Arming a few dictators but not others: The politics of UK arms sales to Chile (1973–1989) and Argentina (1976–1983)

Published date01 May 2022
Date01 May 2022
Subject MatterOriginal Articles
The British Journal of Politics and
International Relations
2022, Vol. 24(2) 324 –342
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/13691481211033192
Arming a few dictators but not
others: The politics of UK arms
sales to Chile (1973–1989) and
Argentina (1976–1983)
Rodrigo Fracalossi de Moraes1,2
The United Kingdom imposed an arms embargo on Chile in 1974 but not on Argentina after the
1976 coup, despite brutal military dictatorships in both countries. What explains this difference?
What can this difference reveal about the determinants of government decisions regarding
arms exports? Using mainly archival evidence, this article demonstrates that this difference is
explained by a stronger advocacy network in the United Kingdom campaigning on Chile, which
was largely due to a greater identification of the British left with the Chilean struggle. The hub of
this network was the Chile Solidarity Campaign, which mediated the influence of the transnational
anti-Pinochet movement on the UK government. These findings suggest that shared values or
identities make transnational issues more likely to resonate with domestic audiences. Evidence
also indicates the importance of activists’ connections with gatekeepers, focus on specific arms
deals, and demonstrated causal chains between arms exports and repression.
advocacy networks, arms trade, Latin America, military regimes, norms, UK foreign policy
What determines government decisions to authorise, promote, or restrict exports of weap-
ons? From a rational-choice standpoint, the following strategic and economic factors
drive arms export decisions: governments promote arms exports to strengthen their secu-
rity, have leverage on other governments, gain access to military or intelligence facilities,
maintain contact with local elites, or facilitate access to supplies of natural resources.
Also under this perspective, governments may export weapons to boost economic growth,
increase employment, increase inflows of hard currency, or amortise research costs of
weapons development (Akerman and Seim, 2014; Hartley, 2000; Laurance, 1992; Levine
1Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
2Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
Corresponding author:
Rodrigo Fracalossi de Moraes, Institute for Applied Economic Research (Ipea), Av. Presidente Vargas,
730, 20071-900 Centro, Rio de Janeiro-RJ, Brazil.
1033192BPI0010.1177/13691481211033192The British Journal of Politics and International RelationsFracalossi de Moraes
Original Article
Fracalossi de Moraes 325
and Smith, 2003; Raska and Bitzinger, 2020; Soysa and Midford, 2012; Stohl and Grillot,
2009; Yarhi-Milo et al., 2016).
Another group of scholars stresses how government decisions on the types of weapons
they export – and customers to whom they sell – depend on norms of control and transfer
of weapons. Part of this literature looks at how transnational advocacy networks promote
norms of responsibility concerning arms development, possession, use, and trade, empha-
sising how these networks can change what is considered appropriate behaviour. This
literature has explained the creation of the Ottawa Convention (Anderson, 2000; Cameron
et al., 1998; Petrova, 2007; Price, 1998; Rutherford, 2000), the European regime on arms
exports (Erickson, 2013; Hansen and Marsh, 2015), the emergence of international norms
concerning small arms and light weapons (Garcia, 2006, 2009, 2011; Krause, 2002, 2004,
2014), the Convention on Cluster Munitions (Bolton and Nash, 2010; Petrova, 2007,
2016), and the Arms Trade Treaty (Whall and Pytlak, 2014) from this angle. Findings of
this literature indicate that norm-driven actors can construct certain weapons as intrinsi-
cally problematic and construct arms transfers to certain customers as inappropriate.
However, the impact of international norms and law – and of transnational campaigns
– on government behaviour is likely to be mediated by domestic political dynamics.
Because governments need to authorise arms exports and frequently promote, fund, or
provide credit guarantee to arms deals, they are often pressured by arms manufacturers,
civil society organisations, or political parties to promote, authorise, restrict, or ban arms
exports. Pressures are especially strong when large arms deals are at stake and controver-
sial weapons or customers are involved. Yet, what makes arms exports a politically salient
– and divisive – issue in domestic politics? And what are the effects of their high domestic
political salience on a government’s behaviour?
This article looks at an empirical puzzle whose solution should contribute to a better
understanding of the determinants of arms export policies and practice: why did the
United Kingdom impose an arms embargo on Chile in 1974 but not on Argentina after the
1976 coup? This difference is puzzling because levels of political violence were high in
both countries. Moreover, the 1976 coup in Argentina coincided with a Labour govern-
ment in the United Kingdom, which had imposed an embargo on Chile in 1974. Besides,
the United Kingdom had more incentives to export weapons to Chile than to Argentina
due to the risk of Chile cutting copper exports, because Chile was a larger market for
British weapons, and due to the risk of Argentina invading the Falklands or Malvinas.
Also, there was not a multilateral embargo (either mandatory or voluntary) against Chile
– as there was, for example, against South Africa since 1963 – further reducing the UK
government’s incentives to impose an embargo on Chile.
The existence of a transnational anti-Pinochet movement explains in part why the
United Kingdom imposed an embargo in 1974, but not why it did before other arms
exporters in the West. The US Congress imposed an embargo on Chile in 1976 (under the
leadership of Senator Ted Kennedy) and, until the end of the 1970s, Austria was the only
other Western European country to have imposed an embargo on Chile. In contrast, while
the United States imposed an embargo on Argentina in 1977 (in force from 1978 onwards),
the United Kingdom did it only when the Falklands/Malvinas War started. These diver-
gent policies suggest that transnational forces were mediated by specific features of
domestic politics in the United Kingdom in a given moment.
Based on research conducted mainly at The National Archives in London, this article
argues that the British government imposed and maintained an embargo on Chile due in
part to a domestic advocacy network, whose hub was the Chile Solidarity Campaign

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