Last week, just as the enormity of the coronavirus global pandemic seemed finally to dawn on the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was nonetheless using the crisis as an opportunity to further squeeze Iran and set the stage for military escalation. Successive new sanctions packages were imposed, even as evidence emerged that Iran may now be among the hardest hit countries outside of China. Iran has over 27,000 confirmed cases—the World Health Organization estimates that the real numbers are at least five times as high—with more than 1500 new cases being reported each day. Its outbreak has also impacted the whole of the Middle East, with one study reporting that 90 percent of all cases in the region are traceable to Iran.
Sanctions, whatever the conventional presentation, are not a humane alternative to war.
For many observers, including members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, stepping up sanctions in this context is a “moral abomination” and a wantonly cruel act of collective punishment. Indeed, recent days have seen a steady increase in calls for the temporary suspension of sanctions and for the mobilization of international assistance. Such calls mostly treat events in Iran as a one-off natural disaster, akin to an earthquake, requiring U.S. largesse and moral sensitivity. But this presentation—while well meaning—is nonetheless flawed, and not only because it risks obscuring U.S. responsibility for generating mass immiseration and shortages in the first place.
Sanctions, whatever the conventional presentation, are not a humane alternative to war. In reality they routinely impose indiscriminate harms on civilian populations in ways that far exceed what would be permissible on the battlefield. Moreover, precisely because their costs are never borne domestically within the United States—as opposed to the costs of traditional armed conflict—there is a tremendous temptation for officials to turn to them as a tool of first, rather than last, resort.
The long post–Cold War experience highlights just this fact, underscoring how sanctions have increasingly entrenched a belligerent politics of us versus them, made only more severe under Trump. They are at root premised on a vision of the world in which one’s national security adversaries—including large swathes of the world’s population—must be impoverished while resources are hoarded at home and among select allies. What the COVID-19 pandemic calls for is a systematic rethinking of U.S. obligations across borders, including the appropriateness of economic sanctions at all as a basic tool of foreign policy. If today’s truly global health crisis suggests anything, it is the inherent failure not just of Trump’s xenophobic and narrow nationalism, but also of any humanitarian posture still grounded on a division of the world’s spoils between pax Americana and those on the outside looking in.
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At present, the United States has in place broad countrywide sanctions against Iran as well as North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Cuba, and Venezuela in addition to more narrowly framed sanctions that apply to individuals and entities in Afghanistan, Belarus, Burundi, the Central African Republic, China, Cote d’Ivoire, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Liberia, Libya, Mauritania, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Palestinian Territories, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Somali, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. All in all, the Treasury Department, Commerce Department and State Department list sanctions against at least thirty countries or territories.
Because the costs of sanctions are never borne domestically, there is a tremendous temptation for officials to turn to them as a tool of first, rather than last, resort.
In some cases—as with the comprehensive sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s and the sanctions currently in force against Venezuela—the known consequences of these embargoes have been devastating for civilians. Over half a million preventable deaths of children were attributed to the Iraq sanctions in the 1990s. Multiple United Nations officials responsible for administering humanitarian programs in that country resigned in protest of the effects of multilateral sanctions put in place by the Security Council under U.S. leadership. More recently, reports suggest that as many as 40,000 civilian deaths in Venezuela in the last two years were a consequence of unilateral U.S. sanctions. Given the largely civilian toll, the claim that such measures are a humane way to impose costs on a regime rings hollow.
The humanitarian harms associated with broad economic embargoes of the kind imposed on Iraq and Venezuela are already apparent in ordinary times; the cruelty of these policies during the type of pandemic facing Iran are mind-boggling. The coronavirus spread to Iran at a time when sanctions had already created dire conditions in the country. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran reported in 2019 that sanctions were producing critical shortages of medicine and medical equipment as well as food insecurity across the country. Cancer patients were reportedly unable to access critical medicines, absolute poverty rose dramatically, and inflation affecting basic foodstuffs was skyrocketing well before the pandemic.
Allies and rivals of the United States, ranging from the UK to Russia and China, are now pressuring the Trump administration to lift or at least modify sanctions to enable an international response. Instead, recent reporting suggests that the Secretary of State and other powerful actors inside the Trump administration view the coronavirus as offering a window of opportunity for actual regime change, since shortages, social collapse, and even mass death can destabilize the state or provide a prelude to direct military strikes. In effect, the world is now held hostage to a U.S. policy of sanctions that also threatens foreign governments and companies if they were to break the embargo to provide much-needed aid. The real question is how we arrived at a situation in which the United States can unilaterally impose sanctions in a way that not only paralyzes the global response to a pandemic, but also forces the rest of the world to participate in the overthrow plans of a small coterie of U.S. officials.
