Imagine you live in a nice, quiet town and aim to keep it that way. You own a business. Your customers are friendly. Your vendors are honest. People respect one another. They abide by the rules. Then, one day, criminals move into the neighborhood. Do you welcome the thugs, thieves and murderers, conduct business with them and attempt to integrate them into your village?
I suspect your answer is no. So why should it be different in the global village?
Here’s one reason: Many people — Republicans, Democrats and our European allies among them — have long believed that commerce is transformative; that those with whom we trade, cease to be rogues sooner or later; that they become moderates, partners, friends and members-in-good-standing of the international community.
It’s a comforting theory. But it doesn’t hold water.
Example No. 1: Richard Nixon went to China in 1972. Over the years since, trade between the two countries has flourished. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization as a “developing nation,” a status that gives it special privileges and which it retains to this day — despite the fact that it’s now the second-largest economy in the world.
Meanwhile, China has been stealing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American intellectual property, bullying and cheating U.S. businesses in China, and developing weapons of “cyber-enabled economic warfare.” What’s more, the Chinese government egregiously violates the most fundamental rights of its own citizens, not least Tibetans, Muslims and Christians.
Example No. 2: The leading industrialized nations in the world — the United States, Canada, Britain, Japan, German, France and Italy — belong to an organization now known as the G7. It had been the G8 but Russia’s membership was suspended four years ago after President Vladimir Putin stole Crimea from Ukraine. More recent crimes for which Russia is credibly accused include the poisoning of a former Russian spy with a military-grade nerve agent near his home in southern England.
Nevertheless, Germany’s leaders are eager for a project called Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline that would circumvent Ukraine, enrich Russia and make Germany more dependent on Russia.
Example No. 3: President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) makes sense if you believe that Iran’s rulers will remove “Death to America!” from their to-do list in exchange for bundles of cash and unprecedented new economic opportunities.
To date, however, the billions of dollars that have flowed to Iran under the JCPOA have been spent to further Tehran’s imperialist ambitions in the Middle East, including through terrorism and running Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
In July, a regime plot to slaughter members of an Iranian opposition group attending a rally near Paris was foiled. (An Iranian diplomat was among those subsequently arrested.) This month, the regime fired a missile into neighboring Iraq, killing six members of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran.
Ignoring all this and more, the European Union is doing what it can to undermine the sanctions the Trump administration, having withdrawn from the JCPOA, has begun re-imposing on Iran’s rulers. Recently, the EU promised to provide 50 million euros in aid to the Islamic Republic.
I know: Our European friends feel they’ve been double-crossed. One American president persuaded them to support the JCPOA, the next denounced it as foolish and naive. But this cannot have come as a huge surprise given that most members of Congress and a majority of the electorate disapproved the JCPOA.
That brings us to storm clouds now gathering on the horizon. Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), calculates that the United States currently imposes sanctions and other punitive economic measures “against one tenth of the world’s countries.”
Also, thousands of individuals, many rich and powerful, “from scores of countries are included in the Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Nationals who are effectively blocked from the U.S.-dominated global financial system.”
These regimes and individuals, Mr. Luft observes, have begun “joining forces to create a parallel financial system which would be out of reach of America’s long arm. Should they succeed, the impact on America’s global posture would be transformational.”
Preventing that ought to be a priority for the Trump administration. Democrats should be on board. If not, the next Democratic occupant of the White House may find that the levers of international economic power used by his or her predecessors are no longer operational.
Europeans should be enlightened enough to reconsider what they’ve been framing as measures to defend their economic sovereignty. By now it should be obvious that the world’s criminal regimes do not respond to diplomatic entreaties, no matter how charming the diplomats delivering them.
The measures the United States has been taking against malevolent actors are often characterized as “economic warfare.” In most cases, however, sanctions are merely a way to deny outlaws access to America’s financial system and markets. Where is it written that they’re entitled to hitch their wagons to our horses?
If our sworn enemies, in league with our disgruntled allies, foreclose the economic option, we will be faced with a stark choice: do nothing about overseas villains or use military force against them.
A better approach, from both a moral and strategic perspective, would be to use the combined economic power of America and its allies to contain and restrain the bad guys. Perhaps we might consider creating an economic NATO, an organization of free nations committed to our common defense.
The goal would be to make the neighborhood of the global village in which we live safer and more civilized; a place where the world’s thugs, thieves and murderers are not welcome.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.