If this author has drawn one conclusion from his recent trip to Tunisia it is that rekindling the country’s democracy will require a long-term struggle. Of course, any number of sudden events could shake President Kais Saied’s regime. Still, it is more likely that in the near and medium terms, Saied will consolidate power, an effort that could see his “reelection” in 2024. And he will probably do so without facing mass opposition. For while his popularity has declined, Saied retains far more support than any one veteran political leader. Moreover, for now neither the urban middle class nor the Tunisian General Labor Union seem ready for a full-on collision with the president.
The geostrategic situation is also working in Saied’s favor. As the Biden administration mends fences with Saudi Arabia, it is unwilling to expend diplomatic capital on Tunisia’s plight. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged Saied to accept a proffered $1.9 billion IMF package, or to at least offer a revised proposal. But neither he nor European leaders are demanding that economic reforms come with any semblance of political decompression. Indeed, as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni suggested in her recent visit to Tunis, the purpose of a $1 billion deal that the EU has now offered Tunisia is to help stem the flow of refugees to Europe. Finally, Saied has repaired relations with Algeria in tandem with an agreement to keep providing Tunisia with natural gas. Algeria, as Tunisians like to say, is helping the government “keep the lights on.”
Saied’s ministers surely know that support will not save them from the very real possibility of defaulting on Tunisia’s massive foreign debt, a point underscored by reports that the government is devising an alternative proposal for the IMF. Still, Saied is unlikely to impose austerity measures that could provoke the wrath of marginalized communities, whose disgruntled youth see the unlawful jailing of more than 30 political leaders as well-deserved retribution from a political elite that Saied claims betrayed the country.
What Goes Around Comes Around
At the heart of the conspiracy theories that Saied and his allies have advanced is one simple idea, namely that a vast cabal of corrupt elites “stole” the country’s 2010–2011 revolution. This notion resonates not only with his base of disaffected youth, but also finds a kind of indirect echo in elite circles. While (often quietly) denouncing Saied’s assault on political freedoms, many intellectuals, professionals, and businesspeople blame Tunisia’s political elite, not only for failing to address the country’s massive economic and social problems but, in a more fundamental sense, for failing to build a bridge between the 2014 parliament and society at large.
This view has produced a sense of resigned ambivalence among a middle class that in 2011 took to the streets of Tunis to push for a competitive democracy. “You cannot break an omelet without breaking some eggs,” was a phrase repeated several times in Tunis. The idea that the political and economic status quo was not sustainable and that “something had to give” is also often expressed. While unhappy with Saied’s clampdown, many professionals and business leaders are not ready to come out en masse to back the protesters who, over the last few months, have regularly congregated on Habib Bourguiba Street in Tunis to demand the release of political activists.
While unhappy with Saied’s clampdown, many professionals and business leaders are not ready to come out en masse to back the protesters.
Such hesitation reflects a deep animus for the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party, and especially for its now imprisoned leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who some argue is currently getting his just desserts. “What goes around comes around,” is an idea that one hears time and time again. One activist lawyer who has close ties to Ennahda reminded this author that in 2012 the Ennahda-affiliated minister of justice at the time summarily fired 75 judges, justifying himself by accusing them of “corruption.” That Saied used the very same excuse when, in June 2022, he fired 57 judges feeds a widespread view that Ennahda’s assault on the judiciary created a dangerous precedent that eventually opened the door to Saied’s policies.
This stinging judgment is not merely being expressed by Ennahda’s secular-oriented opponents but also by activists who were once members in the party. Thus, following a talk given by this author on the problem of power sharing in Tunisia, someone in the audience who had worked with Ghannouchi assailed the latter’s efforts to remain in charge of the party despite growing criticism of what the former member called his “autocratic” leadership.
These harsh views of Ennahda are paralleled by a growing nostalgia for the modernizing project led by former President Habib Bourguiba in the 1960s and 1970s. One very animated taxi driver spoke at great length with this author about Bourguiba’s “courageous” leadership at home and abroad, while also emphasizing his disdain for all Islamists. Musings about Bourguiba’s legacy among intellectuals, writers, and legal scholars can be found in many arenas, such as an international conference that was held in Tunisia in early June. Several attendees praised what they saw as Bourguiba’s efforts to create a state rooted in the principles of Tunisian national identity and patriotism rather than religion. This modernist state-building project, they argued, had been systematically eroded by Ennahda’s leaders.
Finding Common Ground?
