Sanction this. Sanction that. The Department of the Treasury is currently administering dozens of sanction programs designed to change the behavior of certain countries.
And yet, no one seems to ask the important question: Do sanctions promote peace and understanding or escalate tensions between nations? What behavior has China modified since the U.S. began sanctions? Has Russia changed her behavior? Has Russia given back Crimea?
Sanctions, though lacking in proof of effectiveness, are very popular with both parties. Embargoes, sanctions’ big brother, also garner bipartisan enthusiasm. The U.S. embargo of Cuba has now endured for more than 60 years without any evidence of a change in regime or even a change in the regime’s policy.
Embargoes are often described, especially by the embargoed country, as an act of war. Many historians say the U.S.’s embargo of 1807 ultimately led to the War of 1812. President Jefferson’s embargo was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea but instead the embargo crippled American shipping exports. Exports declined by 75 percent along with a reduction in imports.
Some historians also blame the U.S. embargo of Japan in 1941 for the ensuing war. Franklin Roosevelt seized all of Japan’s assets and Japan lost access to the vast majority of its international trade and over 80 percent of its imported oil. Effectively, at least from Japan’s perspective, the embargo was an act of war.
Yet enthusiasts for embargoes and sanctions still clamor for more. Sanctionistas point to the international sanctions against Iran as the lever that brought about the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran.
Perhaps. But an equally valid argument can be made that it was the extension of carrots rather than sticks that brought Iran to the table. Funny how diplomacy seems to require give and take and not just take, take, take.
Our interaction with Iran should illuminate today’s debate over sanctions on the Nord Stream II pipeline from Russia to Germany. But, the shade of mercantilism is dimming the light of experience. Opponents of the pipeline, not surprisingly, are largely from states that compete in the sale of natural gas. Acknowledging that this debate is only superficially about national security and really more about provincial protectionism helps us better understand the dynamics.
History demonstrates that trade and interconnectedness between nations is a barrier to war. Engaging in mutually beneficial commerce coupled with a potent military deterrence is the combination that best promises peace.
Over the past decade Congress and presidents have heaped sanctions on Russia and China. When I’ve asked State Department officials to reveal what behavioral changes have come about as a result of sanctions, I've gotten only blank stares. Now the sanctionistas want to sanction an already completed pipeline. But what behavior are they asking Russia to change? What specifically is Russia being asked? What Russian action is necessary for the sanctions to end?
If Nord Stream II sanctions were really about changing Russian policy or deterring aggression, then NATO, including Germany, could threaten sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine. Now that threat of sanctions, with Germany as an ally, might actually have deterring value.
But as today’s debate unfolds, I think you’ll find that sanctions against Nord Stream II are more about mercantilism and protectionism than national security.
Rand Paul serves as the junior United States senator from Kentucky.
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