Sanctions Squeeze: We’re Headed for World War

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 August 5, 2017|
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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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About the Author:

Brandon J. Weichert
Brandon J. Weichert is a contributing editor to American Greatness. A former Republican congressional staffer and national security expert, he also runs "The Weichert Report" (www.theweichertreport.com), an online journal of geopolitics. He holds master's degree in statecraft and national security from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. He is also an associate member of New College at Oxford University and holds a B.A. in political science from DePaul University. He is currently completing a book on national security space policy due out next year.
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20 Comments

  1. D4x August 5, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    If only the U.S. Congress was still able to read, they would know HR 3364 is already backfiring, e.g., has Sen. Corker finally read POTUS’ signing statement?

    Here is what the Russians have been saying, I highlighted the most relevant:
    “Political Expert Sushentsov: ‘The Anti-Russia Sanctions Are Not Part Of A Strategy But Rather The Lack Of One’ ”
    https://www.memri.org/reports/russia-reacts-new-round-us-sanctions-%E2%80%93-part-ii

    “Lavrov: ‘I Didn’t Even Suspect That U.S. Politicians Could Succumb To This Mass Psychosis”
    https://www.memri.org/reports/russias-reactions-new-round-us-sanctions-%E2%80%93-part-I
    POTUS Trump’s Signing Statement re: HR3364: SEC. 254. Coordinating aid and assistance across Europe and Eurasia
    (a) Authorization of appropriations.—There are authorized to be appropriated for the Countering Russian Influence Fund $250,000,000 for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

    https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/3364/text#toc-H5FBB78983EFE4260941D047337501428

    POTUS’ official Signing Statement:

    “Further, certain provisions, such as sections 254 and 257, purport to direct my subordinates in the executive branch to undertake certain diplomatic initiatives, in contravention of the President’s exclusive constitutional authority to determine the time, scope, and objectives of international negotiations.”

    https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/08/02/statement-president-donald-j-trump-signing-hr-3364

    [Sec 257 is Ukrainian Energy Security, the sanction making Germany & Europeans so angry]

  2. dark goody August 5, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    You guys need to get crisper and briefer. Right now the balance in military power between the US and Russia or China, or both, is entirely asymmetric. Not saying that won’t change, but that’s the reality of today. That’s why Russia engaged in asymmetric warfare, using fake news and gullibility to help elect a president who is incompetent and feckless, which has certainly weakened us moving forward.

    • Sam McGowan August 6, 2017 at 9:09 am

      GIVE ME AN EFFING BREAK! RUSSIA DIDN’T HAVE TO TRY TO INFLUENCE THE ELECTION. BESIDES, THE AVERAGE AMERICAN HAS NO IDEA WHO RT IS – BUT THEY KNOW THE CLINTONS ARE CROOKED, ALL OF THEM.

    • JamesDrouin August 6, 2017 at 10:50 am

      President Trump’s easiest accomplishment to-date, the one with your name on it:

      Democrats and Entitlement Monkeys – in utter disarray and covfefe’ing themselves daily.

  3. Sam McGowan August 6, 2017 at 9:07 am

    There’s a huge difference between Japan in 1941 and Russia in 2017. First, Japan is an island nation and needed to import materials such as steel and oil for its naval fleet from elsewhere. Russia has plenty of both, along with large supplies of natural resources the United States no longer has. As Brandon points out, they also have nukes but they also have military advantages because any war would be the US attempting to invade Russia – and getting our asses kicked. Americans need to take a close look at what really happened in Europe in World War II. Basically, the US and UK fought a delaying action until the Soviets had defeated the German army in Russia and started pushing them back to Germany. Russia also has another advantage – an older population who know what war really is, unlike most Americans who think it’s a video game.

    • USInfidelPorkEater August 6, 2017 at 2:39 pm

      Sam, you need to reread how much war material we GAVE to Russia. Fighting a war with no or little material is very difficult.

  4. JamesDrouin August 6, 2017 at 10:48 am

    “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.”

    No, it’s “Talk about stupidity.”

    Oh, and the precept that ‘sanctions don’t work’ is nonsense to the nth degree:

    “Targeted sanctions” easily achieve their objective, and there are thousands, literally, thousands of examples available … however, if workarounds a just as easily available, then they’re poorly designed.

    “General sanctions” also achieve their objectives, which are meant to cripple a country’s economic growth with which with the leadership will fund their plans. And again, there are dozens of examples available (Cuba, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to name just a few).

    • Brandon Weichert August 12, 2017 at 6:35 pm

      I must have missed the point where those sanctions in Cuba, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea forced regime change about (which, in every case, was the true ambition behind the sanctions). Silly me. Thanks for the read, though.

