Sanctioning Yourself in the Foot

"Sanctions," Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, told the UN General Assembly, "are the US’s new way of war with the nations of the world." At least nineteen countries are currently besieged by the economic warfare of US sanctions.

As when they wage military war, the US is willing to accept the high civilian cost of sanctions. In their book Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan cite studies showing that sanctions "often harm the civilian population more than the targeted regimes." Being interviewed about US sanctions on Iraq, Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the UN was asked, "We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Albright infamously replied, "I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it." More recently, US sanctions on Venezuela have killed an estimated 40,000 people.

And like military war, sanctions often don’t work. Years of sanctions have not brought about the desired effects of regime change or bringing nations under US leadership in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, Syria or Russia. Though sanctions may historically have contributed to some successes, Chenoweth and Stephan argue that "there is no general pattern indicating that they are necessary for successful campaign outcomes."

Though sanctions do not produce the desired effects, they do, ironically, produce four undesired effects.

Rather than producing division and regime change, the civilian cruelty and collective punishment of sanctions can validate the government’s accusations against the US and unify the population and solidify their support for the government. This result was clearly seen in Russia, Iran and Venezuela. In The Putin Paradox, Richard Sakwa observes that, though sanctions were meant "to shape Russian policy" or lead to "regime change," they "tended only to reinforce solidarity around the Kremlin" while they "rallied the country behind Putin."

Sanctions can also make the sanctioned country more self-sufficient and less dependent on the US. Under the external squeeze of sanctions on a country’s borders, the country can turn inward and become more self-sufficient and diversified, as happened in Russia and Iran. In Russia, Sakwa says, "the country’s political economy was reoriented to ensure greater resilience and autonomy." The same happened in Iran with the economy or resistance. In Going to Tehran, Flynt Leverrett and Hillary Mann Leverett, argue that "sanctions can encourage greater self-sufficiency" and point to Iran’s acceleration of refineries and becoming a net exporter of gasoline. Iran has also diversified, becoming less dependent on oil. Sanctions have not crushed the economies of Russia nor Iran; in fact, by some measures, their economies have grown.

To be effective, sanctions require international cooperation to isolate the sanctioned country. If a single nation is under sanctions, it has nowhere to turn. The irony of sanctions as "the US’s new way of war" is that the US has placed so many countries under sanctions that it has created a community of sanctioned countries. That has led those countries to turn to each other for trade and driven them together with two undesired and ironic effects.

When the US pulled the iron curtain closed again and deprived Russia of western markets, Russia turned east. Its heartland policy strengthened Eurasian integration and elevated Eurasian trade. It increased trade with India, Japan and the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Most importantly, Russia trod the silk road and joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and forged a relationship with China that Putin has described as "a relationship that probably cannot be compared with anything in the world.”

No longer able to trade with America or its allies, Iran has turned to other sanctioned nations as partners. Iran recently signed a twenty-five year strategic and economic partnership with China that is worth $400 billion. They have signed an agreement with Russia for an advanced satellite system. Iran has also become a permanent member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. And just this month, Iran announced that they will sign a 20 year cooperation accord with fellow member of the sanction community Venezuela. Venezuela and China also engage in substantial trade.

Driving the sanctioned countries together into a community of sanctioned countries has two ironic effects. The first is a partial loss of leverage.

Part of the intent of sanctions on Iran is to provide leverage in negotiations. Economic siege on the country is intended to make Iran capitulate and give in to US nuclear demands. But a community of sanctioned countries provides an escape. Though Iran is not so confident as to feel insulated from US sanctions, they are also not as vulnerable to them as they once might have been. If the sealed off western market was the only market available to Iran, sanctions might provide the US with a considerable degree of leverage. But that leverage is lessened if there is not a dichotomy between capitulation and starvation. Iran can partially escape the leverage by not needing the western market since they can turn to the market of a community of sanctioned nations. Rather than giving in, Iran can, to some degree, accept the sanctions and turn to a new economic community created by US sanctions and economic warfare. Over-reliance on sanctions as a weapon has weakened the weapon.

However, the most ironic outcome of a war of sanctions is that it has helped create the very world the sanctions were meant to prevent. Sanctions were a weapon in the war to bring the nations of the world under US hegemony in a unipolar world. They were meant to bring Russia into an enlarged American community as a defeated and subordinate member. They were meant to stymie the Chinese challenge and competition. Sanctions were to bring about nuclear cooperation and regime change in Iran and to keep Venezuela obediently in America’s backyard. Sanctions were the weapon to preserve a unipolar world. Instead, sanctions drove Russia and China into what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called a "mature, firm and stable . . . strategic partnership." That has created the very multipolar world sanctions were meant to prevent with China and Russia forming a magnetic pole that has drawn other sanctioned and nonaligned countries, including Iran and Venezuela, into the other hemisphere of a new multipolar world.

Sanctions forced nations together into a community that may not only be strong enough to survive the sanctions that were meant to make them captive to US hegemony in a unipolar world, it may be strong enough to provide the very competition sanctions were meant to prevent in a new multipolar world.

The US has drawn the sanctions weapon so many times that they may have sanctioned themselves in the foot.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.