The Evils of Economic War

Francisco Rodriguez reports the findings of a new paper on the destructive effects of sanctions:

The evidence decisively shows that sanctions make living conditions worse in target countries. I looked at 32 academic papers that estimated their effect. Of these, 30 found consistently negative effects on measures ranging from poverty, inequality and growth to health conditions and human rights.

The magnitude of the harm is dramatic. One study estimated that sanctions would lead to a decline in a state’s gross domestic product by as much as 26 per cent – equivalent to that in the Great Depression. Another found falls in female life expectancy of 1.4 years – similar to the estimated effect on global mortality of the pandemic. In many cases, the harm is similar to that suffered during armed conflicts, making economic sanctions possibly the deadliest weapon used by western powers [bold mine-DL].

Economic warfare is warfare, but it is rarely treated as such when policymakers are debating whether they should employ this weapon. The U.S. has engaged in armed conflict reflexively over the last thirty years, and it has been even more cavalier in waging economic war. Policymakers know in advance that economic warfare won’t achieve anything useful, but many still endorse waging economic war because they don’t take its deadly consequences seriously and because they take for granted that the US has the right to inflict punishment on target states at will. Their desire to be seen “doing something” about some international problem counts for more in their minds than the lives and welfare of innocent people.

Sanctions advocates often present using this weapon as a peaceful alternative to war rather than acknowledging that it is a different form of warfare, and they do this to make an indiscriminate and cruel policy seem humane by comparison. The illusion that economic warfare is a humane option makes it much easier for politicians and policymakers to endorse it, and the fact that the costs are borne by people in the targeted country makes it politically safe for them to support. When confronted with the overwhelming evidence of the harm that sanctions cause, they will usually deny that their policy harms ordinary people and insist that it somehow magically only hurts the targeted government.

In his paper, Rodriguez marvels at how such obviously harmful and failed policies continue:

The evidence surveyed in this paper shows that economic sanctions are associated with declines in living standards and severely impact the most vulnerable groups in target countries. It is hard to think of other cases of policy interventions that continue to be pursued despite the accumulation of a similar array of evidence of their adverse effects on vulnerable populations [bold mine-DL]. This is perhaps even more surprising in light of the extremely spotty record of economic sanctions in terms of achieving their intended objectives of inducing changes in the conduct of targeted states.

If broad sanctions were judged solely by their results, it is hard to see why a rational policymaker would ever support them. The proof that they do far more harm than good is extensive and well-established by now, and their lack of success in changing regime behavior is proverbial. The trick is that sanctions are usually judged by the intentions of their senders rather than by the effects that they have in the real world.

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Daniel Larison writes at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in Antiwar.com, the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

There Is No Case for South Korean Nuclear Weapons

Surprising no one, Max Boot gets another important foreign policy call wrong:

But if, in the future, South Korea does decide to go nuclear, it should not be a game changer for the United States. The United States has long tolerated nuclear weapons owned by friendly states such as France, Britain, Israel, Pakistan and India, while opposing their acquisition by rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea. Having South Korea join the nuclear club wouldn’t change that.

Ultimately, it should be South Korea’s call. We should refrain from applying heavy-handed pressure and respect whatever decision our democratic ally makes.

US allies are sovereign and independent states, but that doesn’t mean that the US has to accept or tolerate everything they choose to do. The US would also be a poor ally if it allowed one of its principal Asian allies to make a serious error like this. South Korean nuclear weapons would not make South Korea more secure than it is for the reasons I laid out the other day, and it is very likely that South Korea would actually be worse off after acquiring them:

South Korean arsenal could end up causing South Korea a lot of economic pain and conjuring up new security threats for the dubious gains of further guarding against an attack that was already being deterred.

If the US respects its ally, it has the obligation to tell the truth when it sees that ally making a profound mistake.

The US has “tolerated” some nuclear weapons states outside the NPT only because it was in no position to discourage them from acquiring nuclear weapons when it mattered. Israel, India, and Pakistan weren’t and aren’t treaty allies of the United States, and the US certainly didn’t approve of India and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons when it happened. A US treaty ally flouting the nonproliferation regime with tacit American approval is very different from “tolerating” weapons development by states that never belonged to the NPT.

Van Jackson recently wrote about this issue at Un-Diplomatic:

Basically, we’ve yet to see a reasonable strategic argument. Throwing around “deterrence” and “credibility” and US “abandonment” – it’s just words. They’re not being assembled into logics or causal wagers. As with AUKUS in Australia, the motivation for the policy is clear; the justification is missing. And that’s disturbing because we think nukes will make South Korea substantially less secure.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

An Unnecessary Containment Policy

Walter Russell Mead cheerleads for the new Cold War:

Today, the Chinese Communist Party has become an expansionist, tyrannical power whose inordinate ambition endangers freedom world-wide. America’s interests and values both lead us to oppose that ambition, even as we seek to avoid the catastrophe of another great-power war.

