Tools of Convenience: Western led Economic Sanctions and an Emerging Arc of Grievance

By Nima Khorrami - 22 January 2021
Tools of Convenience: Western led Economic Sanctions and an Emerging Arc of Grievance

Since the end of the Cold War, economic sanctions have been the go to policy option for Western powers in general and the United States in particular. Their use, if not their utility, however, needs to be revisited. Used excessively, sanctions could prove geopolitically counterproductive by creating common emotions amongst one’s foes thereby bringing them closer to each other.

Though hardly a new coercive policy tool, economic sanctions have gained a particular prominence as the policy instrument of choice since the end of the Cold War as evident in their increased use by the USA, European Union (EU), and the United Nations (UN). Given the perceived role of sanctions in bringing the Iranian regime to the negotiating table over its controversial nuclear programme, moreover, the international community’s, especially Washington’s, confidence in the effectiveness of such measures seems to have grown exponentially with the US, under Donald Trump, becoming ever more sanction happy”.

However, sanctions are only a useful foreign policy tool if used in combination with a range of other measures including, most importantly, diplomacy. On their own, they will almost never bear result.

Writing in 1971, Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci conceptualised states and regimes as being constituted by struggles for power and resources among coalitions of socio-political forces”. It follows that sanctions could only lead to a discernible behavioural/policy change if they can alter internal power dynamics within the targeted nation. Most often than not, they do not. By targeting elites and their interests/networks, they create an all-or-nothing mentality, and thus encourage dominant factions to mend their differences and put up a united front in resisting sanctions.

For example, Iran, the most sanctioned nation in history, has not changed its anti-Americanism. More than three decades of sanctions have, if anything, only strengthened the core of the regime and added credit to Iran’s Supreme Leader’s claim that US’s goal is regime change. Similarly, sanctions have not affected the political and strategic calculations of the Russian president Vladimir Putin. Nor have they reduced or weakened his hold on power. Instead, they have enabled Russia to become the largest wheat exporter in the world. According to New York Times, “since 2015 Russia’s wheat exports have jumped 100 percent, to about 44 million tons, surpassing those of the United States and Europe”.

More worryingly, the Gramsci logic also applies to inter-state relations. States’ identities and interests tend to be constituted not only by their mutual struggles for power and resources but also the perceived fairness of their treatment by their peers. As such, the widespread use of sanctions as a policy tool for either geopolitical purposes, or against geopolitical rivals, would have the adverse consequence of bringing one’s foes closer to each other.

One way that sanctions help, or contribute to, the emergence of such development is via the creation of common emotion. In a sense, sanctions enable ideologically diverse sanctioned states to compensate for their lack of ideological affinities by forming loos and/or normative partnerships centred around commonly felt, or experienced, emotions of grievance and injustice. According to scholars like Koschut, normative friendships’ have transformative capacity. They can serve as catalyst for changing the international order by transforming the nature of interstate relations” uniting them in their efforts to challenge, and subsequently replace, the current governing principles of multilateralism.

This is what Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, alluded to in 2019. Delivering a keynote speech in Tel Aviv on Nov 11 2019, Mr. Ford singled out China, Iran, and Russia as the major strategic rivals to the dominance of the Unites States, labelling them as grieved revisionist” states bent on upending the liberal world order.

Mr. Ford has a valid point. However, where his assessment falls short is in its linking of these states increased sense of rage and grievance to their historical memories only. A more accurate diagnosis must also include the commonly felt emotion of grievance caused by unrestrained imposition of sanctions which are enabling these regimes to forge loose anti-Western partnerships and, simultaneously, strengthening their anti-Western narratives at home. 

Thanks to US’s acute sanction addiction, we are now witnessing the emergence of an arc of grievance that include China, Iran, Turkey and Russia. The leadership of these geopolitically ambitious states are dissatisfied with their treatment on the global stage believing that they deserve much more. As civilisational powers with relatively similar political and economic models, these states tend to interpret the imposition of economic sanctions as an abuse of power and status by Washington in its determination to block their re-emergence on the world stage.

As such, these states are now united in their desire to counter US’s dominance in spite of the significant divergencies in their commercial and geopolitical interests. Iran and Turkey are not natural allies nor are China and Russia. But they are united in their denouncement of sanctions and broader Western global posture as illegitimate and hypocritical. They are, so the reasoning goes, punished not because they are spoilers and/or irresponsible but because they represent an alternative set of norms and values.

Given the above, it seems reasonable to suggest that addressing what Mr. Ford’s rightly categorises as the key foreign policy and national security challenge of our era” requires US and its allies to wean off themselves of their sanction obsession. Although extremely useful for domestic purpose of ‘appearing to be doing something’ and/or exerting limited pressure on an adversary, economic sanctions become geopolitically self-defeating, and in fact dangerous, when used excessively and/or over an extended period. Instead of isolating adversaries or encouraging them to change course, they push them closer towards one another and facilitate the emergence of loose and issue specific partnerships directed against the sanctioning state(s). This is especially true in today’s multipolar order where alternatives are available.

If the aim of US sanctions is to alter its adversaries’ behaviours, it must use sanctions in tandem with diplomacy thereby leaving the channels of communication wide open. By blocking their access to the global market, stigmatising them as irresponsible, and denouncing them as illegitimate, these states will only get stronger in their will and determination to resist because their core belief - that West is after them as a matter of principle not policy - will only get stronger.

More broadly, change does not come via isolation but via interaction. It is therefore wishful thinking to assume that sanctions alone will alter belligerent behaviour. North Korea has not budged down despite being under heavy sanctions and it took a costly military campaign to neutralise Saddam’s threat after years of sanctions. To continue levying them, hence, would amount to nothing but what Albert Einstein has called insanity; doing the same thing repeatedly and expect a different outcome. 


Nima Khorrami , Research Associate, The Arctic Institute, Center for Circumpolar Security Studies.
Photo by Darius Krause from Pexels
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