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Threatening foreign states with sanctions can backfire

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When President Trump signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in 2017, he rightly stated that the legislation contained serious flaws. At the request of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Congress approved a presidential waiver in 2018.

The waiver, regrettably, is more problematic than CAATSA itself. An unequal application of the law will create a delineated CAATSA-waiver club. When the president eventually fails to make a country a member of the waiver club, the foreign head of state will feel more than snubbed, as he faces political pressure at home, and will look for alliances elsewhere. As a result, the state of our relationship will be stark — no more room for shades of grey. 

Less-developed nations, attracted by lower-cost yet sophisticated Russian equipment available in the global defense marketplace, are the states we will have to hit more frequently for the legislation to have meaning.

At least one of our branches of government is indicating to India and Turkey, who have purchased the Russian S-400 missile system, and Egypt, which is buying Su-35 fighters, that they risk sanctions because of these purchases. Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to buy the S-400 in 2017 and is negotiating with Russia, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reportedly is considering the Su-35.

We have geostrategic reasons to remain on good relations with all of these countries. Threatening these states with sanctions that could seriously hurt their economies and curb their free will would do nothing to further U.S. national security. They would simply seek to make friends with our adversaries. 

Each time we threaten a country with sanctions, when they choose to purchase Russian weapons, we push them away from us and towards those whom they perceive as not looking to coerce and infringe upon their sovereignty. Do we wish any of these states to become better friends with Russia or China than with us? Certainly not.

We are continuously obliged to threaten under CAATSA, which weakens the perception of the U.S. as a beacon of freedom and reduces the ability of threats to impact the behavior of foreign states.

By the same token, as Russia’s defense industry is put at risk by CAATSA, U.S.-Russian relations become more difficult. Russia’s strengthening of its ties with China are inevitable, and are strategically beneficial to both countries. The outcome will be that the U.S. has unintentionally furthered a Russia-China geostrategic alliance that seriously undermines our security and foreign policy. Other, more minor adversaries will feel emboldened by such an alliance — Iran, for example. 

CAATSA reflected a strong conviction in the Capitol that Russia successfully interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — something that was not proven thereafter, despite extensive investigation. The emotions of the Trump-Russia investigation backfired, and Congress should repeal CAATSA so that it does not become, by unintended consequence, the “Becoming America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (BAATSA). 

We may wish to replace it by upgrading the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA) to include bribery of foreign officials by foreign states or persons, so that our defense industry faces a level playing field when competing on overseas defense procurement. Such an amendment to the FCPA would assist any company wishing to compete fairly anywhere in the world. It likely would receive the approval of overseas populations who are dissatisfied with corruption in their governments and, ultimately, make the U.S. many friends.

We do have other, more indirect yet persuasive tools at our disposal — for example, not selling the F-35 to those who use non-NATO air defense systems. If such options prove insufficient, the government then could impose extensive sanctions to effectively bring  confirmed adversaries to their senses.

Christopher Nixon Cox is a member of the board of directors of the Richard Nixon Foundation and a non-resident fellow at Princeton’s Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination.

James Arnold is a British financier and geopolitical strategist.

Tags CAATSA China Donald Trump Foreign relations of the United States James Mattis Russia S-400 missile system sanctions

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