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Sanctions today are largely taken for granted as a ubiquitous and bipartisan tool of U.S. statecraft, but it is critical to note that their use has expanded dramatically in the last thirty years. With the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged unrivaled, able to advance its interests as the world’s largest economy through both positive financial inducements and punitive economic measures. Officials continued to justify U.S. primacy through claims that the United States was an essential backstop to a multilateral and inclusive global order, premised on collective security, shared deliberation, and joint rule-following. But what the proliferation of the U.S. sanctions approach highlighted was a different reality, marked instead by a systematic and bipartisan defection from just such multilateralism and mutual self-constraint. Beginning in the 1990s and expanding during the war on terror, the United States steadily implemented a model of unilateralism, with sanctions as a prized tool, precisely because it provided a diplomatic sheen to belligerent ends.
Sanctions today are largely taken for granted as a ubiquitous and bipartisan tool of U.S. statecraft, but their use has expanded dramatically in the last thirty years.
Certainly, during the Cold War, the United States imposed embargoes on communist bloc countries and used sanctions strategies for national security purposes. These ranged from stringent restrictions against the Soviet Union and Cuba to various trade limitations on China and North Korea to intermittent sanctions against Latin American countries whenever a socialist government came to power. And these policies no doubt had profound economic effects, especially on Western Hemisphere neighbors. Still, in an age of bipolarity measures by the United States were partially offset by Soviet subsidies and in any case did not block targeted countries from trading with other states, including U.S. allies in Europe.
But after the Cold War, the use and intensity of sanctions rose dramatically. The number of countries targeted by the United States in the 1990s nearly doubled. In the same period, the United States turned to the Security Council and—now with the absence of a Soviet veto—implemented, largely unopposed, multilateral sanctions on a range of matters. Sanctions against Iraq enacted both unilaterally by the United States and multilaterally through the UN established the most comprehensive economic embargo of a country since at least World War II. Narrower sanctions against a range of other actors—from Rwanda to Yugoslavia—multiplied during the 1990s, described as the “sanctions decade.” In the process, the United States was able to impose real consequences on resisting states for defying its preferences without making diplomatic concessions or incurring the traditional costs of military intervention.
And when even U.S. allies balked at backing measures in the Security Council, the United States increasingly turned to unilateralism. This approach, focused around the use of secondary sanctions, compelled other states to participate in embargoes whether or not they had agreed on the initial policy. Such sanctions allowed the United States to punish foreign companies operating abroad for failing to comply with embargoes enacted through domestic U.S. law. For example, beginning in the mid-1990s, the United States introduced measures to punish third parties that would invest in the Iranian oil and gas sector. Because this extraterritorial application of U.S. law against all comers amounted to coercively exporting U.S. foreign policy preferences, at first it occasioned pushback. Viewing secondary sanctions as a violation of their sovereignty, European countries enacted their own blocking measures in the 1990s to prevent their firms from complying with U.S. foreign policy dictates toward countries such as Cuba and Iran. Diplomatic efforts alleviated these tensions at that time, but secondary sanctions gained new traction after 2001.
U.S. officials have effectively conscripted the worldwide banking system to enforce a punitive foreign policy that is actively opposed by most of the world’s nations.
In the context of the war on terror, the United States again expanded its use of sanctions and asset freezes, applied now against states, companies, political organizations, and individuals through a designation system devoid of any procedural protections for those targeted. U.S. allies largely followed suit, adopting their own domestic counterterrorism frameworks complete with sanctions. Action in the same vein on the Security Council in the wake of 9/11 further normalized the use of sanctions and contributed to defusing previous sovereignty-based objections to their enforcement.
Meanwhile, revelations concerning Iran’s nuclear program in the early 2000s led to a renewed U.S. push to impose wide-ranging sanctions on the country, this time with European acquiescence. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, tough new secondary sanctions were put in place as part of the Iran embargo (even if some waivers were granted to contain opposition from skeptical states like China and India). Then, with the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 multilateral sanctions were largely lifted. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions effectively abandoned diplomacy in favor of a policy of pure coercion. But Trump’s bellicosity toward Iran did not require new coercive tools—successive administrations had worked with bipartisan Congressional support for nearly twenty years to craft the punitive economic regime now in place. All that was needed once Trump walked away from the nuclear deal was to snap sanctions back in place.