      • JamesDrouin August 12, 2017 at 7:24 pm

        Silly you indeed, ’cause last I looked those four countries are dirt-shiite poor AND they’re dirt-shiite poor ’cause they provide shiite to their subjects AND their ‘dear leaders’ can’t go outside without being surrounded 100-deep in armed guards!!!

        Let that be a lesson to you about one of the downsides of meandering through life with your head up your diseased rancid colon!!!

  5. Mad Max August 6, 2017 at 11:59 am

    I always thought that “Most-Favored Nation” status for China, as signed into law under George H.W. Bush and renewed by Bill Clinton, was the single worst act if treason ever committed against the United States.

    The only other person that I’ve heard a similar argument from is Pat Buchanan.

    Russia is close to bankruptcy and I think that Weichert has the correct strategy here with using Russia as a tool against China.

    We also need to make sure that we restore and maintain the industrial infrastructure necessary for the national defense. There is a section within DARPA working on this and I hope they aren’t asleep at the wheel.

    We also need to find a way to reign in the global corporations that originated, are based, in the United United States to make them much more responsive to our national interest and more patriotic. Laws and tax code changes are in order.

    • NutherGuy August 7, 2017 at 6:33 am

      “We also need to make sure that we restore and maintain the industrial infrastructure …”

      That’s going to be costly and without major policy shifts, impossible.

      You almost cannot buy a tool costing under $5000 and weighing under 250# that was made in the U.S. Hand tools, optics, small power tools, small bench power equipment (lathes, milling machines, table saws …), portable pumps and generators — ALL are now made in china. In theory we could make all of this ourselves but we would have to start by buying a bunch of Chinese steel, welding equipment, wrenches, hammers (and so on) to erect the new factories in which to make it. THEN we would have to train all the workers starting from near-zero — it has been 20 years and more since we made much of this sort of thing in the USA and all the workers who did it are now retired.

      People often complain about ‘cheap Chinese junk’ but it is precisely tuned to what sells here. it represents excellent value and if you want genuine top quality, it’s out there — either as high end imports or — some cases — Made in USA. Furthermore, the Chinese are steadily improving their quality. They rarely sell directly here, but rather work with U.S. companies to develop products that carry a U.S. label and have the features called out by the U.S. company. Some of our ‘only the label’ companies say “Low Price!’ while others say ‘high value’ and still others say ‘best quality under $xxxx.’ All of them get what they want.

      Often, all the products of a certain type are built by a single Chinese company. Sometimes even in a single building.

      The Chinese are able to do this because their government effectively subsidizes their manufacturers. We TAX our manufacturers, not just at the cash drawer but also via costly regulations.

      We can come back from this, but if it’s going to happen cheaply we’re going to need a far smarter government — especially a smarter Congress — than we have now. How we get a smarter Congress I have no clue. ‘We can’t repeal Obamacare’ is about the quality of Congressional wisdom on business matters these days — that and ‘We need to get to the bottom of Trump … Russia …’

      Most likely we get one or more of a world war, a civil war, or an economic collapse. THEN we’ll rebuild our manufacturing base … very expensively, very slowly and very, very painfully.

      • Mad Max August 9, 2017 at 5:34 am

        I think automation will make “on-shoring” very popular in the near future. Maybe not soon enough….DOD needs to be leading the effort behind the scenes.

        The DOD needs to get to it when it comes to harder things like rare earth materials. Maybe through the covert buying up of the US rare earth industry and keeping it operating.

        I think we might have the machine shop technology covered through the firearms and defense industries and companies like Cincinnati Machines. In addition, if Germany & Austria are our allies in any future world wide conflict, we’ll be in good shape in the machinery area.

  6. swek August 6, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    Now that Putin has installed his #1 puppet in the White House, all the bedbugs are just loving Russia

    Traitors are now wrapping themselves in the Hammer-and-sickle.

    Trump will be shot, and his supporters will be deported to Siberia

  7. Paul Murphy August 7, 2017 at 6:08 am

    In general trade embargoes and sanctions only work if the target nation is part of the world community. Thus sanctions against North Korea are meaningless because they cut ties that don’t exist and don’t affect those few links (e.g. trade across the border to China) which do exist.

    The sanctions against Russia come in response to an event, Russian collusion and election interference, that everyone knows didn’t happen. That’s dangerous and stupid – it reminds me of the Scooter Libby prosecution where everyone knew that who the real leaker was and that no actual crime had been committed.

    You are right to worry, however, about the effect of sanctions against China – these will hurt people with the power to affect military action. That’s high risk, but also has the potential for high reward if the target group is prevented from turning them into a secret cause of war and thus forced to hand power over to those who see fair trade as their way to future power.

