A new day, a new announcement.
On Thursday, as Marine One waited to whisk him away to Andrews Air Force Base, President Obama declared that 20 more of Putin’s cronies would face American sanctions.
But let’s be clear: The blacklisted won’t be reacting with concern. Instead, they’ll probably regard this condemnation as something to be toasted.
Do we seriously believe that a few sanctions against a few individuals will force a change in Putin’s behavior? That a line of angry kleptocrats will now materialize outside the Mafia Don’s office? Of course not.
Far from it, the “blacklisted” have now earned their stripes under the United Russia narrative of populist nationalism. At the same time, they know that their fealty will be warmly rewarded by King Putin. They might well believe that the U.S. will ultimately remove the sanctions anyway, perhaps under a second “reset.”
In part, this is the result of Putin’s arrogance. But it also flows from the platitudes with which Obama’s officials condemn Russia. Indeed, even the White House appears to have little interest in President Obama’s policy. It just doesn’t seem serious.
But this isn’t simply theoretical. We’re already seeing what the Russians think of these sanctions. With a one-fingered salute, they’re threatening to sabotage the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. True to form, Putin is also signaling his interest in a military return to Cuba. In short, they think we’re bluffing, and they think it’s funny.
Herein lies the broader problem with our sanctions strategy — we assume that our adversaries think in the same ways we do.
Indeed, this false assumption is perhaps the ultimate delusion of our foreign-policy discourse. By believing that sanctions will compel states to change their behavior in order to protect their critical economic interests, we ignore the fact that not all states hold economic stability as their critical imperative. It’s not just Russia. Take Iran, for example. Here, sanctions are causing major economic problems. Yet the Iranian theocrats remain committed to their nuclear program. Insulated by the absence of democratic accountability and energized by ambitions of theocratic expansionism, Khamenei is resolute. Don’t get me wrong, I support diplomatic outreach to Iran. Still, whether it’s Iran, Russia, or another country, when we apply sanctions while at the same time demonstrating our overt hesitation to use force, we weaken the impact of the former and neglect the deterrent potential of the latter.
But there’s another issue.
Those who proclaim the utility of sanctions often also assume that sanctions are intrinsically righteous. On the contrary however, as with various tools of war, various forms of sanctions present different moral quandaries. Consider pre-2003 Iraq, for example. In that case, while sanctions caused many Iraqis to die of easily treatable diseases, corrupt Europeans helped Saddam build his palaces. In short, not only did they did not work, they harmed the innocent population of the country.
This speaks to something else: Sanctions can play a pivotal role in how we confront those who challenge our interests and ideals. And yes, war should always be the last resort. But we also need to be specific about what our sanctions aim to achieve and tailor them to that pursuit. We need to get over this idea that sanctions are a tool inherently suited to statesmanlike diplomacy regardless of how they are deployed. Just as our pre-1941 sanctions against Japan fostered anger but insufficient fear, our listless sanctions against Russia will likely encourage the belief that our resolution is tepid — and that east-central Europe is Putin’s for the taking.
Correspondingly, just as we employ our military with strategic caution, so must we apply sanctions with careful calibration. If we entertain the delusion that a hodgepodge of sanctions will offer a magic bullet, we may find the very opposite is true.