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What Is the American Export Control System?

5 MINS READJun 10, 2019 | 20:55 GMT
The Japan registered Meishan Bridge container ship sits in dock at the Global Container Terminal in Jersey City, New Jersey on July 14, 2018 as seen from Bayonne, New Jersey.

The Japan registered Meishan Bridge container ship sits in dock at the Global Container Terminal in Jersey City, New Jersey on July 14, 2018 as seen from Bayonne, New Jersey. Designed to facilitate the intersection of commerce and national security, export controls are utilized to not only protect American businesses and national security but to further American foreign policy objectives. This is part one of a three-part series in which guest columnists discuss U.S. efforts to reform export controls and the role those controls play in U.S. foreign policy.

(Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
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Paige Wakefield has a Masters of International Affairs, National Security and Diplomacy from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. She is the author of the first in a three-part series on U.S. export controls. In this column she discusses the United States' efforts to reform export controls and the role those controls play in U.S. foreign policy.

An integral component of the American system, export controls lie at an important confluence of U.S. foreign policy. Designed to facilitate the intersection of commerce and national security, export controls are utilized to not only protect American businesses and national security but to further American foreign policy objectives. They are meant to restrict the export of critical technologies, hardware, software and information to foreign nationals both within and outside of the United States.

Export controls have been utilized since the founding of the United States when George Washington banned the export of goods to Britain. Export controls continued to be utilized by American presidents to punish their adversaries, especially during times of war.

It was not until the 1940s under President Truman's leadership, however, that the first peacetime export control law was introduced to prevent the Soviet bloc from receiving American goods without a license. It was during this time period when export controls were altered to look less like a punishment mechanism and more as an instrument of foreign policy.

Over time, this system has become gradually more complicated, as technology and globalization have advanced. Conceptually easy to understand, but laden with complex regulations, at the most basic level "export controls" simply means one thing: to control exports. Today the system is less focused on a singular adversary and increasingly concerned with maintaining American economic superiority.

These controls are not intended to blatantly prevent other countries from obtaining American goods. It's quite the opposite. Items essential to national security must be licensed and must be controlled. Export controls are not an isolationist technique, but rather a system of knowing where American products are going and how they are being used.

These controls are not intended to blatantly prevent other countries from obtaining American goods. It's quite the opposite. Items essential to national security must be licensed and must be controlled. Export controls are not an isolationist technique, but rather a system of knowing where American products are going and how they are being used.

The system is characterized by two primary regulatory regimes: The International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) and the Export Administration Regulations (EAR). Administered by the Department of State's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, ITAR is concerned with controlling the export of military and defense-related items. These items, which are found on the United States Munitions List include such items as grenades, missiles, and rocket launchers — essentially those items not typically found in a household. The Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security oversees the EAR and is the licensing authority for export commodities and dual-use items (goods that have both civilian and military use). Any business that produces and exports items of national security interest must comply with these regulations. There is a third regulatory regime administered by the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces economic and trade sanctions. Additionally, the president can use the authority vested unto to him or herself by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to issue sanctions during times when the country is faced with an "unusual and extraordinary threat."

Export controls are not unique to the United States and provide an important arena for international collaboration. There are four major multilateral export control regimes that often align with American objectives: the Wassenaar Arrangement (conventional arms and dual-use goods), the Missile Technology Control Regime (missile proliferation), the Australia Group (chemical and biological weapons), and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (nuclear proliferation). These venues for export control collaboration are voluntary, non-binding partnerships that rely on the individual states to uphold their laws and regulations.

The export control system is not failproof; it requires vigilance on both the part of private companies and the federal government. It is intended to allow businesses to flourish and national security to be maintained. The system will continue to evolve as the world changes and as new and old threats, such as cyberattacks and espionage, persist.

About Stratfor Worldview Enterprise

Stratfor Worldview Enterprise builds on Stratfor's more than two decades of success accurately forecasting geopolitical developments. Stratfor Worldview Enterprise provides businesses with a customizable intelligence platform to help them:

  • Anticipate risks to business interests and potential opportunities worldwide
  • Map, monitor and manage geopolitical risks that have the greatest likelihood of disrupting their ability to sustain or fortify operations in countries around the world.
  • Develop contingency plans to alleviate key vulnerabilities specific to any corporate footprint.

Stratfor Worldview Enterprise enables organizations to understand global vulnerabilities, and to determine through our proprietary forecasting process if those vulnerabilities are projected to change — positively or negatively — over the next quarter or year.

To learn more visit: Stratfor Worldview Enterprise

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