990s, air trafficking of conflict-sensitive goods to/from embargoed states has facilitated violence and sustained "war economies"—political economies that seek to perpetuate conflict for financial or political gain—in Africa's most serious conflict zones, many of which are far from coastal areas. Air cargo carriers may engage in air trafficking because they are closely tied to state governments, are part-owned by regional power brokers, or are enmeshed in organized criminal activities. Potential methods for disrupting air trafficking operations include compulsory deregistering, landing bans, and asset freezes.

By far, most SALW trafficking occurs across land borders, which can be long and poorly patrolled. According to the UNODC firearms report, illicit arms seizures at land crossings accounted for two-thirds of the total number of arms apprehended between 2016-2017. Arms are smuggled across borders by truckload and piecemeal, via the "ant trade." Just as individual ants carry small amounts back to a vast colony, in the ant trade, individual operators transport small quantities of illicit arms across borders to meet large-scale demand. In the aggregate, individual contributions add up, which can prolong the conflict and undermine embargoes.

In Libya, UN and EU arms embargoes have proven "totally ineffective," largely due to arms trafficking over Libya's numerous and notoriously porous land borders with neighboring Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia. Egypt has been cited as among the most flagrant violators of the UN arms embargo on Libya. Robust trafficking networks along Egypt's western border funnel black and grey market arms to LNA forces, who control most of eastern Libya. Nevertheless, Egypt remains a primary destination for US and EU arms exports. This plays into a trend with predictable consequences: When mandatory UN arms embargoes are imposed, direct imports to the embargoed states tend to decrease, but imports to countries neighboring the embargoed states tend to increase. While countries neighboring an embargoed state may have legitimate concerns for conflict spillover effects, arms exports to these countries mainly heighten regional tensions and hyper-militarize borders. These arms also have a high chance of being smuggled into the embargoed state—frequently the intent of the original exporter, who may be seeking to circumvent the embargo without explicitly violating international laws.

6. Collective action problems among embargo implementers

Multilateral arms embargoes fail because they inherently suffer from collective action problems—social dilemmas where individuals are motivated to defect from joint action due to conflicting interests. According to Michael Moore, collective action problems for arms embargoes are especially acute because arms exports represent "a direct transfer of the capability to carry out political violence…and to change the balance of power." This means that even though there is a relatively large group of international arms suppliers, each individual defection causes a noticeable decrease in the embargo's coercive power, giving the 'weakest link' the potential to determine the embargo's overall success. Of course, not all arms suppliers are created equal. Major arms exporters, like the US and Russia, have the potential to undermine embargoes more quickly and dramatically than minor exporters. Still, states of all export capacities choose to violate arms embargoes when the perceived economic, political, or strategic benefits of noncompliance outweigh both the costs of getting caught and the consequences of embargo failure.

International arms sales benefit exporters economically in four principal ways. First, they support the exporter's economy as a source of jobs and hard currency. Second, they enhance domestic defense industry competitiveness and pre-empt other suppliers from increasing their market share. Third, they allow producers to exploit economies of scale. Fourth, they are necessary to help producers recoup the high costs of research, development, and production. Many industrial and smaller-scale arms producers rely on exports to maintain their own defense industrial bases. This export dependence may push states to defect from collective action.

While economic concerns are at play, studies have shown they are less important than political and strategic considerations in a state's decision to violate an embargo. States illicitly transfer arms to secure access to resources, support preferred political partners, shore up military alliances, increase interoperability between armed forces, or to maintain or change the balance of power in a region. States may also be motivated to breach embargoes for ideological or moral reasons. During the Bosnian War, many states, such as Iran and Turkey, were unwilling to abide by the terms of the comprehensive UN arms embargo on all parties. They felt the embargo disproportionately advantaged the Bosnian Serbs by freezing the substantial Serb military advantage in place.

Among the most significant predictors of which states will violate arms embargoes is the level of import dependence of embargoed actors. Militaries and militias often seek to standardize their weapons systems, building strategies and training programs around particular combinations of arms. This can lead to a lock-in effect where importers must return to specific suppliers for ordinance, maintenance, and spare parts. Import dependence—a liability for any state—is amplified for embargoed actors because interoperability issues make finding new suppliers all the more challenging. States may break from collective action to exploit the resulting power asymmetry, offering embargoed actors much-needed arms in exchange for various concessions. It is worth noting that this leverage is less relevant in trades of less-sophisticated weapons with many available suppliers, like the SALW trade.  
States may violate arms embargoes if the embargoed actor has a high capacity for retaliation or if it has leverage over an issue of existential concern to embargo implementing states. Oil dependency (and preoccupation with preventing migration) has prompted European states like Italy and France to take unsavory action in Libya for years. Surging energy costs cause price hikes for consumer goods and services, contributing to inflation, stifling economic growth, and inciting social unrest. Governments in even the most law-abiding oil-poor states may be tempted to violate arms embargoes to pre-empt or resolve domestic discontent. In 2018, the Gilets Jaunes ("Yellow Vests") protests swept France, motivated, in part, by rising fuel prices. That same year, France increased its oil presence in Libya. One year later, France was cited for providing illicit arms to the LNA.