  8. QET August 7, 2017 at 6:35 am

    I assume that it’s equally in the interest of all nations to avoid world war. So, what exactly are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea doing to avoid it? You reserve your criticism exclusively for the US. How about evaluating all the ways in which the coming world war will be the fault, not of the US, but of, say Russia, or Iran?

  9. 57nomad August 7, 2017 at 11:49 am

    The author didn’t propose an alternative, did he? If the author is arguing against sanctions, then what alternative is there. Are we supposed to acquiesce to a mad man with nukes that can hit our mainland cities? What is the alternative? The author is strong on telling us what not to do but silent on what to do.

    • Brandon Weichert August 12, 2017 at 6:37 pm

      The alternative is pretty simple to state: trade with Russia and work together on shared interests (the original Trump-Flynn plan).

  10. D4x August 7, 2017 at 9:04 pm

    Tip of my hat to FM Lavrov, Sec Tillerson, Pres Putin, and, POTUS Trump:

    US and Russian officials will try to maintain contacts concerning world hotspots within the limits impose by US sanctions on the Kremlin. Author Maxim A. Suchkov Posted August 7, 2017

    “…Lavrov and Tillerson’s Aug. 6 meeting in Manila,
    which lasted about an hour, kicked off, according to Lavrov, with Tillerson’s
    “being interested in details of the decision [on the expulsion of American
    diplomats] that we took in retaliation to the anti-Russian sanctions law. … We
    waited for a long time, expecting that the US would not take the
    confrontational course. But unfortunately the Russophobic bias of members of
    Congress prevailed.” Remarkably, Lavrov reiterated Russia’s commitment, despite
    the sanctions, to the Putin-Trump Hamburg agreements “to get the cooperation started
    on cybersecurity and a joint effort against cybercrimes and the prevention of
    them.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry also hopes for contacts with the State
    Department on the North Korea problem, saying such communications “would be
    useful.” Moscow is also expecting Kurt Volker, the US envoy on Ukraine, to meet
    with his Russian counterpart Vladislav Surkov “very soon.” Similarly, Russian
    diplomacy has seemingly special hopes for the Ryabkov-Shannon mechanism as a
    main (crisis) communication channel for bilateral relations, where US
    Undersecretary Thomas Shannon has contact with Russian counterpart Sergei
    Ryabkov.

    A big part of the Tillerson-Lavrov conversation was devoted
    to three issues affecting Middle East security: the situation in Afghanistan,
    the intra-Gulf spat and the state of affairs in Syria. Lavrov emphasized that
    “the contacts between Russians and Americans will continue to build on the
    agreements reached between Russia, the US and Jordan on the creation of the
    southern de-escalation zone in Syria. We expect our contacts with the US to
    continue on other aspects of the Syrian settlement — both military and
    political ones. Essentially these contacts have never ceased.

    The issue of the de-escalation zones was also discussed by
    Lavrov in his ASEAN meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The
    two exchanged views on the progress on implementation of the Astana agreements
    and the upcoming meeting of Russian, Turkish and Iranian representatives in
    Tehran scheduled for Aug. 8-9. The agenda of the meeting is believed to be
    focused on “consolidation of the de-escalation zones in Syria.” Now that the
    three such zones are in place in the southwest of Syria, in Eastern Ghouta and
    in northern Homs, “the parties are working on the fourth one in Idlib, which is
    the biggest and most complex,” Lavrov said.

    Asked if Moscow was disturbed that the militants who refused
    to sign the cease-fire had left for Idlib, Lavrov said of the fourth
    de-escalation zone: “This is indeed the most difficult zone to establish of all
    those agreed upon by Russia, Turkey and Iran. We are coming to the belief that
    the ‘troika,’ as well as other players, including possibly the US, have
    influence in the aggregate over all militant and armed groupings, excluding
    terrorists who will never be a part of such agreements. If Russia, Turkey and
    Iran as well as the US-led coalition simultaneously use their influence over
    concrete actors that are fighting each other on the ground, then some
    compromise-based proposals can be found that would aid cease-fires and create
    conditions for the political process.” …”

    http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/us-russia-syria-dialogue-despite-sanctions.html

  11. BCML August 10, 2017 at 7:36 am

    Our President is a total wild card that is showing himself to be temperamentally, intellectually, and ethically unfit for the position of power that he occupies. Sadly, his replacement, and soon, is the best course for America and the world. I hope the Mueller Investigation yields results soon so the removal process can begin.

  12. BanBait August 10, 2017 at 8:56 am

    Max Boot will now promptly denounce Mr. Weichert as a tool of Vladimir.

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