This sweeping indictment of Ennahda can be both unfair and unfounded. Indeed, there is much blame to go around for some of the more dubious accommodations and laws that were struck following the 2014 elections, not least of which was the 2015 “anti-terrorism law.” As a bill that gave the government sweeping powers to shut down any political dissent it deemed a “threat to national security,” the law has provided legal fodder for Saied’s efforts to silence Ennahda’s leaders. This paradoxical twist of fate cannot possibly be laid solely at the feet of Ennahda, whose MPs were no more or less expedient than those of its partners in the country’s power sharing government. Nor do the Ennahda members—many of whom were savagely tortured during their years of imprisonment in the 1980s—deserve to be tossed in prison on evidence that all human rights organizations have condemned as totally unfounded.
Suspicions among Ennahda’s detractors about the movement reflect an enduring fault line between modernists and Islamist-oriented leaders in Tunisia.
Suspicions among Ennahda’s detractors about the movement reflect an enduring fault line between modernists who want to keep the state at a safe distance from the religious sphere and Islamist-oriented leaders who argue that one way or another governing institutions—and the public sphere at large—must reflect Islamic values. Paradoxically, while his efforts to shut down Ennahda may have secured a measure of tacit support from secular-oriented Tunisians, Saied regularly invokes Islamic ideas and symbols to sustain his base. His evident success in manipulating identity conflicts raises a basic question: Will Saied’s bid to impose a populist autocratic vision eventually induce veteran and new political activists to forge a robust political alliance that cuts through an ideological divide in ways that might engage the imagination of Tunisia’s dispirited youth?
Stirrings of Opposition and Social Activism
There are many obstacles to creating this kind of unity, the most important of which is a growing sense of fear about the fate of basic human rights. Indeed, worries created by the president’s clampdown on the judiciary, the media, and political leaders have sparked concerns that the net of repression will widen to include other arenas, including the country’s universities.
Such a development could have widespread reverberations. With over 200,000 students and about 23,000 teachers and professors, Tunisia’s universities constitute a politically significant core of the vast urban middle class. This sector suffers from many of the ills that have shaken the rest of society, such as the lasting aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis and rampant inflation, the latter of which translates into drastically lowered salaries in public sector universities. These problems have not only generated threats of university wide strikes; they have also produced a lamentable if much-discussed brain drain, as academics move abroad, especially to Gulf states.
Despite these trends, the universities have thus far remained a relatively untrammeled arena. This situation, some Tunisian scholars argue, may reflect Saied’s hesitancy to go after his colleagues in the faculties of law and political science where he taught for many decades. Still, the recent publication of a petition by 52 leading scholars of law and political science condemning the arrest of all political leaders telegraphs rising concerns in this important sector. That the vast majority of the signatories are modernist scholars who distrust Islamists suggests that an expanding circle of writers, thinkers, and academics are defying a strategy of selective repression designed to foster division and distrust in ways that play into the president’s hands.
Thus far the government has not responded to this defiant petition. But even if it does not act, the signatories could soon be the targets of widespread retaliation on Facebook. A country of over 12 million, Tunisia has nearly 8,700,000 Facebook users. Saied’s allies have not hesitated to harangue and malign his online critics. While these efforts have cast an ominous shadow, there is a small but growing coterie of young activists who are monitoring such abuse in a bid to stop or deter what amounts to a kind of online terrorism.
In a small country with so many Facebook users, fighting this problem remains an uphill battle. After all, activists also depend on the very platforms that are being used to intimidate the president’s critics. Moreover, they face the very real possibility that the government might use some of the laws it has deployed against political leaders to silence online activists.
The Geostrategic Context: Principle Versus Power
Apart from the domestic arena, one subject that occupies many Tunisians is the region’s shifting geostrategic terrain. As Saied has accelerated his efforts to intimidate or silence his real and imagined opponents, he has tried to discredit international criticism of his autocratic measures by harping on the notion of national and state sovereignty. At the same time, he has tried to shore up his regime by seeking diplomatic and financial support from regional and global powers in ways that have raised eyebrows. Indeed, Tunisians are quick to note (often with a humorous twist) that while the president has rejected foreign “dictates,” his actions suggest that he is perfectly happy to make deals with some foreign powers so long as such accommodations reinforce his power on the home front.
Saied has tried to discredit international criticism of his autocratic measures by harping on the notion of national and state sovereignty.
