Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Farewell to Sanctions

Economic warfare isn't just an abhorrent and immoral policy, but right now it also represents a threat to global health and safety as well.
Venezuela oil

Asli U. Bâli and Aziz Rana make the case the U.S. must end the use of sweeping unilateral sanctions against other countries:

In a world imperiled by global pandemic, it is long past time to end these broad sanctions regimes and to reconstruct U.S. foreign policy on lines grounded instead in international solidarity. The latter is impossible without doing the former.

To begin with, this means stopping entirely the use of sanctions as a weapon of mass immiseration against American rivals and adversaries. Broad unilateral embargoes—including secondary sanctions—that weaponize U.S. primacy and cut countries off from the global financial system must be repudiated. They are expressions of an imperial conception of foreign policy, whether aimed at inducing regime change in Iran and Venezuela or at coercing compliance more generally with national security dictates. If the United States wants to make the case that certain far more limited sanctions—such as weapons embargoes of belligerent actors targeting civilians—serve important global ends, then it should do so only by engaging in the hard work of multilateral diplomacy, rather than leveraging its global financial primacy to force participation.

Our economic wars against several countries were already cruel and iniquitous before the pandemic began, and now the pandemic has made the human costs of these wars much more obvious and harder for sanctions advocates to deny. That hasn’t stopped sanctions advocates from trying to dodge responsibility for causing more misery and death in the targeted countries, but their arguments are becoming ever more strained and desperate. We are witnessing how economic warfare saps another country’s resources and weakens their ability to withstand unexpected disasters, and in the event of a pandemic like the one that is happening now weakening their resistance to the spread of a deadly virus also exposes their neighbors and the wider world to greater risk as well. The drive to isolate and punish certain states has the potential not only to cause massive suffering and loss of life in the targeted countries, but it can also endanger many other countries.

Economic warfare isn’t just an abhorrent and immoral policy, but right now it also represents a threat to global health and safety as well. Depriving Iran of the essential resources and equipment they need to cope with the outbreak will harm and kill a lot of Iranians, but it will also spill over into other countries. That is why Pakistan’s prime minister recently called for the lifting of U.S. sanctions, and there is already evidence that the outbreak is spilling over into Afghanistan as Afghan refugees return home:

Afghanistan has already imported its epidemic. And each day it adds to it, as thousands more displaced Afghans continue to flow across the border from Iran, which has reported among the world’s highest numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

The returnees, some surely infected with the coronavirus when in Iran, cluster shoulder to shoulder in massive crowds on both sides of the crossing, where toilet facilities are primitive and soap and potable water are scarce.

Later, they climb aboard overloaded taxis, buses and minivans for the two-hour trip to Herat city, the sprawling and crowded hub of western Afghanistan, where they sleep in packed hostels and cramped rooms behind restaurants.

As Bâli and Rana point out, U.S. “maximum pressure” campaigns aren’t just attempts to coerce the targeted states to comply with maximalist demands, but they also seek to compel all other states to participate in the pressure campaign whether they agree with its goals or not:

Abroad, the consequences for internal democratic norms and deliberative health are even more severe. Secondary sanctions compel other states to carry out the whims of U.S. officials, regardless of whether the citizens and leaders of those states actually oppose the policy. In the Iran context, some U.S. officials such as Pompeo may actually view rising infection rates and health care breakdown as the intended effect, something helpful in promoting regime change. But for countries in the Middle East and Europe, being forced against their wills to participate in such a scheme—even if it spreads illness to their communities and causes mass death everywhere—is not just inhumane. It makes fundamentally hollow any ideal of a global order premised on local self-government and autonomy, in which publics assert control over basic questions of life and death—their own as well as those of others abroad affected by their actions.

There is an inevitable contradiction between the U.S. acting unilaterally as an enforcer and an international system in which all states are expected to abide by the same rules. The U.S. has been able to get away with this contradiction for the last few decades because most of its allies trusted that the U.S. would use its extraordinary clout in constructive ways, but especially in the last few years they have begun to see how the U.S. can abuse its position to everyone’s detriment. It is dawning on our allies that the U.S. cannot be counted on to use its enormous power responsibly, and they are realizing that the U.S. is increasingly behaving more like a rogue state.

Van Jackson talked about the failings of sanctions regimes recently:

Sanctions are fairly ineffective most of the time anyway. They have symbolic power, they’re statements…ironically they’re usually statements of moral authority, especially in the case of North Korea, but in this case and in any case where you’re dealing with a regime…Iran and North Korea are the most acute cases that I can think of where trying to apply “maximum pressure” sanctions on regimes who have fairly brutal, quasi-totalitarian holds on power…is that your sanctions regime creates all kinds of risks just on a normal basis that you’re going to push the regime leadership int a corner and then they’ll lash out. You’re taking a big risk when you do that. And the U.S. generally seems to be fine with that risk. I’m not, but most policymakers seem to be okay with that risk, because it means that [the other government] would have started it….So now the pandemic itself is creating this great strategic opportunity to pivot to regain moral authority, to reduce human suffering, and literally yesterday…Pompeo announced new sanctions on Iran. So midstream of the pandemic…he announced new sanctions! New sanctions!

An Iranian human rights activist, Hadi Ghaemi, is the latest to implore the U.S. to lift sanctions in response to the outbreak:

We can spend months deliberating over what this repressive government has brought on itself and what it deserves. But during that time, many more people will die in Iran, and the virus will continue to spread. This collective punishment of the Iranian people will only endanger our own efforts by letting the epidemic spread beyond its borders.

Humanitarian disasters should be an occasion for showing solidarity with the people suffering in other countries. That is especially true in this case when all countries are confronting the same threat. It should not be the time for exploiting the disaster to pursue a longstanding vendetta or a misguided goal of regime change.