America still sees its role as that of a sole superpower with control and influence over international decisions. This situation persists despite Russia and Vladimir Putin’s attempts to regain the role played by the Soviet Union and to turn the international system back into a bimodal world.
Yet Russia is far from that role. After the Helsinki Summit, the United States embarked on its unilateral, individualistic role in dealing with many different international issues and crises. The U.S. makes individual decisions in its trade wars with many countries, regardless of the countries’ close relationships with the U.S. This is Donald Trump implementing his battle cry of “America First!” This slogan means that U.S. interests have priority over the priorities of other countries. This translates into a desire to play the exclusive role of superpower in many economic decisions – and includes a policy of imposing economic sanctions against countries whose policies clash with those of the United States.
The Trump administration is distancing itself from the war option to avoid slipping into a situation that could result in dangerous repercussions against domestic political mechanisms, which could endanger Trump’s chances of winning a second presidential term. As an alternative to war, the Trump administration is instead resorting to the economic option, which it considers to be one of the United States’ most important forms of hard power, backed by military might, military might being a case in which the U.S. is still the foremost world power.
Thus, one could say that economic sanctions are an extension of politics. The goal of such sanctions is to change the behavior, policy and decisions of targeted countries. Without a doubt, there are supporters of this type of hard power. This support permits the United States to carry out such a crude policy. Targeted countries are subjected to various forms of sanctions including partial or complete sectoral sanctions, imposition of fees on imported products and goods, and imposition of high taxes. The United States has used the last two tactics on many of its adversary countries.
It is striking that the Trump administration’s economic sanctions policy has not distinguished between its allied or partner countries – such as the European states and Turkey – and its adversaries such as Russia or Iran. Rather, the United States practices the same policies, but to differing degrees. This policy has even extended to international organizations and their agencies, such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
The clear goal of economic sanctions is to pressure others to respond to U.S. interests. Although United Nations Charter Article 41 indeed stipulates that economic sanctions may be imposed by the Security Council against countries that pose a threat to global peace and security, the United States uses its sanctions policy unilaterally, far removed from international consensus. This unilateralism, plus the fact that the Trump administration exercises its sanctions policy far outside international law, pushed German Chancellor Angela Merkel to accuse the Trump administration of violating the international system. A person like Trump is motivated by telling his constituents that he is as genuine and capable as promised, while also staying within the confines of the U.S. political interests that he cannot escape. This motivation can be clearly seen in the sanctions imposed on China under the pretext of claiming Chinese theft of U.S. products, protecting U.S. intellectual property, and improving the trade imbalance between the two countries, which currently exceeds $800 million.
The U.S. previously imposed sanctions on China in 1989, after the events in Tiananmen Square. These sanctions were removed in 1993. China is considered a strong competitor of the United States, and is trying to snatch a global leadership role. Russia is also a competitor state. Despite the Helsinki Summit between the two countries, the United States is still practicing its former policy and imposing economic sanctions, first following the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and then recently again, in response to accusations that Russia interfered in U.S. elections. What came out of this was the U.S. wielding unilateral power in dealing with Russia in order to force it to submit to U.S. demands in many regional and international crises (such as Syria).
As for Iran, the United States is practicing its economic sanctions policy with the goal of restraining Iran’s behavior and diminishing Iran’s international role. This started with the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. The United States then imposed new sanctions on steel and uranium products, barring Iran from trading in U.S. dollars and threatening to impose further sanctions on individuals and oil exports. The goal here is to push Iran to accept negotiations, and to try and create a powerful domestic opposition that desires regime change in Iran.
This is not the first time that the United States has imposed economic sanctions against its ally Turkey. The first time was in the aftermath of the Cyprus crisis. The clear goal of the most recently imposed sanctions involves the case of pastor Andrew Brunson. The American president has his eye on the midterm congressional elections and must address the feelings and emotions of evangelicals, 80 percent of whom voted for Trump in the presidential election. For its part, Turkey accuses the United States of being behind the coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and is demanding the extradition of Turkish opposition figure Fethullah Gulen.
Even the resource-poor Palestinian Authority – which also doesn’t own any of its resources because of the Israeli occupation – didn’t escape these U.S. sanctions that came in the form of diminishing, and then freezing, proffered aid. The political goal of such sanctions is to pressure the P.A. to accept whatever resolution is offered to it today as the “deal of the century.”
The U.S. sanctions policy has had many effects on the targeted countries, especially over the long term. But others may reciprocate against the United States, for example, by levying tariffs against U.S. products, such as we saw when China and Turkey recently imposed fees of 140 percent on American products. Or, we may see the formation of new economic alliances such as Iran is trying to forge with China, India and Russia, or even a total break with the dollar and refusal to trade in it.
The fact remains that this U.S. policy is dangerous because it comes from the world’s unilateral economic and military power. There is no doubt that this policy will launch a new era in international relations, starting with the appearance of a multipolar system where Russia leads politically and China leads economically. This policy is also dangerous because it could lead to an increase in political tensions. It could open the door to the military option which would endanger global peace and security. This policy might also put everyone at risk with the start of global wars or perhaps the start of the era in which it is Trump against the world.