On this score, the rapprochement between Tunisia and Algeria is often mentioned, along with the recent interaction between Saied and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and perhaps most importantly, Saied’s outreach to Western European leaders. That a president who evokes Arab nationalist themes is negotiating with Italian and French officials to assuage their concerns about refugees—many of whom come from the Sub-Saharan African community that has suffered attacks ever since Saied assailed their presence in Tunisia in February 2023—is the subject of much sardonic comment. Similarly, Saied’s call for expanding diplomatic and economic relations with China has prompted skepticism. Although his outreach to Beijing is presumably designed to deflect western pressures for economic reform, China’s ambassador recently reiterated his government’s position that Tunisia must sign the IMF deal that Saied has repeatedly rejected. These remarks have prompted quiet ridicule among Tunisian analysts about the nature and limits of Tunisian “sovereignty.”
The hard-nosed logic of realpolitik also defines the Biden administration’s overall approach to Tunisia. While mention was made in Congress of growing concerns regarding Saied’s power grab, there is little expectation that the White House is ready to prioritize the issue of democracy in its relations with Saied’s government, or for that matter with other Arab states, as was amply shown by Secretary Blinken’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
A similar assessment of US Middle East policy was also offered by several experts from Tunis-based US democracy assistance organizations. They are clearly unhappy about the administration’s failure to signal a clear and consistent position in opposition to Saied’s repressive measures. At the same time, they argue that absent any sign of a sustained popular movement—and given the enduring divisions among Tunisia’s political elite—US democracy assistance must be adapted to the current, if difficult, realities. Animating this pragmatic focus is a conviction that the revival of democracy in Tunisia will require a long-term strategy, one that works through rather than against emerging political institutions and forces.
A Sociopolitical Explosion?
Any such medium- or long-term perspective cannot ignore the very real possibility that a sociopolitical explosion could erupt in Tunisia at any time. If an explosion does occur and the police (and, especially, army) respond with deadly force, the domestic political and social balance of power that has thus far sustained the president’s bid to recast the political system could be disrupted, or even turned upside down. Such a dramatic development would put the military in a delicate spot given what appears to be the still widespread conviction that the army remains the most trusted national political institution.
That an upheaval has not yet occurred remains a puzzle for many of the Tunisians with whom this author met. One longtime scholar of Tunisian society offered an intriguing explanation, pointing to the role of the informal sector, which is estimated to account for more than 30 percent of the economy. Informal socioeconomic and familial networks, he suggested, could be helping average Tunisians get through each arduous day. While this may well be true, the overall situation in this beleaguered country feels fragile and thus vulnerable to sudden or unpredictable shocks that could come from any direction.
This article has been republished with permission from Arab Center Washington DC.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
Two years ago on Feb. 24, 2022, the world watched as Russian tanks rolled into the outskirts of Kyiv and missiles struck the capital city.
Contrary to initial predictions, Kyiv never fell, but the country today remains embroiled in conflict. The front line holds in the southeastern region of the country, with contested areas largely focused on the Russian-speaking Donbas and port cities around the Black Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, having recognized the Russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent days before the invasion, has from the beginning declared the war a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. His goals have alternated, however, between existential — bringing all of Ukraine into the influence of Russia — and strategic — laying claim to only those Russian-speaking areas in the east and south of the country.
It is in the latter that Russia has been much more successful. Yet after two winters of brutal fighting and hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, as of the end of 2023 Russia only laid claim to 18% of Ukraine’s territory, as compared to 7% on the eve of the war and 27% in the weeks after the invasion.
Meanwhile, the West’s coffers have been opened — and, as some say, drained — to help Ukraine’s government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, defend itself against Moscow.
Regardless, Ukraine’s military forces have been wholly depleted as they compete with a much more resourced and populous Russia. While Ukraine’s military campaign was able to take advantage of Russian tactical mistakes in the first year, its much-heralded counteroffensive in 2023 failed to provide the boost needed not only to rid the country of the Russian occupation, but also to put Kyiv in the best position to call for terms.
If anything, as Quincy Institute experts Anatol Lieven and George Beebe point out in their new brief, “there is now little realistic prospect of further Ukrainian territorial gains on the battlefield, and there is a significant risk that Ukraine might exhaust its manpower and munitions and lay itself open to a devastating Russian counterattack.”
The only and best solution, they say, is to drive all sides to the negotiating table before Ukraine is destroyed.
The narrative of the war — how it began, where it is today — is well documented. On the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, RS thought it might be instructive to look at the numbers — weapons, aid, polling, population, and more — that illustrate the cost and the contours of the conflict over 24 months, and counting.
