There was a time, back in the mists of history, before the U.S. became the global dictatress, determined to micromanage nations and peoples around the globe. Washington sometimes sanctioned foreign governments, but mostly by restricting Americans. Uncle Sam did not wander the globe threatening other nations if they failed to follow his lead.
Today, however, he has taken over the role of God, apart from whose will, declares scripture, not one sparrow "will fall to the ground." Similarly, not one political, military, or other policy decision on earth will be taken apart from the will of Washington.
What kind of government do you have? What does your foreign policy emphasize? What is your budget deficit? What monetary policy do you follow? What form of energy do you produce? The US had the answer. And if you didn’t comply, American officials would be very, very, displeased.
Washington’s willingness to demand abject compliance now extends to allies. The infamous embargo against Cuba was an international dead letter since everyone except Americans were free to invest and trade there. So Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, imposing US sanctions on foreign companies, mostly European, within reach of American jurisdiction. Then policymakers turned to the ubiquitous US financial system. For instance, Sudan was later isolated by threatening any bank that had even one dealing with the American financial system with massive penalties if it had even a single transaction with anyone in Sudan.
This gave US activists and legislators alike the glorious feeling of being masters of the universe, able to strike evildoers around the globe. And the number of targets multiplied exponentially. All who failed America’s standards of purity would be humbled and forced to do Washington’s bidding. A new era of liberty and morality would emerge, with the US leading the world toward the glorious moment when the lion and lamb would lie down together. Enemies would be vanquished. Malefactors would be punished. Americans would be vindicated.
Narrowly drawn, widely supported sanctions sometimes achieved limited results. But Washington-style, "surrender or starve" pronouncements only yielded failure. Indeed, the result of US policy has been a shocking mix of cruelty and arrogance, epitomized by Madeleine Albright’s response on 60 Minutes when queried about the reported deaths of a half million Iraqi children as a result of sanctions: "We think the price is worth it." Albright later admitted that her answer was awful, a PR disaster, but she never repudiated her belief that "we," which she left undefined, were entitled to decide that killing a half million kids was "worth it," by some undefined criteria.
What results would have justified such a belief? Iraq’s Saddam Hussein lived large even though his people starved. Six decades of sanctions left Cuba’s communist regime in place, feted around the world for its resistance to Yanqui imperialism. Financial sanctions helped get Sudan to negotiate over the south’s secession, but the brutal Bashir regime did not fall until after sanctions were lifted. North Korea’s nuclear activities increased along with sanctions.
Donald Trump accelerated the use of economic penalties, targeting thousands of people and organizations along with nations. He imposed new or tougher economic sanctions with equal fanfare and sanctimony on China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela, yet he evidenced concern neither for the human consequences nor the policy impacts. As Albright made clear, starving people was fine so long as it was done for a higher purpose as defined by Washington. Indeed, under Trump Amb. James Jeffrey did his best Albright impression when he explained that the US sought to starve Syrians and prevent reconstruction of their country to create a "quagmire" for Russia. Never mind the disastrous impact on the Syrian people; they were merely a means to Jeffrey’s end, their welfare of no importance to Washington.
The apparent expectation was that leaders of target states would inevitably genuflect and comply with American dictates. Trump repeatedly assured the American people that capitulation was imminent, if not sooner. Yet not once did America’s adversaries give in. Never did the hostile regimes choose to put their people first.
Indeed, the Trumpian "maximum pressure" campaign failed in repeated human experiments. Although earlier sanctions encouraged Tehran to negotiate over nuclear weapons, Trump’s "maximum pressure" campaign failed to convince the Iranian regime to transfer its sovereignty to Washington. Similarly, sanctions encouraged North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to pursue a deal, but not to denuclearize. A variety of economic penalties imposed some pain on countries such as China, Cuba, Russia, and Venezuela – alas, generally more on their peoples than governments – but had no meaningful impact on regime policies. Overall, Trump’s "crush everyone" sanctions strategy was a bust.
Of course, economic warriors always had excuses for failure. If only the penalties were a little tougher. If only the restrictions applied a little longer. If only other states obeyed Washington’s orders. If only the sun, earth, and moon were in correct alignment. And especially if only Trump had been reelected. Then abashed foreign leaders would have rushed to Washington ready to kowtow in Trump’s presence, kiss his feet, and sign the surrender terms, as required.
At least penalties imposed on hostile regimes target putative adversaries. Punishing friends and even allies initially was an astonishing move but since has become commonplace. American policymakers model the concept of boundless arrogance. Everyone on earth is expected to obey the US as if the latter’s writ extended around the globe. Resistance is futile.
Such has been the saga of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which became a target in Washington. U.S.-Russia relations are awful and Vladimir Putin is no friend of liberty. However, Washington has done much to degrade ties: breaking its commitment not to expand NATO, dismantling Serbia, planning to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the transatlantic alliance, promoting color revolutions in those nations, and otherwise engaging in behavior that Washington would never accept by Moscow in the Western Hemisphere. For instance, a proposal to expand the Warsaw Pact to Mexico or Canada would have induced hysteria in the imperial city, with fevered demands for action and even war.
