DAVID MARKS—NOT HIS real name—is an international arms dealer. He acquires military technology, including weapons, aircraft, tanks, missiles, and computers, on behalf of governmental clients around the globe. He operates legally, working only works with countries that are allied with the West. He has modest homes in two locations around the globe–his primary residence is in Europe–as well as offices that anchor his presence in the countries within which he does business.
Marks closes hundreds of millions of dollars in arms deals every year, taking a single-digit percentage for each as his company’s compensation. He travels monthly around the world to meet clients and governments, brokering deals and conducting due diligence on both the buyers and sellers. He works with large prime contractors, civilian corporations, and small weapons manufacturers. He describes his role as an “outsourcing specialist,” someone who can step in to manage transactions and acquisitions that might be sensitive or politically unpopular.
By virtue of his network of clients and sources, he can offer unique insight into international geopolitics. (He describes his personal politics as centrist, though slightly more right-leaning as he gets older.) I spoke with Marks via a secure communications app to find out what impact the Trump administration might have on global security.
WIRED: First, some background. How do you gather your information when conducting business?
Marks: You establish a network over a long period of time. I have contacts in intelligence, government, commerce, and banking. It behooves you to have a diverse range of sources. They all have their own vantage points, so you use your experience and knowledge about how the world really works, and then balance all of that input so you can gauge things for yourself. You have to judge whether to go ahead with a given deal or deem it too risky. A lot of it has to do with experience and common sense, but also understanding geopolitics and global business. We walk the line in the middle.
What’s an example of a deal that’s too risky for you?
There was an incident a few years ago in the Ukraine—which, I’m sorry to say, is a tough place to do business. We were invited to participate in the procurement of non-military vehicles that were going to be used by a government agency. I had access to extremely good products, and have sold hundreds of these vehicles in the past, so I thought it would be a piece of cake. It’s close to Europe, the Ukraine is our friend, etc. But then I got a phone call from a friend at three-letter US agency: ‘We have actionable intelligence that you might get kidnapped.’ This is a person with 30 years of experience. I don’t take comments lightly from someone like this, so I backed out.
What do you think of the Trump administration so far?
What I see is what I expected to see. The first year is going to be a reality show—and yes the early stuff out of DC is mind-boggling. From a geopolitical perspective, countries know they at least can’t bullshit him the way they could past administrations. If they do try to bullshit him he’ll come at them full-power, so they’re going to have to sit down and negotiate. This scares the crap out of both allies and adversaries.
How will that manifest itself?
There are a lot of niceties and protocols involved in foreign policy and structuring international deals. Trump can’t stay ignorant of those details, and you must respect international laws and protocols, but he’s going to run this like he runs a business. In the last 25 years, international relations deviated from focusing on statecraft to all the politics and niceties. Now there will be more dialogue, lots of back and forth, and this administration will try to find a medium between statecraft and business. We’re going to get a dose of realism, and frankly we need that. Sure, it’s all going to be filtered through the Trump lens, and we don’t really know what that means yet, but we’ll get clarity. I truly believe that.
What are others in the global military community saying about the new administration?
They’re confused. A lot of them don’t know what to expect. Take the fact that he hung up on the Australian prime minister. Contrary to what people might think, I really, really don’t believe he’d act like that if he didn’t feel the need, given his desire to change the tenor of conversations even with our allies. He knows what it means to be President of the United States. But that doesn’t change the fact that people are confused.
How will the arms business in general change?
Trump has been all over the likes of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, telling them to get their act together in terms of pricing and accountability. They used to shoot from the hip when pricing their defense systems, and that’s going to end. The Joint Strike Fighter program—just as a top-level example—has been mind-boggling in this respect. We’ve been lied to, as have our allies, and now those nations are looking elsewhere for their military systems. That makes the US look bad. You just can’t say an airplane is going to cost x and then say oh never mind, it’ll be y. They need to be more fair and even-handed, and they need to not act like we’re the only show in town. Things need to be more rational and business-minded in the defense industry. You cannot keep inflating prices and expect your buyers to pay any price you deem correct.
How do you think your business specifically will be impacted by Trump?
Business will be better in part because of Trump going after a lot of bloat at the higher echelons of the military-industrial complex. This frees up money for broader spending. In terms of political tension, if things stay the same, it’s a win-win proposition—assuming you are fair and deliver your goods and services with a reasonable margin, and don’t gouge prices. If tensions escalate, the US and NATO allies will all need more equipment. If tensions thaw, we will get access to new markets, including the CIS states like Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
Of course, a potential global recession would be a game-changer for everyone, including our business. NATO states will certainly cut spending on military technology, and the business environment would get more difficult and complicated with the general reduction of trade volume.
Have the types of weapons and hardware people have been buying changed, in anticipation of evolving types of conflict? In short, what’s hot these days?
The guns-and-ammo side will always be there. Frankly, Trump and his administration won’t really change anything for our business in that respect. Remember, we only deal with states that are allied with the US, and even there we have clear lines regarding exactly what can and cannot be sold or supplied to friendly states.
Having said that, what is always hot is what we refer to as disruptive technology—smart weapons, missiles, guided weapons, for instance, and any kind of game-changing technology specifically related to any particular conflict. This can be as simple as long-range artillery, advanced anti-tank missiles, or civilian aircraft modified to carry weapons. This is why we need to seriously and strictly control their proliferation, and not let them just “appear” on any battlefield or conflict zone. In the wrong hands, they can have catastrophic effects on society at large, world-wide.
What’s the short-term prognosis?
Everyone is in a holding pattern. People are giving him the benefit of the doubt, and I know myself that everything I’m saying here is nice and in a perfect world. But the truth is that we don’t know what’s going to happen. In US and foreign policy at this point in time, that’s a good thing. It’s not predictable, and our adversaries count on the predictability of US administrations. That predictability has worked to our detriment, and we paid price for that. But now there’s no predictability, and that’s given us kind of a reset button. Everyone is hoping for the best, but we still don’t know what to expect from him. The ball is absolutely in his court.
So should the world be worried?
No, I don’t think so. It’s going to be fine.
source: wired.com by