- - Thursday, December 7, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Carl von Clausewitz thought of military war as a continuation of diplomacy through other means. Economic sanctions are economic war and should be similarly regarded as tactics subordinated to a diplomatic strategy.

Economic sanctions take many forms. The 1961 quarantine of Cuba targeted the whole country, but the 2014 Russia sanctions singled out a few economic sectors, enterprises and individuals. The Iran sanctions of a decade ago used asset freezes, an oil embargo and financial isolation, while the current sanctions against North Korea emphasize trade restrictions. And they can be imposed by single countries or multilaterally.

Sanctions can be designed to discourage behavior, punish actions, cause regime change or weaken a country’s economy. Or simply to advertise displeasure with certain behavior.

In 2014 the United States, Europe and their allies imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response to its occupation of Crimea and aggression against Eastern Ukraine. There was grave concern at the time that Russia planned to occupy even more Ukrainian territory and attack Baltic NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The sanctions included travel restrictions against Russian officials, transaction bans affecting certain energy firms and banks, and export controls on energy equipment. Russia was also denied access to Western capital markets. The sanctions weakened the Russian economy and depressed the ruble.

Simultaneously, NATO increased its military presence in member countries bordering Russia to discourage Russian military adventurism.

The West was signaling that changing borders by force is unacceptable. Russia was going to pay an economic price for its aggression against non-NATO member Ukraine and a military price if it attacked a NATO member. Russia did not withdraw from Crimea or stop interfering in Eastern Ukraine because of the sanctions. But the combination of sanctions and a firm NATO stance discouraged Russia from further aggression in Ukraine and a move against the Baltics.

Starting in 2006, the U.N. Security Council imposed several rounds of sanctions on Iran for violating nuclear non-proliferation agreements. Iran’s military was enriching uranium for nuclear weapons and building missiles to deliver them, while Iranian officials were making hostile statements against America and its allies. The almost-universal economic sanctions against Iran were the toughest any country had ever faced and virtually every segment of its economy was affected. The energy sector was particularly hard hit by an embargo on oil exports and restrictions on insurance for oil tankers serving the Iran trade. Iran was even cut off from SWIFT, the world’s bank transaction network, and forced to use gold as currency. The Iranian economy was on its knees: Between 2011 and 2014, Iran’s oil exports fell by half and the rial plummeted.

But the Obama administration gave it all away in exchange for the very bad Iran nuclear deal. The agreement limited Iran’s uranium enrichment only until 2025 and it did not restrict research on nuclear weapons or on testing missiles to deliver them. The Iranians were able to push President Obama into this pact because they figured out that he was desperate for a deal, any deal, to avoid military conflict. They even forced him to ignore the Syria genocide and his famous red line to get this deal. One of the authors of this article served in the Reagan administration and saw a different kind of president. Ronald Reagan walked away from the 1986 Reykjavik negotiations when he could not cut a good deal with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The economic sanctions against Iran worked, but their effect was squandered by a flawed strategy.

President Trump’s North Korea goal is crystal-clear: Rogue North Korea will not be allowed to have nuclear weapons with which to blackmail the United States and its allies. The U.S. has enlisted almost the entire world community to impose the harshest economic sanctions on North Korea. But this will not be enough. “The North Koreans will eat grass before giving up their nukes,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he is right.

But America is going beyond sanctions. Through skilled diplomacy it is further isolating North Korea from the world, even from China, its vital ally. And, critically important, the U.S. has left the military option on the table. No one can predict the outcome of this conflict, but the U.S. is getting the odds in its favor.

Reluctantly, America and its allies must sometimes use coercion to safeguard world peace. Sanctions can crush an economy, but by themselves they will not force a dictator to change course — dictators don’t care if their people become grass eaters. To be effective, sanctions must be melded with the threat of hard power and skilled diplomacy into a comprehensive strategy.

One more thing: In their opposition to dictators, America and its allies must remain confident in the superiority of our Western democratic principles. The West and the dictators are separated by a line of principle, to borrow a recently coined term, and we are on the right side of the line.

J. William Middendorf II is a former secretary of the Navy and ambassador. Dan Negrea is a New York investor.


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