Although the US claimed to be focused on Europe’s protection, Washington was more determined than most European states to pursue a veritable jihad against Russia. In doing so, American policymakers proved unconcerned about the actual impact of their policies on European security. After all, Washington is filled with people who "think the price is worth it," at least when other people – the Europeans in this case – do most of the paying.
There were perfectly good reasons for Berlin to support the project. Germany has historic ties with Russia and does not want to create a permanent rift, making antagonism the basis of the relationship. Shutting its nuclear plants left Germany energy more reliant on Russia. Nord Stream 2 would shift supplies from a pipeline running through Ukraine to one through the Baltic Sea. The Ukrainian system is older, less reliable, and more subject to political interference – by Kyiv on its own or directed by Washington.
Kyiv collects about $3 billion annually in transit fees from Moscow and currently enjoys some leverage over Russia by controlling the latter’s natural gas shipments to Europe. However, despite all the handwringing over Ukraine, it is not a serious security interest for America. Tragically for Kyiv, that country is in a bad neighborhood, but that is not a problem for Americans to remedy.
Reasons of realpolitik also motivate US officials. They prefer Berlin to be vulnerable to US pressure, as it is without a Baltic supply route. More broadly, they would prefer Europe to be less reliant on Moscow, with which much of the GOP and many Democrats appear to want a new Cold War. An obviously distraught Wall Street Journal editorial declared: "Giving a revisionist power more influence over Europe’s economy doesn’t help US interests."
More base motives also may be involved. The less natural gas furnished by Russia, the greater the opportunity to sell American liquefied natural gas to Germany and the rest of Europe. Indeed, Richard Grenell, former U.S. ambassador visited Europe to peddle US energy. What better way to increase demand for American fuel than to interrupt supplies from Russia? US foreign policy long has sought to bolster the bottom line of American companies. Many European countries were critical of the project but understandably suspicious of Washington’s intent.
That Washington pursued US interests, even parochial and commercial ones, is not unusual. Once the US said its piece and Germany rejected the advice, however, Washington should have moved onto other issues. Instead, the latter imposed sanctions on one of its most important allies. Alone, the Trump administration might not have punished Berlin. However, Congress is filled with wannabe secretaries of state who apparently get a thrill from using America’s power to enforce their will around the world, or at least attempting to do so. They have turned sanctions into a ubiquitous interventionist tool.
In this case, legislators, led by Senators Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz, voted to sanction anyone involved in building the pipeline, even writing threatening letters to participants. It took extra effort by Moscow and Berlin to determine how to finish the project, which was tantalizingly close to completion when sanctions were imposed. The prospect of failure – that Germany might succeed in making its own decision in its interest – led to ever louder congressional demands that the administration do something! However, the president was more concerned about America’s relationship with Germany and reached an agreement with Berlin to drop sanctions so long as the latter tossed some money and promises Kyiv’s way. That was but a small fig leaf for US officials who had asserted the right to overturn Germany’s energy choices.
Johnson and Cruz loudly berated the Biden administration after their attempt to play global energy czars failed. Cruz called the decision "a catastrophe for the United States and our allies," which reflected badly on his judgment and sense of proportion. Some Democrats joined in. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said "I’ve always felt that we should’ve stopped it," but he did not explain what else Washington should have done. Send in the navy, perhaps? Former Trump officials Kiron Skinner and Russell Berman denounced Biden’s decision as a "surrender." However, having worked in the Trump administration, whose sanctions policy, including against Germany, failed at every turn their credibility was suspect.
And there was, naturally, much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Kyiv, with the Zelensky government, inconsistent and incompetent at home, especially angry that Berlin put Germany’s interests before those of Ukraine and America treated Berlin as more important than Warsaw. The Odessa Review’s Vladislav Davidzon wrote: "unless the plans around Nord Stream 2 sharply change, the worries – and anger – in Kyiv will continue." Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau jointly complained that "this crisis is significantly deepened by the resignation from attempts to stop the launch" of the pipeline.
However, Ukraine’s attempt to play victim did not go down well. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s clumsy attempt to win a promise of NATO membership backfired, drawing a rebuke from President Joe Biden. Ukraine’s very public attempt to play the China card to wring more money and promises from Germany was no more successful. After all, most European states deal with Beijing, and China would not play a similar military role to NATO.
Zelensky’s consolation prize was a promised meeting with Biden on August 30. The Ukrainian president said he expected a "frank and vibrant" discussion on the pipeline, but Washington has correctly decided that Kyiv is a secondary interest, much less important than relations with both Europe and Russia. Ukraine likely will score more cash and promises but, if the American people are lucky, anyway, little else.
Advocates of an American imperium argue that the US is a force for good in the world. However, episodes like Nord Stream 2 demonstrate that Lord Acton’s aphorism, "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," is universal in application. When American policymakers believe they possess power to change the world, they will use it, often for ill. Sanctions have become one of the worst areas of abuse. Washington’s embarrassing Nord Stream 2 failure should trigger a rethink. As a first step, US policymakers should stop trying to coerce democratic allies and friends.
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.