China hawks talk a lot about Beijing’s vast ambitions, but they don’t have many things that they can point to as proof that these ambitions are real. It’s as if they just dusted off talking points from fifty years ago about the Soviet Union and replaced every reference to the USSR with the CCP and PRC instead. The story is simply too good for them to check. After all, if China is an “expansionist power” that “endangers freedom worldwide,” a containment policy makes a kind of sense. It might still be the wrong thing for the U.S. to do, but you could at least see why someone would want to do it. If China isn’t really expansionist and doesn’t endanger freedom everywhere, however, a containment policy seems both unnecessary and dangerous.

The Chinese government is tyrannical, but for more than forty years it has not waged a war outside its borders. There have been skirmishes and there have been territorial disputes, but the last war of any consequence that the PLA fought was in 1979. A huge percentage of Americans alive today can’t remember the last time that the Chinese military attacked anyone. That never seems to come up when talking about supposed Chinese “expansionism.” Mead refers to China as “expansionist” and talks about Chinese “expansion,” but he would struggle to identify where that expansion has taken place.

Mead’s misleading choice of words is more than just sloppy writing. He wants his audience to believe that there is expansion that needs to be “countered,” and that is where the US comes in. The thrust of his column is that the US doesn’t have the luxury of having any standards in which partners it supporters because it needs every two-bit dictatorship it can get to “counter” China. He applauds the Biden administration’s, er, flexibility with the new leadership in the Philippines, and he bemoans their half-hearted criticism of the Saudis. We need that “multilateral coalition” to oppose China, he tells us, and who cares about the compromises that it takes to get it?

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

DeSantis’ Slippery Ukraine Maneuvering

Ron DeSantis expands on his Ukraine position in response to a questionnaire from Tucker Carlson:

While the U.S. has many vital national interests – securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party – becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them. The Biden administration’s virtual “blank check” funding of this conflict for “as long as it takes,” without any defined objectives or accountability, distracts from our country’s most pressing challenges.

Without question, peace should be the objective. The US should not provide assistance that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders. F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table. These moves would risk explicitly drawing the United States into the conflict and drawing us closer to a hot war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. That risk is unacceptable.

The early coverage of DeSantis’ statement is emphasizing and exaggerating the gap between him and Biden, and this is probably just what DeSantis wants. Note that DeSantis says that the US should not become “further entangled,” which implies that he has no objection to the current level of entanglement. He attacks Biden again for a “virtual blank check” position that Biden doesn’t actually hold, and then goes on to rule out certain kinds of military assistance that the Biden administration has also been opposing. Like Biden, he says he worries about escalation risks and the possibility of direct conflict between the US and Russia, but he can’t be seen acknowledging that Biden holds these same views.

DeSantis is looking for a way to run against Biden on Ukraine without embracing full-on opposition to the policy. What he has come up with is to misrepresent Biden’s position in order to make Biden seem more aggressive and reckless than he has been. Then DeSantis essentially endorses the status quo while posing as a bold critic.

This is a bit reminiscent of how Mitt Romney ran against Obama’s foreign policy. Because Romney didn’t really differ that much with Obama on substance on most issues, he usually had to distort Obama’s record to make the policy differences between them seem vast. The problem back then for the challenger was that Romney started to believe his own propaganda about apology tours and appeasement and then made a fool of himself on a regular basis.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

Republicans Rally Behind the Stupidest Possible War

The “peace president” is at it again:

Now a candidate, Trump is reviving his hawkish instincts toward the drug lords. He has already vowed to deploy US special forces to take on drug cartels, “just as we took down ISIS and the ISIS caliphate.”

In one policy video released by his campaign, Trump said that if reelected, he would “order the Department of Defense to make appropriate use of special forces, cyber warfare, and other overt and covert actions to inflict maximum damage on cartel leadership, infrastructure and operations.”

As I have said before, attacking the cartels would achieve nothing. Anyone that calls for military action as a “solution” in this case automatically discredits himself. It is telling that Trump and many other Republican hawks have latched on to one of the stupidest policy ideas available. Some of the cheerleaders for a cartel war are the usual reflexive hawks , and some cosplay as antiwar politicians, but they are united behind the absurd belief that the drug war needs even more militarism. Even if you knew nothing else about their foreign policy views, this would be enough to confirm that their judgment is abysmal.

Trump likens a cartel war to fighting terrorists, but this ignores how terrorist groups have often flourished and spread during the “war on terror.” Look at the Sahel to seehow militarized “solutions” have contributed to making the region much less stable and much more violent. Countries that used to have Military action can weaken and even destroy a certain group, but it does nothing to address the conditions that cause people to join radical armed groups. It would be even less effective in stopping the supply of illegal narcotics, since it can’t do anything about the demand that drives the drug trade. The drug war is already an endless failure, and the introduction of US forces into Mexico would just make it more destructive.

