Export Controls: A Better Way

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s speech on export controls Tuesday did an excellent job in clearly laying out the Cold War roots of our complicated approval system and explaining it present-day consequences.

[A] major obstacle we face is the bureaucratic apparatus that has grown up around export control – a byzantine amalgam of authorities, roles, and missions scattered around different parts of the federal government. In theory, this provides checks and balances – the idea being that security concerns, customarily represented by DoD, would check economic interests represented by the Commerce Department and balance out diplomatic and relationship-building equities represented by State. In reality, this diffusion of authority – where separate export-control lists are maintained by different agencies – results in confusion about jurisdiction and approval, on the part of companies and government officials alike. 

The upshot of which is:

The system has the effect of discouraging exporters from approaching the process as intended. Multinational companies can move production offshore, eroding our defense industrial base, undermining our control regimes in the process, and not to mention losing American jobs. Some European satellite manufacturers even market their products as being not subject to U.S. export controls, thus drawing overseas not only potential customers, but some of the best scientists and engineers as well.  At the same time, onerous and complicated restrictions too often fail to prevent weapons and technologies from going places they shouldn’t. They only incentivize more creative circumvention strategies – on the part of foreign companies, as well as countries that do not have our best interests at heart. 

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