The U.S. Congress has allocated a total of $113 billion in funding related to the war. The vast majority of this money went directly to defending Ukraine ($45.2 billion in military aid) and keeping its government and society functioning ($46 billion in economic and humanitarian aid). Other funds went to rearming allies ($4.7 billion) and expanding U.S. military operations in Europe ($15.2 billion).
After two years of war, that funding has dried up. The Biden administration, which once shipped two or three new weapons packages each month, has not sent Ukraine a major arms shipment since Dec. 27, 2023. As Congress struggles to pass an additional $60 billion in Ukraine-related funding, observers increasingly believe that aid package may have been the last.
The Pentagon has sent at least 3,097,000 rounds of artillery to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Most of those (2,000,000) have been 155 mm shells, the standard size used by the U.S. and its NATO allies. For perspective, that’s about 95,000 tons of 155 mm ammunition alone.
Despite ramping up military manufacturing, the U.S. still only produces about 340,000 155 mm shells per year, meaning that Ukraine has been firing rounds at three times the rate of American production.
Washington has also given Kyiv 76 tanks, including 31 Abrams tanks and 45 Soviet-era T-72Bs. Ukraine has received 3,631 American armored vehicles of various types, from infantry fighting vehicles to personnel carriers and medical trucks.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has made use of 39 American-made HIMARS, a mobile rocket launcher that has become famous for its utility in the war. As for smaller arms, the U.S. has sent at least 400,000,000 grenades and bullets in the past 24 months.
The war has killed at least 10,378 civilians and injured an additional 19,632, according to the UN. More than three in four non-combatant casualties occurred in areas held by the Ukrainian government, indicating that Moscow is responsible for the lion’s share of civilian harm.
When it comes to military casualties, good data still remains hard to come by and estimates are sometimes wildly different. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have offered detailed, public indications of the war’s impact on their soldiers.
The U.S. estimated in August that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died and an additional 100,000 to 120,000 had been injured, putting the number of total casualties at over 170,000. Russia, for its part, claimed in November that 383,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded.
On the other side, the United Kingdom estimates that Russia has suffered at least 320,000 casualties, with 50,000 deaths among Russian soldiers and 20,000 deaths among Wagner Group mercenaries. Washington said in December that Moscow had suffered 315,000 casualties, though American officials did not provide a breakdown of deaths and injuries.
The United Nations estimates that the Ukrainian population (the entire country within internationally recognized borders), which totaled 43.5 million people in 2021, dropped to 39.7 million in 2022 as war swept through the country’s east. This trend continued into 2023, as the population dropped to 36.7 million — the lowest level since Ukraine became independent in 1990.
As of January, 6.3 million Ukrainians have become refugees abroad, with another 3.7 million displaced internally. As the frontlines have settled, Ukraine’s population has slowly started to grow again, reaching 37.9 million in early 2024. Meanwhile, demographer Elena Libanova estimates that only 28 million of those people live within areas currently under Ukrainian government control (outside of Crimea and the Donbas).
Two new polls that came out within the last week illustrate the complexities of Americans’ feelings toward the war in Ukraine and the U.S. role in it.
First, a Pew poll published February 16 found that a large majority of Americans (74%) see the war between Russia and Ukraine as somewhat (30%) or very important (43%) to U.S. interests. And another survey, from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, found that Americans broadly support a U.S.-led negotiated end to the conflict.
But the past few months in Washington have been largely focused on U.S. aid to Ukraine, specifically whether Congress will pass President Biden’s request for roughly $60 billion for Kyiv’s fight against Russia.
According to Pew, in March 2022, 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “just right” or “not enough.” In December 2023, that same survey found that just 47% said the same. The biggest change came from Republicans: 49% said in March, 2022 that U.S. aid was “not enough,” while just 13% said the same in December.
Meanwhile, Gallup found in August 2022 that 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “about right” (36%) or “not enough” (38%). Those numbers came down slightly in Gallup’s latest track on this question in October, 2023, with 58% saying U.S. aid was about right (33%) or not enough (25%).
There have been several attempts to bring nations together to outline talks to end the war. Russia and Ukraine engaged in five rounds of talks in Belarus and Turkey shortly after the invasion, but the talks collapsed amid allegations of Russian war crimes and Western pressure on Kyiv to keep fighting.
Since then, the belligerents have spoken directly about secondary issues, like Black Sea shipping and prisoner swaps. Ukraine, meanwhile, laid out a “10-point peace plan” that has formed the basis for five international summits, none of which included Russia. These took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 2023; in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in August 2023; in Malta in October, 2023; in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2023; and Davos, Switzerland, in January of this year.
