When a country’s foreign policy begins to resemble that of Nazi Germany it’s time for a rethink. That undoubtedly is a shocking thought to some. But noting how Washington brutally treats both friends and foes doesn’t mean the U.S. is Nazi Germany, in intent or behavior. However, anyone who wants America to be the fabled city on a hill should challenge Uncle Sam’s often unreasonable behavior.
The end of the Cold War led to extraordinary hubris in Washington. What we say goes, became the new foreign policy watchword. Even as America’s relative unilateral power waned, US policymakers became more determined to impose their will on the rest of the world, irrespective of cost.
Today no controversy is too small to ignore. No issue is too distant to disregard. No country is too friendly to harass. And no price is too high to impose.
Hence successive administrations have attempted to micro-manage the world to America’s specifications and force every person in every state to obey America’s commands. Failing to do so risks being on the receiving end of threats, sanctions, drones, bombs, invasions, and occupations.
Washington has accumulated a steadily growing list of adversaries it is attempting to destroy economically: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, and possibly China. America’s demands are peremptory, even when wrapped in diplomatic rhetoric. In practice, no compromise is permissible. Cuba must release political prisoners and adopt democracy. Iran must abandon its independent foreign policy as well as its nuclear energy program. The North must yield its nuclear arsenal. Russia must surrender Crimea, abandon support for ethnic Ukrainian separatists, leave Libya, Syria, and Venezuela, and stop otherwise resisting American dominance. Syria must defenestrate the Assad government, or adopt political reforms guaranteeing his ouster. Venezuela’s government must leave. China must stop oppressing its people, aggressively asserting itself, and more.
Presumed friends risk similarly brutal treatment. Increasingly Uncle Sam’s first inclination is to demand that every person in every nation follow Washington’s direction, even when policy fluctuates wildly. The US does not recognize Taiwan, but America now insists that other nations not switch their recognition from Taiwan to China. Although Washington has not yet imposed sanctions on recalcitrants, it has threatened to cut economic aid.
The Obama administration negotiated and the Trump administration originally observed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Two years ago US officials tore up the pact and insisted that European states follow Washington and abandon their policy. The administration threatened to destroy any European company which disobeyed the US president.
Washington took the same approach last week when claiming to be a participant in the agreement that it ostentatiously violated for purposes of reimposing UN sanctions on Iran. The administration did not directly sanction opposing governments – 13 of the other 14 Security Council members rejected America’s position – but threatened unspecified action when it claimed that sanctions would be magically resurrected. Washington also ratcheted up its rhetoric, suggesting that everyone else was aligned with terrorists.
In many cases Washington does threaten to penalize those who refuse to go along. The Europeans sought to keep the JCPOA alive by creating a facility known as INSTEX to allow transactions to avoid the US financial system and thus US sanctions – essentially by shuffling local funds among traders out of America’s view. Washington threatened to sanction creation of INSTEX, since it would prevent US officials from viewing and sanctioning foreign trade directly. Not only must every deal on earth comport with American political priorities, but every deal must be open to Washington’s scrutiny.
Similarly, in January Iraq almost went on the sanctions list for exercising its right as a sovereign power to instruct Washington to withdraw its troops. The administration insisted that the only discussions it would have would be to strengthen the relationship, treating Iraq as if still under occupation. The president later reconsidered – perhaps because he remembered promising the American people that he would halt "endless wars" like those in Iraq – and began withdrawing US troops. However, his willingness to punish a foreign government that said no was stunning.
Exhibiting no second thoughts regarding Germany, the administration recently doubled down on sanctions against Berlin’s plan for the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Russia. Congress passed legislation that forced out the Swiss pipe-laying company with just 93 miles left to finish. With Moscow poised to complete the pipeline three US senators cheerfully threatened "crushing" sanctions to destroy the port, owned by two German states, which was servicing Russian ships. This generated widespread outrage at being directed to submit Berlin’s energy plans to American legislators for approval.
In the end, most anyone or anything – company, boat, plane, and more – on earth is at risk from American sanctions. Most common are threats against anyone or anything dealing with any nation targeted by Washington: they must submit or face ruinous financial losses. That policy goes back decades to Cuba but has been refined and supplemented by weaponing America’s domination of the financial system.
The Trump administration has been imposing sanctions at a far greater rate than its predecessors, by the day if not the hour. No offense against Washington is considered beyond America’s coercive reach. In June the administration threatened to sanction anyone associated with the International Criminal Court – established by a treaty ratified by 123 nations – if it investigated US military personnel. Putting on full totalitarian garb, US officials said they would punish family members as well! There is, it seems, no escape from Washington’s wrath.
The ever-growing list of sanctions targets is impressive and contained in the Treasury Department’s "Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List." However, people also risk arrest. For instance, the US is seeking to extradite a Chinese executive from the Chinese technology firm Huawei from Canada for allegedly violating US sanctions on Iran. American criminal law punishments for unilateral economic penalties have gone global. Washington long sought to grab drug lords on foreign soil. Now trading with a disfavored country, company, or person can land a foreigner in jail.
