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A ‘shock and awe’ approach to economic sanctions

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A big lesson from the Vietnam War was that incremental escalation is a road to failure, while the Gulf War in 1991 showed the advantage of “shock and awe.” Unfortunately, the U.S. seems to be repeating its Vietnam War mistake in its sanctions policy. It should switch from incrementalism to shock and awe.

In the Vietnam War, the U.S. did not have a clearly defined aim. Therefore, it fell into the trap of incremental escalation, which just maximized the cost and minimized its benefits. General Colin Powell learned that lesson and pursued “shock and awe” in Iraq. The received military wisdom is to pursue wars fast and with massive force.

Today, wars have fortunately gone out of fashion. They cost too many lives and too much money and deliver few successes. Instead, the U.S. has focused on sanctions as a leading tool of foreign policy.

Sanctions are attractive in many ways. Nobody is killed by sanctions. They have no official costs, while the actual costs are primarily covered by allies closer to the target. What is there not to like about sanctions?

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks a lot about “asymmetric” responses to U.S. sanctions, and the Kremlin skillfully exploits its asymmetric strengths in cyberattacks, poisonings, assassinations, energy warfare and corruption. Given that the combined Western economy is about 30 times larger than the Russian economy, the West’s comparative advantage lies in sanctions. The West needs to stand up and deliver appropriate asymmetric responses, applying sanctions rather than killing people. 

As with the debate over arms control, the discussion on sanctions is growing increasingly sophisticated. During the Cold War, the U.S. focused on technology sanctions, and quite successfully so. Recent sanctions have brought new insights. Financial sanctions greatly strain a rogue regime’s economic strength. While crooked officials do not care about the fate of their people, they are greatly concerned about their travels, wives, mistresses and children.

Thanks to these insights, Western sanctions against authoritarian regimes have become increasingly personal. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 pioneered personal responsibility for human rights violations, and it was successfully followed by the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016. Few sanctions are more disliked by the authoritarians.

Thus, a broad consensus has evolved about what kinds of sanctions make sense. They should block technological development and financial resources, and they should harm the regime’s leading culprits, while also hurting their families.

Yet, surprisingly little attention has been devoted to the strategy of sanctions. In effect, the West is continuing to pursue the failed Vietnam War incremental escalation, failing to draw on the success of shock and awe in Operation Desert Storm.

The fundamental question is: What is the aim of sanctions? The often unspoken goal of sanctions is to persuade a rogue national leader to moderate his policies, typically to reduce repression of political opponents. Often Western governments pretend to have that aim, whereas their real aim is to oust the leader and his regime — typical examples are Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and now Belarus. Western governments might not want to clarify their aims publicly, but at least they should speak truth to themselves. 

An incremental sanctions policy might make sense if the aim is limited to checking the behavior of the regime. But if your aim is to oust the ruler and his regime, you would opt for a very different strategy.

One year has passed since Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

stole the elections of Aug. 9, 2020. Many Western leaders have graciously received the real winner of the elections, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, but so far only Lithuania has awarded her full diplomatic recognition. This is central: Democratic countries should recognize the democratically elected leader of the country.

On the very day of the elections, it was evident that Lukashenko had stolen the elections. Massive popular protests erupted in Belarus, and they lasted for about half a year. Democratic countries should have imposed full sanctions immediately. The Baltic neighbors and Poland did so, but unfortunately the European Union did not impose any sanctions until October because of a veto by Cyprus. Under former President Trump, the U.S. administration remained passive. 

Because of late and limited Western reactions, Lukashenko locked up hundreds of top protesters. Initially hesitant, Putin happily praised Lukashenko after his security forces had proven their worth by suppressing this democratic opposition. Now Putin is likely to provide Lukashenko with the funds he needs to stay in power.

Far too late in the day, the West imposes significant economic and sectoral sanctions, the EU on June 24 and the U.S., the UK and Canada on Aug. 9. These sanctions are serious but far too late. Putin and Lukashenko have won.

Since sanctions have become the main weapons, we need to apply them with the same skill as the Pentagon uses military force, recalling why the Vietnam War was a failure and the first Iraq War a great success. We need to hit hard early on with full force to win, not try to keep reserves for a second, third and fourth blow, because by then we will have already lost.

Anders Aslund is a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum and the author of “Russia’s Crony Capitalism: The Path from Market Economy to Kleptocracy.”

Tags Aleksandr Lukashenko Belarus Colin Powell Donald Trump Economic sanctions International relations International sanctions Magnitsky Act Non-tariff barriers to trade Pentagon Russia Vladimir Putin

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