Since the start of the war, Congress has passed four aid packages for Ukraine, totaling $113 billion. While none of the four packages were identical and aid for Ukraine was sometimes bundled with other spending, the trends for support for Kyiv in Congress are similar to those we see in polling, particularly among congressional Republicans.
The 2022 supplemental, which became law in May 2022 and provided Ukraine with $39.34 billion in aid passed the House 368-57 and the Senate by a vote of 86-11. By September 2023, when the House voted on the Ukraine Security Assistance and Oversight Supplemental Appropriations Act, which provided Kyiv with $300 million in security assistance, it passed by a vote of 311-117, with a majority of Republican members opposing the legislation.
On February 12 of this year, the Senate voted 70-29 to pass a national security supplemental, which would provide approximately $60 billion in aid for Kyiv alongside money for Israel and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The bill has not yet been voted on in the House.
Ben Armbruster, Blaise Malley, Connor Echols and Kelley Vlahos contributed reporting. Graphics by Khody Akhavi.
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A woman lays flowers at the monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
President Biden was entirely correct in the first part of his judgment on the death of Alexei Navalny: “Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it, or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in.” Even if Navalny eventually died of “natural causes,” his previous poisoning, and the circumstances of his imprisonment, must obviously be considered as critical factors in his death.
For his tremendous courage in returning to Russia after his medical treatment in the West — knowing well the dangers that he faced — the memory of Navalny should be held in great honor. He joins the immense list of Russians who have died for their beliefs at the hands of the state. Public expressions of anger and disgust at the manner of his death are justified and correct.
The problem comes with the other part of Biden’s statement, that “[Navalny’s death] is a reflection of who [Putin] is. And it just cannot be tolerated.” If he had said “approved,” “justified,” or “defended,” that would have been absolutely right. But “tolerated”? What can Biden do in response, that he has not done already?
The U.S. president has promised major new sanctions intended to “cut Russia off from the world economy” — but that requires Washington to control the world economy. Economic sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine have failed, and even strengthened the Russian economy and the state’s grip on it. They cannot be significantly extended, because this would damage and infuriate countries that are dependent on Russian energy exports, including India, a key U.S. partner. As to sanctions against Russian individuals part of or linked to the Russian regime, there are already thousands of them, and they have had no effect whatsoever.
Statements like Biden’s are both pointless and dangerous. For the spoken or unspoken implication is that it is impossible to deal with Putin. But like it or not, Putin is the president of Russia. To all appearances, he will remain so for a considerable time to come, and will hand over to a successor of his own choosing. The Biden administration has said that it wants Ukrainian victory (whatever that now means), but it has also said that it believes that the war will end in negotiations, and following the failure of last year’s Ukrainian offensive, is now reported to be moving in this direction.
Who does Biden think that he will negotiate with, if not Putin? Seeking talks on an end to the Ukraine war does not imply approval of Putin’s crimes or his invasion of Ukraine, any more than the Eisenhower administration’s negotiation of an end to the Korean War implied approval of the North Korean regime and its invasion of South Korea.
By its own account, the Biden administration has supposedly made the promotion of democracy around the world a central part of its diplomacy, with the clear implication that only democratic governments that respect human rights are truly legitimate. Actual U.S. diplomacy does not work like this and never has; not because of American imperialist or capitalist wickedness, but because the world does not work like this.
Nobody should be required to like or admire the governments of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Mohammed Bin Salman or Narendra Modi (though we might well wish that U.S. officials had been less effusive in their praise of them). Like Putin, they are however the heads of their countries’ governments, and likely to remain so. You deal with Saudi Arabia and India — and you have to deal with Saudi Arabia and India — you deal with MBS and Modi.
The other thing to be wary of in the outpouring of outrage at the death of Navalny, is that this is already being used to build a strategy of greatly increased Western official support for the Russian opposition. Many (not all) people and groups in the Russian liberal opposition are personally and politically admirable. Some, like Navalny, have shown tremendous courage. To say this is quite different from believing that they are ever likely to form the government of Russia, and that the U.S. should base its policy towards Russia on the hope that this will be so.
The sad truth is that the Ukraine war has placed the Russian liberal opposition in a politically impossible position. Having been largely chased into exile by Putin, they are dependent on Western support. This means however that their principled opposition to the Russian invasion can be portrayed by the Russian government — and is seen by many ordinary Russians — as treason in time of war. As with the Iranian, Chinese, and other oppositions, official support from Washington only allows the ruling regimes to paint the name “traitor” in brighter colors.