Behind economic and criminal penalties is the US government’s true mailed fist: military action. Even after the defeat of the Islamic state, the original justification for direct American military intervention in Syria, US forces still illegally occupied the country, created an autonomous statelet, severed major roads, and seized oilfields. Altercations and firefights with Russian and Syrian forces occurred. Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, also are active in Syria, could add new confrontations.
Last year Washington officials sought to force the United Kingdom to seize an Iranian oil tanker bound for Syria, even though international law did not restrict the shipment. Earlier this year administration officials hyper-ventilated in outrage when Iran shipped oil to Venezuela. With no legal warrant, the US adopted piracy as its policy and in mid-August seized four more Venezuela-bound ships with their cargoes.
Presidents routinely threaten Iran and North Korea with military action. The preferred euphemism is "all options are on the table," intoned with great gravity even when there is no threat against America, which is vastly more powerful than any of its military targets. Finally, presidents routinely and lawlessly launch conflicts big and small, with neither domestic nor international legal warrant.
Some of the actions officially are intended to enforce nonproliferation (Iraq), implement regime change (Grenada, Haiti, Panama, Libya, Afghanistan), pay off/reassure allies (Yemen), and take sides in an insurgency (Libya, Serbia, Syria, Yemen). None of these cases involved self-defense. Rather, Washington simply issued one or another demands and deployed troops as enforcers against small, weak states.
Shockingly, this is rather how Adolf Hitler dealt with his neighbors. From 1933 to 1938 he negotiated, but only after a fashion: often he won by refusing to compromise his demands and daring opponents to respond militarily – most obviously when dismantling the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty. The allies were unwilling to defend their controversial handiwork and Hitler’s belligerence effectively overturned the post-World War I system.
The Munich Agreement marked a significant shift in approach. It was signed in September 1938 after Hitler made successive escalating demands, backed by the threat of war. He forced Czechoslovakia, France, and the United Kingdom to give way, since the latter two were unwilling and unprepared to fight. The following year World War II began with the invasion of Poland – after Warsaw refused his demands to revise the Versailles settlement and yield territory back to the Reich. And during the war he treated Berlin’s nominal friends only slightly better than its enemies. His arbitrary expectations of Vichy France, Hungary, and later Italy, for instance, were stated peremptorily. When nations resisted military takeovers and reduction to puppet status resulted.
Arbitrary demands backed by ruthless readiness to ruin other nations is the common thread. Of course, the US more often relies on economic sanctions to achieve its ends, and usually has not escalated to war, the most notable exception being Iraq. America’s demands are rarely so purely selfish as were Nazi Germany’s. In fact, many of Washington’s desires are reasonable: The world would be a better place if Nicolas Maduro yielded, Iran disarmed, North Korea denuked, and Cuba democratized. Still, the Trump administration’s use of sanctions is arrogant, unthinking, even savage.
Unfortunately, Washington abandons its greatest strengths when relying on force. The US has far more allies and friends than any potential adversary. America also possesses enormous soft power, much more than the People’s Republic of China, despite the latter’s growing economic strength. When acting like a dictatorial, militaristic power Washington sacrifices its considerable advantages and generates increasingly serious opposition.
Iran offers an extraordinary example. After the administration’s JCPOA walk-out, leading European powers consistently chose Tehran over Washington. The contretemps before the Security Council was particularly embarrassing. Although China and Russia were expected to resist US dictates, Washington won support from only the Dominican Republic. The European states of Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom refused to back the US Nor did Indonesia and Vietnam, which had moved closer to America in fear of Chinese naval aggressiveness. Also failing to join Washington: Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, South Africa, and Tunisia. It was perhaps this administration’s greatest diplomatic bungle, a notable anti-achievement.
The only greater international embarrassment for the Trump administration has been the fact that every attempt to exert "maximum pressure," or something close, has failed. Venezuela is geographically within the sphere of influence that America claims for itself (while denying for others), yet Nicolas Maduro is still in power. In Cuba the communist regime survives, despite six decades of economic war by Washington. Iran refuses to even talk with the Trump administration while increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium and reducing the time necessary to build a nuclear bomb. No one seriously believes Pyongyang will abandon its nukes. Russia is no more likely to yield Crimea. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad survived nine years of civil war; he won’t surrender to America now. And the country most recently edging onto the administration’s sanctions list, China, is not planning to restore Hong Kong’s autonomy. Trump & Co. are an extraordinary zero for seven!
The next administration, whether headed by Joe Biden or Donald Trump, should take US foreign policy in a new direction. The Trump administration’s manifold, almost constant failures are obvious to all. Although the Obama administration was more congenial when dealing with foreign governments, it was equally arbitrary and even more warlike, applying sanctions widely, increasing force levels in Afghanistan, and launching or supporting conflicts in Libya, Iraq/Syria, and Yemen. Trump’s unreasonableness hints of an earlier uglier era.
International relations will remain complex and difficult. The US has a wide range of tools at its disposal. Soft power is a positive force, encouraging support from friends, gaining new partners, assuaging skeptics, and sometimes confounding enemies. Economic sanctions should be used far more sparingly. War should be a very last resort, considered only when truly vital interests are at stake. Washington increasingly gets this order exactly wrong.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.