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The Iranian case provides a clear example of the damage wrought by the overarching framework, one that facilitates unilateral economic embargoes reinforced by secondary sanctions. By withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal, the United States broke an agreement that enjoyed near universal international support and imposed crippling sanctions against Iran despite that country’s compliance with its nuclear obligations. The remaining parties—Europe, Russia, and China—sought avenues to sustain the deal following the United States withdrawal but could not offer Iran meaningful sanctions relief or trade benefits due to the threat of secondary sanctions. Financial institutions around the world face the risk of losing their access to the U.S. financial system should they enter into transactions with Iran. U.S. officials have effectively conscripted the worldwide banking system to enforce a punitive foreign policy that is actively opposed by most of the world’s nations.
The classic and bipartisan defense of such conscription—going all the way back to the 1940s—has been that U.S. global primacy serves the world’s interests. But if anything, the results of these policies tell a different story. Rather than promoting shared global prosperity protected by U.S. financial and military might, sanctions under conditions of post–Cold War unipolarity have simply re-carved the world into rivalrous spheres of enriched friends and impoverished enemies. Populations in states opposed to—or even simply unaligned with—U.S. security objectives can now find themselves facing extreme economic strain. During the Cold War, embargoes (and their financial effects) were used as a propaganda tool against socialist states, a way of challenging the legitimacy of alternative economic models. In an echo of the past, U.S. officials today use sanctions to impose widespread financial distress on a population, all with the aim of telling foreign states that if they refuse U.S. directives they will be left unable to provide the basics for their citizens. This is a belligerent and extreme version of nationalism; it is pursued under the ostensible cover of U.S. global leadership, but actually generates an international order shaped by militarized confrontation.
Sanctions make fundamentally hollow any ideal of a global order premised on local self-government and autonomy.
As a mode of us versus them politics, such conscription also assaults any genuine account of democracy. Although broad sanctions may be tantamount to siege, one thing that clearly distinguishes them from traditional armed conflict is the lack of meaningful political deliberation. Such economic tools may often generate even more indiscriminate harm to local populations, but rarely face the same collective scrutiny associated with the choice to initiate direct military action—again, this is precisely why officials favor them. Trump, in a long line of U.S. presidents, has enjoyed unfettered discretion—at times facilitated by Democrats themselves—to use sanctions against foreign adversaries to foment internal social collapse. This is despite the fact that the public has almost no awareness of the implications of a sanctions regime, let alone has actively deliberated on what the human costs will be.
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.
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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.
The opposite of a sanctions approach is not a politics of bare humanitarianism but rather an embrace of genuine internationalism and social democracy on a global scale.
But the opposite of a sanctions approach is not a politics of bare humanitarianism, what has largely been on offer to date from the United States and other global powers. This humanitarianism treats Iranians and other imperiled populations as victims and the United States as an enlightened benefactor, offering temporary sanctions freezes, minimal aid packages, and the glories of the free market as a salve for all problems. If nothing else, today’s crises show the profound failure of such thinking and the extent to which neither a petty nationalism, nor pax Americana’s classic market-based trading alliance, is remotely up to the challenges of the times. If all people are interconnected, facing the same rippling events, then in a deep sense we should treat the world’s shared wealth as a repository for all—regardless of citizenship or national security rivalry. Ending the sanctions mindset thus means nothing less than embracing genuine internationalism and social democracy on a global scale.
This entails viewing U.S. wealth as a collective instrument for alleviating poverty and insecurity at home and for generating equality abroad—through significant economic transfers, infrastructure investments, and ecological protections across the world. It amounts to a new worldwide New Deal or Marshall Plan—but, unlike the past, limited neither by domestic racial hierarchies or Cold War determinations of friends and enemies. Whatever the particular terms of such a plan, the political meaning is clear. This pandemic is hardly the last global test, and it requires dramatically rethinking the health and welfare obligations of states, not only to their members but beyond their borders. And the exhortation to do so is not empty utopianism. It is a forthright reckoning with the very minimum of what will be necessary to secure the world’s collective future.