Washington is atwitter with talk of sanctions. Lawmakers left and right are riding high, as they “cry havoc!” and let slip the dogs of economic warfare. The buzz and excitement in the imperial capital is reminiscent of the days leading up to the Iraq War in 2003 (which does not bode well for the people who pay for and fight in such conflicts).
Looking at the targets of these new sanctions—Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela—one gets the sense that we might be, to paraphrase the title of Chris Clark’s great book, sleepwalking toward another world war. Listening to congressional leaders, I am perpetually amazed at how quickly they can rally behind the steady march toward global warfare (which could potentially kill millions, including countless Americans) but they cannot manage to repeal a debilitating health care law—a repeal that could save Americans. Talk about priorities.
And, while I am generally skeptical of the way Washington often implements sanctions, it makes no sense to renounce sanctions as altogether useless. Fact is, in very specific, limited cases, sanctions can be useful—so long as they are a part of a larger diplomatic strategy aimed at moving the offending states closer to America’s viewpoint. Case in point, the United States lifted sanctions on grain sales to the Soviet Union, which helped to ease tensions in the waning years of the Cold War, and made the Soviets more willing to negotiate with us. Unfortunately, U.S. success with sanctions during the post-Cold War era has been negligible.
Our sanctions against Iraq throughout the 1990s did little to prevent Saddam Hussein from undermining regional stability. And although we had Iran generally contained from 1979 until 2003, this had less to do with sanctions than with the fact we had effective allies in the Sunni Arab states, Israel, and Turkey. While the Sunni Arabs and Israel generally still want to punish Iran and put them back in their proverbial box, using new sanctions and by increasing their military power to counter Iran’s military threat, the region is more fragmented than ever, and Iran is closer to acquiring nuclear arms than it was before 2003.
The idea of sanctioning certain countries to influence their decisionmaking in the short term is not a bad idea. Understand, however, that sanctions are a weapon. Sanctions, like smart bombs, must be used with precision and must be compelling. But sanctions can also be a provocation. In the case of Russia, sanctions seem likely to have the same outcome as our sanctions against the Japanese Empire in 1941: war.
The major difference between then and now is that the Japanese did not have nuclear arms. In fact, one of the few areas where the Russian military is advanced is in their nuclear weaponry. What’s more, as I’ve documented elsewhere, the Russians have a preemptive nuclear warfare doctrine. But our leaders, as always when it comes to post-Soviet Russia, are simply not listening.
How could they? America’s elected officials and “civil servants” are all sleepwalking right now! It might feel good to virtue signal un-righteous indignation at Putin’s rather typical cyberattack on America’s election system in 2016. It also probably felt great to sanction the heck out of Iraq in the 1990s and call Saddam a nuclear tyrant, ginning up the world against Iraq, leading to a massively destabilizing—and costly—American misadventure in the region.
Stephen F. Cohen, a Russia expert at Princeton, rightly argues that Russia is not our number one enemy. In reality, Moscow could be a great strategic partner. Russia is as threatened by jihadist terror as we are; Russia wants greater stability in the Mideast; and Russia has great leverage over Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea.
More importantly, Russia has a complicated will-they-won’t-they strategic partnership with China that could collapse at any moment—if America offers Vladimir Putin the proper incentives. Further, America’s elite have clearly missed the signals sent by our European friends: they don’t want the sanctions imposed on Russia, because that would needlessly exacerbate their energy and economic woes. Rather than being a force for stability in the European Union, we would be acting as the greatest destabilizer imaginable.
Why China is Different
China has also been targeted for sanctions. The Chinese are North Korea’s greatest benefactor. Every single post-Cold War president (Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump) has asserted that China holds all of the proverbial cards in bringing North Korea to heel. Yet, despite President Trump’s firm insistence that China must help rein in North Korea’s nuclear mania, the Chinese have resisted. Not only that, Beijing has conducted a series of highly provocative military drills in the South China Sea and in northern China—aimed not at North Korea, but at the United States and its allies.
China views its foreign policy objectives in supporting North Korea as inimical to America’s foreign policy objectives in resisting North Korea. China fears what a war on the Korean peninsula would herald: massive North Korean refugee flows into China; potential nuclear warfare in their backyard; the collapse of North Korea and its probable unification under the democratic South Korea; the stationing of masses of American troops right on China’s border. China’s ultimate objective is to push the United States out of East Asia, so that China can build its own co-prosperity sphere. U.S. military intervention against Kim Jong-un would not serve those interests in the slightest.
Unlike Russia, though, sanctioning China would be a major win for the United States. For decades, the Chinese have used globalization and “free trade” to wage a mercantilist war upon the United States. The Chinese have gutted America’s middle class of vital manufacturing industries. This has neutered America’s ability to mass produce military equipment and weapons in a timely, efficient manner. Further, it has hamstrung our economy by putting countless Americans on the unemployment line. All the meanwhile, China strengthens itself and continues acts of aggression against the United States–stealing intellectual property, technology, and anything else they can, in order to buttress their growing military power.
America’s trade deficit with China, as well as our inability to resist the pull of Chinese economic interests in corrupting many American corporations and leaders, has been terribly damaging. Plus, China actively undermines U.S. interests and continually threatens our allies in Japan, Taiwan, and beyond with their destabilizing behavior. The Chinese economy depends on maintaining high growth rates. Sanctioning Chinese banks and select businesses, applying economic pressure to China would prompt them to do our bidding.
Wouldn’t U.S. sanctions aimed at squeezing China’s economic interests also prompt the Chinese to lash out militarily? Unlikely. Despite their bluster, the Chinese leadership is keenly aware of their strategic deficits when arrayed against the United States. While they are certainly developing their military in such a way so as to rebuff American power projection capabilities into Asia, they’re not stupid. The Chinese realize they are still some time away posing an effective military threat to U.S. forces.
As Thomas J. Wright argues in his recent book, All Measures Short of War, the Chinese seek to use every tool of statecraft at their disposal to displace the United States in East Asia, without engaging in open warfare. If pushed hard enough, China would likely stand down. This would be especially so, if the United States did not sanction Russia and, instead, pitted Russia against China in a classic tripolar diplomatic dance.
Another Global Tragedy?
But Washington’s leaders are too busy drifting toward a military conflagration to think clearly. The only sanctions we should be applying are those against China, North Korea, and maybe Iran. Russia, on the other hand, should be fashioned into a vehicle for U.S. foreign policy, as opposed to a latter-day Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empire: a large, failing power needlessly pushed into resisting the West and ultimately collapsing under its own weight. The result, then and now, would create far more headaches for the victorious West than anyone else.
The tragedy of World War I, as Barbara Tuchman illustrated in her magnificent history, The Guns of August, was that the entire conflict was totally avoidable—had the various heads of state simply talked to each other rather than rely on their stodgy, mechanical bureaucracies. Because of their over-reliance on bureaucratized systems, the Europeans sleepwalked the world into one of the most devastating wars in history.
With this silly sanctions regime, we are doing the same: the United States is turning America’s rivals into enemies, and enemies into fanatics. Historians may yet point to 2017, as they do 1913, as the end of one epoch and the start of a much bloodier, less hopeful one. We should pray that this does not occur.
For my part, though, as a historian, I am disinclined to be overly optimistic—especially with congressional Republicans and sniveling Democrats agitating for a fight. And given how geopolitical expert George Friedman continues to warn of the threat that a Eurasian war poses to the United States, we seem to be listlessly moving toward another—likely nuclear—world war.
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