For far too long, American politicians have been sanctions-crazed. Imposing economic sanctions has become our standard way of dealing with hostile nations. Iraqis faced harsh sanctions when their leaders defied the United States. Cubans have lived under American sanctions for more than half a century. Today’s victims include Iranians, Syrians, and Venezuelans.
Now Washington’s sanctions frenzy is entering a new phase. Having already sanctioned every country we could possibly consider an adversary, we are beginning to sanction our friends. Last month, the Trump administration sanctioned Mexican companies for seeking to supply food to Venezuela. Around the same time, three senators introduced a bill designed to punish countries that accept help from Cuban doctors, which would include Italy, Ukraine, Jamaica, and South Africa. Most remarkably, Congress is moving to sanction Germany, a major ally for generations, because it is building a gas pipeline to Russia.
Sanctions usually aim to weaken a country by reducing its ability to trade. When effective, they produce inflation, unemployment, and shortages of food, water, medicine, fuel, and consumer goods. This is collective punishment of entire populations for the acts of their leaders. Until now, however, sanctions lovers in Washington have been able to defend their fervor with a cruel but coherent argument: Anything that inflicts pain on people in a hostile country is good because it could weaken a government we dislike. Setting out to sanction friends, though, takes us into uncharted geopolitical territory.
Mexicans denounced the recent American sanction of two Mexican companies as an assault on their sovereignty. The US Treasury Department said it acted because the companies planned to barter Mexican corn for Venezuelan oil, defying an American sanction decree that no country may trade in petroleum products with Venezuela. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico threatened escalation. He said his government would now consider supplying gasoline to Venezuela. “In spite of the sanctions?” a reporter asked him. “Yes,” he replied. “Mexico is a sovereign and independent country. We make our own decisions.” That apparently caught Trump’s attention. He told reporters that he considered López Obrador “a great guy” and would invite him to the White House. They met on Wednesday, but no resolution of the sanctions issue was announced.
Leaders of countries suddenly facing the threat of punishment for accepting Cuban doctors have reacted with anger and incredulity. Host countries pay the Cuban government for the doctors they send, and the proposal now being considered in Washington aims to cut off that revenue — and to prevent Cuba from enjoying the good will that its overseas medical missions often produce. Two of its sponsors, Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, may also see the bill as good politics in their home state of Florida. If passed, it would leave more than 50 countries with the choice of either expelling Cuban doctors at a moment of global pandemic or facing American opprobrium. The prime minister of tiny Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, protested that his country relies on Cuban doctors and pointedly added, “Those who would like us to do otherwise should undertake to fill the breach.”
Past presidents, notably Barack Obama, also imposed sanctions on countries that trade with our designated enemies, but none went so far as to impose sharp penalties on old friends. By doing so, we send a message to every company and government in the world: They risk punishment if they do not embrace American security policies. Many foreign leaders see these “secondary sanctions” as violating their right to make their own choices. Not everyone in Washington believes they have such a right.
That attitude is reflected in the intensifying campaign to sanction Germany for daring to build a pipeline through which it can receive gas from Russia. German leaders calculate that the pipeline will save consumers billions of dollars over coming decades. Some in Washington are determined to stop it because this project could bring Russia and Germany closer together, weakening the American campaign to isolate Russia. A bill introduced in late June would impose sanctions on any company that helps to lay the almost-completed pipeline — potentially affecting 670 companies from 25 countries. One sponsor, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, said the pipeline “poses a critical threat to America’s national security.” That is highly debatable, but in any case German politicians don’t care. They insist that since Germany and Russia have decided to proceed with this project, the deal is done and no one else’s business.
“Sanctions with extra-territorial effects are in conflict with international law,” German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier tartly observed. One of the government’s spokesmen in parliament said that “the legislation proposed by the US senators is once again a hostile act towards the US allies. It is unacceptable and attacks the sovereignty of Germany and Europe.” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is considering counter-attacks, including sharply increased tariffs on American goods. Legislators want the entire European Union to follow suit. They are in a strong position because Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the EU council on July 1 and will hold it for the next six months.
American sanctions on the pipeline project could put the United States in direct conflict with Merkel, who has been strongly pro-American and is widely considered the most potent leader in Europe. When asked about Washington’s objections, she replied, “The project can be implemented despite US sanctions. We will continue to support this project as we did in the past.”
Sanctioning adversaries can be good or bad policy, depending on circumstances. Sanctioning friends can only be bad. We may need them someday.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.