When the turmoil in Ukraine arose recently and Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to join the Russian Federation, the first response of President Obama was to impose sanctions on Russia. Imposing sanctions has apparently become the hammer of U.S. foreign policy when every problem is viewed as a nail.
According the the Treasury Department, numerous countries have sanctions imposed upon them by the United States. An entire organization within the Treasury Deparment, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, is devoted to managing this growing field of endeavor. Sanctions on Cuba have been in existence for at least five decades. There are sanctions on Sudan. There are sanctions on Syria. There are sanctions on North Korea. There are sanction on Somalia. There are sanctions on Zimbabwe. And, of course, there are sanctions on Iran.
Even before the Ukraine affair, Congress had already passed the so-called the Magnitsky Sanctions on Russia. But, the initial set of Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia were mocked by Russians. This view apparently offended the White House officials so that the second set of sanctions were supposedly harsher. Secretary of State Kerry in fact threatened Russia with more sanctions in testimony in Congress two days ago.
In response to sanctions on Russia, in turn, Russia imposed its own sanctions on some American politicians and entities, almost in jest. In addition, Russia is now seeking to use other currencies besides the dollar for its foreign trade which in the long run will harm the U.S. economy. But, no matter what happens, the Obama administration seems to consider that sanctions are the universal solution to all foreign problems.
The sanctions or embargo on Cuba have made life miserable for the Cuban people. But, in addition, they have created enormous administrative expenses for the U.S. government: "At least 10 different agencies are responsible for enforcing different provisions of the embargo, and ...hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man hours [are spent] to administer the embargo each year."
The sanctions on Iran have mostly effected ordinary people and have had no impact on the Iran's nuclear program. For example, there have been acute shortages of certain medicines in recent years in Iran because of the sanctions. The claim that Iran finally decided to negotiate with the West because of sanctions is patently false since Iran has always been willing to negotiate. It is only recently that the U.S. and its allies in Europe have been willing to negotiate with Iran on an equal basis.
The sanctions on Russia are totally counterproductive since Russia can easily return the compliment by increasing gas prices on Ukraine and Western Europe which get a significant portion of their fuel from Russia. This economic war will benefit no one. But, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry seem to have no other tool in their toolbox.
The only case where sanctions actually worked is the case of apartheid South Africa which was universally condemned. In contrast, Russia has the largest land mass in the world, has the second strongest military in the world, in 2011 was the largest oil producer in the world and (depending on the source of data used) was the first or second largest gas producer in the world. It is simply a delusion that Russia is going to back down politically because of economic sanctions.
It is time for the Obama administration to realize that not all problems consist of a nail that can be hammered. Independent countries cannot be bullied to follow our dictates. In fact, sanctions end up hurting all parties.
The political turmoil in Ukraine did not emerge in a vacuum. Just like in the Orange Revolution in 2004-5, Western influence was instrumental in the overthrow of the legitimate but corrupt government of Ukraine. But, unfortunately, the Western planners seem not to have understood the consequences of their actions. Now, if NATO pushes to extend membership to Ukraine, it is possible that Russia will take even further preemptive actions to preserve its interests. Thus, to avoid another cold war, it is time to end relying on sanctions as the medicine for all foreign entanglements.