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Toward this end, as Deputy Secretary of State William Burns explained back in 2011, "Our two countries launched a strategic dialogue on the Asia-Pacific to ensure that the world's two largest democracies pursue strategies that reinforce one another." Arms transfers are seen by the leaders of both countries as a vital tool in the "containment" of China (though all parties are careful to avoid that old Cold War term). So watch for Kerry to pursue new arms agreements while in New Delhi.

Repeating History

These are just some examples of recent arms deals (or ones under discussion) that suggest a fresh willingness on the part of the major powers to use weapons transfers as instruments of geopolitical intrusion and competition. The reappearance of such behavior suggests a troubling resurgence of Cold War-like rivalries. Even if senior leaders in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing are not talking about resurrecting some twenty-first-century version of the Cold War, anyone with a sense of history can see that they are headed down a grim, well-trodden path toward crisis and confrontation.

What gives this an added touch of irony is that leading arms suppliers and recipients, including the United States, recently voted in the U.N. General Assembly to approve the Arms Trade Treaty that was meant to impose significant constraints on the global trade in conventional weapons. Although the treaty has many loopholes, lacks an enforcement mechanism, and will require years to achieve full implementation, it represents the first genuine attempt by the international community to place real restraints on weapons sales. "This treaty won't solve the problems of Syria overnight, no treaty could do that, but it will help to prevent future Syrias," said Anna MacDonald, the head of arms control for Oxfam International and an ardent treaty supporter. "It will help to reduce armed violence. It will help to reduce conflict."

This may be the hope, but such expectations will quickly be crushed if the major weapons suppliers, led by the U.S. and Russia, once again come to see arms sales as the tool of choice to gain geopolitical advantage in areas of strategic importance. Far from bringing peace and stability -- as the proponents of such transactions invariably claim -- each new arms deal now holds the possibility of taking us another step closer to a new Cold War with all the heightened risks of regional friction and conflict that entails. Are we, in fact, seeing a mindless new example of the old saw: that those who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it?