by Renate Bridenthal, Molly Nolan and Prasannan Parthasarathi
Sanctions are an economic weapon. They restrict nations from trading in goods and transacting in financial instruments; they prohibit U.S. corporations and banks from dealing with targeted countries; and they limit the economic activities of individuals, organizations, and businesses in them.
Sanctions have become a powerful tool in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal and are wielded to alter the behavior of governments, bring about regime change or simply punish a state and its people. Today the U.S. is an “empire of sanctions,” as well as an “empire of bases.” Several dozen countries are subject to U.S. sanctions as are many individual political figures and business people. The list appears to grow daily.
With growing opposition to direct U.S. military intervention, sanctions are presented as a “more peaceful” form of coercion. But they seldom change the actions of the countries and individuals that are targeted, even as they harm civilian populations. The hardships that result from U.S. and U.N. sanctions have been well documented. Tens of thousands of civilians have died from Iran and Iraq to Venezuela as a consequence of sanctions and many more have gone hungry. The toll of sanctions mounted during the COVID-19 pandemic when they restricted access to badly needed drugs and medical supplies. Nevertheless, the U.S. use of sanctions continues to grow. President George W. Bush approved over 1,800 sanctions, President Barack Obama over 2,000 and President Trump over 3,700. However, sanctions rarely achieve their goals of toppling regimes or the “behavior” of target states.
Presidents have the power to impose sanctions under the 1977 International Economic Emergency Powers Act. They do not need to obtain Congressional approval. Nor do they need to report on the extent and effectiveness of sanctions. And there are no time limits on these sanctions. Many international lawyers consider unilateral U.S. sanctions to be illegal, coercive and violations of national sovereignty. As such, they are acts of aggression. Secondary sanctions, on corporations, nations and individuals who are deemed to have violated U.S. sanctions, have no basis in international law. But the U.S. tries to enforce them through the power of the dollar and its economic clout.
Even proponents of sanctions admit that they rarely lead to regime change or significant shifts in policies. Think North Korea, Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Venezuela. Some proponents see targeted or smart sanctions, which focus on political or business leaders or other elites, as limited, humane and effective. Critics point out that the target of these sanctions pay little attention to them and that they have deleterious consequences for the broader population. General sanctions, comprehensive prohibitions on commercial activity with a nation as a whole, have not turned people against their government, despite often causing widespread suffering.
Yet the U.S. increasingly uses sanctions because they are politically convenient and less costly than armed interventions. Like drone warfare, no American lives are risked and the damage caused to civilians is not visible to most Americans. Sanctions mobilize domestic support for pressuring, punishing and demonizing other nations. They may start as an alternative to war but may lead to military action.
The U.S. sanctions policy is leading to a widening circle of unintended consequences. Sanctions encourage illicit trade and smuggling. They alienate U.S. allies whose commercial and financial relationships are disrupted. They foster challenges to the dollar, the hegemonic currency of trade and thus of sanctions enforcement. Countries are conducting bilateral trade on the basis of local currencies. Others are hoarding gold rather than U.S. dollars as a hedge and store of value. And in some circles alternative digital currencies are being created and used. Just as a rising dollar challenged and replaced the pound sterling as the global currency in the 1920s when the British Empire declined, the dollar, the face of United States global dominance, may be facing a similar fate. While sanctions policy is not the only reason for such a shift, it plays a role. Sanctions have created a blowback to a U.S. policy centered on imposing its will on other countries. They are both a symptom and a cause of the U.S. failed pursuit to retain global dominance.
Opposition to U.S. sanctions has been growing both at home and abroad. There are calls to reject all economic sanctions, to combat secondary sanctions, and to relax sanctions in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are bills in the U.S. Congress to institute Congressional oversight over sanctions that are imposed by the President and to lift sanctions against North Korea for humanitarian reasons. Sanctions kill and the peace movement must get that message out there.
The authors are members of Historians for Peace and Democracy and the compilers of the “Sanctions Syllabus,” a comprehensive collection of readings on sanctions. For the syllabus, go to https://www.historiansforpeace.org/working-groups/empire-and-war/an-empire-of-sanctions/.