A combination (differing from individual to individual) of idealism, dependence on the West and hatred of Putin means that instead of advocating a compromise peace in Ukraine, many Russian oppositionists have — willingly or unwillingly — identified themselves with Ukrainian and Western positions that explicitly demand complete Russian defeat.
And while not many Russians wanted the war, not many Russians want to see Russia defeated. As I have remarked before, even many Americans who strongly opposed the war in Vietnam were outraged when Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. If she stood a chance of being elected to any office in the U.S. before that trip, she certainly didn’t afterwards.
Any hope of rebuilding liberalism in Russia (and indeed Ukraine, albeit to a much lesser extent) therefore requires an end to the war. For some degree of authoritarianism is a natural accompaniment to every war, and regimes all over the world have exploited this to increase their own power. Equally importantly, mass support for Putin is critically dependent on the general belief that the West intends not just to defeat Russia but to cripple it as a state, and that to prevent this it is essential to support the government.
For the moment at least, this has eclipsed previously widespread resentments —which Navalny channeled — at regime corruption. No amount of Western or Russian opposition propaganda can change this Russian picture. Peace might, if it is given a chance.
For the third year in a row, globally, the number of investors in nuclear weapons producers has fallen but the overall amount invested in these companies has increased, largely thanks to some of the biggest investment banks and funds in the U.S.
“As for the U.S., while there is, like past years, indeed a dominance, and total financing from U.S.-based institutions has increased, the total number of U.S. investors has dropped for the third year in a row (similar to our global findings), and we hope to see this number will continue to fall in the coming years,” Alejandar Munoz, the report’s primary author, told Responsible Statecraft.
In 2023, the top 10 share and bondholders of nuclear weapons producing companies are all American firms. The firms — Vanguard, Capital Group, State Street, BlackRock, Wellington Management, Fidelity Investments, Newport Group, Geode Capital Holdings, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley — held $327 billion in investments in nuclear weapons producing companies in 2023, an $18 billion increase from 2022.
These companies are also profiting from the enormous government contracts they receive for developing and modernizing nuclear weapons.
“All nuclear-armed states are currently modernizing their nuclear weapon systems,” says the annual “Don’t Bank on the Bomb” report from PAX and ICAN. “In 2022, the nine nuclear-armed states together spent $82.9 billion on their nuclear weapons arsenals, an increase of $2.5 billion compared to the previous year, and with the United States spending more than all other nuclear powers combined.”
American weapons companies are some of the biggest recipients of contracts for nuclear weapons. Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics are “the biggest nuclear weapons profiteers,” according to the report. Combined, the two American weapons manufacturers have outstanding nuclear weapons related contracts with a combined potential value of at least $44.9 billion.
Those enormous government contracts for nuclear weapons, alongside contracts for conventional weapons, have helped make nuclear weapons producers an attractive investment for American investment banks and funds.
“Altogether, 287 financial institutions were identified for having substantial financing or investment relations with 24 companies involved in nuclear weapon production,” says the report. “$477 billion was held in bonds and shares, and $343 billion was provided in loans and underwriting.”
The report notes that while the total amount invested in nuclear weapons has increased, the number of investors has fallen and trends toward firms in countries with nuclear weapons.
ICAN and PAX suggest that concentration may be a result of prohibitions on nuclear weapons development for signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a 93 signatory treaty committing to the ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The report says:
The TPNW comprehensively prohibits the development, manufacturing, testing, possession, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance with those acts. For companies that build the key components needed to maintain and expand countries’ nuclear arsenals, access to private funding is crucial. As such, the banks, pension funds, asset managers and other financiers that continue to invest in or grant credit to these companies allow for the production of inhumane and indiscriminate weapons to proceed. By divesting from their business relationships with these companies, financial institutions can reduce available capital for nuclear weapon related activities and thereby be instrumental in supporting the fulfilment of the TPNW’s objectives.
Susi Snyder, managing director of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb Project, told Responsible Statecraft that even U.S. banks, like Pittsburgh based PNC Bank, are facing shareholder pressure to divest from nuclear weapons and that the tide may be shifting as shareholders in U.S. companies grow increasingly sensitive to investments in nuclear weapons.
“For three years shareholder resolutions have been put forward at PNC bank raising concerns that their investments in nuclear weapon producers are a violation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and that they are not in line with the bank's overall human rights policy guidelines,” she said.