When otherwise hawkish politicians feign skepticism about US involvement in a war somewhere, it seems as if they have to compensate for this by jumping on the bandwagon for even more reckless and indefensible interventionism. We saw a lot of this in the ‘90s when Republicans that were generally a lot more hawkish than Clinton used the Balkan interventions as occasions to complain that he was ignoring the “real” threats, by which they usually meant Iraq or Iran. We see some of it again today when quasi-skeptics of US policy in Ukraine are quick to remind us that they want the US to gear up for a much bigger direct conflict with China. They are deeply concerned about being in the frying pan because it will prevent the US from jumping straight into the fire.

Read the rest of the article at Eunomia

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

Biden’s Lackluster Diplomatic Record

Stephen Walt is underwhelmed by the Biden administration’s diplomatic performance to date:

I raise this issue because the Biden administration took office vowing to put diplomacy at the center of U.S. foreign policy, yet it has relatively few diplomatic achievements to show for its first two-plus years. On the plus side, US allies are far more comfortable with Biden and Blinken than they were with former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and they’ve been willing to forgive some of the administration’s early blunders (such as the unnecessary snub of the French during the AUKUS submarine deal in 2021). But apart from improved optics, the administration’s diplomatic record is unimpressive.

The Biden administration wanted the public to see the “return” of diplomacy one of the major differences between them and the Trump administration, but in practice Walt is right that they haven’t delivered very much on that score. It’s true that the administration has done well in coordinating with European and other allies in providing assistance to Ukraine, but this has been a bit like pushing on an open door. The US has not had to do much arm-twisting or persuading to convince allied governments to get on board with supporting the war effort, since they have all been willing to do this at least to some degree. When it comes to getting fence-sitting countries on board, there has been much less success. Almost everywhere else, the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts have either foundered or haven’t even begun.

Walt mentions ineffective or non-existent diplomacy in the Middle East, and he also notes that diplomacy has been notably lacking in US dealings with China over the last two years. The reflexive decision to cancel Blinken’s visit to Beijing over the balloon incident looks even worse now than it did at the time. Instead of taking the incident in stride and pressing ahead with diplomatic contacts, as a confident administration would do, the administration overreacted and sabotaged its own effort to begin repairing relations. The fear of appearing weak in the eyes of domestic hawkish critics has been the administration’s real weakness, and it keeps tripping them up.

One could add several other regions to the list of places where US diplomacy has largely been MIA. Take our own hemisphere for starters. The widely-panned 2022 Summit of the Americas was a high-profile embarrassment for the US that resulted from inadequate planning and the misguided decision not to invite Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba to the summit. There was not much of an agenda for the other attendees to endorse, and what little there was had not been coordinated with the other governments. The issue of snubbing the authoritarian states became a bigger headache for the US when other governments boycotted the event or sent lower-level representatives in protest. The failure of the summit underscored both US neglect of our own neighborhood and the poor execution of the administration.

The Biden administration has been making more of an effort in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific over the last year, but it has mostly been falling short because of a lack of follow-through. Top US officials may say many of the right things to local audiences, but when it comes to backing up those words the US simply isn’t putting its money where its mouth is. Take the vice president’s recent Africa tour, for example. The tour itself went fairly well and garnered lots of positive headlines, but the scale of the promised US assistance – $100 million spread across five West African countries – was meager. As Chris Olaoluwa Ògúnmọ́dẹdé noted in his review of Harris’ tour, “At a time when Washington has directed tens of billions of dollars to support Ukraine since it was invaded by Russia, Harris’ announcement of $100 million from the US for five West African states – $20 million for each country – is a telling indication of its priorities.”

The administration’s efforts in these parts of the world follow decades of neglect, and it is being spurred to such a large extent by fear of Chinese influence that it has been less effective than it might otherwise be. When so many other governments see the US suddenly playing catch up after paying little or no attention for ages, they are naturally unimpressed with empty US boasts that “diplomacy is back.” The inconsistency in US diplomatic efforts over time makes other governments reluctant to rely on US promises, since they can see how quickly Washington’s priorities can change and how easily distracted our government can be by the latest crisis. Many governments across the so-called Global South may conclude that if their problems and concerns can’t be shoehorned into some larger US obsession they are unlikely to hold Washington’s interest for very long.

Other states can see that US diplomats always take a distant second place to the military, and it is mainly through the military that the US deals with much of the rest of the world. US diplomacy is like a plant that is so starved of sunlight because it is trying to grow up in the shadow of a giant tree. As long as the military wields such outsized influence in Congress and commands so many more resources, there is little chance that diplomacy can flourish.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.