7. Lack of arms enforcement mechanisms

Arms embargoes fail because enforcement mechanisms are weak. As discussed in the previous section, the success of UN embargoes—or any international legislation—relies on the collective support of sovereign states, who form what is essentially a coalition of the willing. To be sure, 'willing' does not necessarily mean 'able' or 'eager.' In many UN Member States, the police, customs controls, and judiciaries lack the capacity, technology, or legitimacy to pursue and prosecute embargo violations. Even though Member States have a legal obligation to abide by and implement arms embargo measures, many States do not treat infringement of a UN embargo as a criminal offense under domestic law.  

The UN process for adopting sanctions packages is complicated and leaves room for loopholes. All 15 members of the UN Security Council (5 permanent; 10 rotating) sit on the sanctions committee. Committee decisions must be taken by unanimous consensus, meaning that each member has an effective veto. To garner widespread agreement, embargo proposals are watered down by various exemptions, carve outs, and differentiated criteria—all of which pose risks for illicit arms diversion. For example, the arms embargo on Somalia, in place since 1992, exempts deliveries of weapons and equipment for Somali National Security Forces, despite the fact that, according to Khristopher Carlson, many Somali security providers also serve in clan militias and have a reputation for "absconding with government weapons, ammunition, and uniforms." UN sanctions packages are almost always time limited. Extensions are subject to renegotiation, which may result in packages that are more reflective of Security Council politics than the situation on the ground in the embargoed state. In recent years, Russia and China have shielded Syria, Myanmar, Sudan, and others from new or expanded sanctions.

Finally, international laws inherently suffer from the absence of a global enforcer with the means and authority to hold noncompliant actors accountable. As a result, strong states have the power to act with impunity. While direct embargo contravention is rare, especially among established democracies, American and European arms often end up in the wrong places and the wrong hands. The US and Europe are among the top arms suppliers to anti-democratic regimes, human rights abusers, and known embargo violators like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE. As both exporters and regulators, strong states are in a position to be the proverbial 'fox guarding the henhouse.' SALW diversion continues to be an issue, largely because major exporters like the US and EU champion SALW control while simultaneously occupying the top spots for SALW exports. From 2014-2016, the US and EU accounted for over 50 percent of the global SALW trade.


The logic behind UN arms embargoes is clear and simple: contain the scope and severity of war, human rights abuses, and threats to international security by restricting access to the tools needed for violence. Complying with arms embargoes can serve national interests by improving a state's international credibility as a reliable and rule-based actor—which often translates to increased influence and opportunities for economic gain. Nevertheless, arms embargoes across various geographical contexts and time periods have been systematically violated. To assess why and how arms embargoes fail, this paper analyzed seven broad factors that undermine an embargo's potential for success. The first pertained to the inherent features of weapons and the predictable consequences of the arms trade. The second, third, fourth, and fifth concerned conditions present in the embargoed state. The sixth and seventh result from the often-divergent strategic interests and utility calculations of embargo-implementing states.         

While this paper has provided several recommendations for how to make arms embargoes more effective, there will always be a chance of embargo failure as long as the arms trade continues—and continues to grow. Further research is needed to update estimates of the value and scope of illicit transfers across various weapons categories and to determine how best to hold the most powerful states and largest exporters accountable. Research on the second point would need to look at options for reduction in arms production and circulation, which may be unpopular for national economic and foreign policy reasons but would increase the effectiveness of arms embargoes and better align state actions in the arms trade with their professed goals of peace and security. In the meantime, this paper serves primarily as a guide to help policymakers identify potential weak points and set expectations when planning and implementing arms embargoes.

About the Author

Caroline Klaff is a second year Master of International Affairs candidate at Johns Hopkins SAIS, on exchange for her final semester at Sciences Po in Paris, France. Caroline has over five years of professional experience in the transatlantic policy arena. In Washington, D.C., Caroline served in the offices of US Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall and in the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution. In Brussels, Caroline worked as a research intern at Carnegie Europe and an EU Government Affairs intern at Italian energy company Eni SpA. Caroline holds B.A.s in Global Studies and Italian from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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