Sanctions offer a middle course between war and diplomacy
From the North Korean crisis to the recent meeting in Helsinki between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, deep-rooted global issues have been unexpectedly moved along through dialogue and extraordinary diplomatic gestures. However, there is a worrying and growing trend of states using last-resort diplomatic tools, often unilaterally, in lieu of more sophisticated and less confrontational diplomacy.
Since 1945, international relations have been regulated by a system of rules that aims to reduce the potential for conflict. But despite the world being so interdependent, the specter of conflict has increased as states grow more brazen in their approach to relations with each other.
Diplomacy is integral to the implementation of the goals and objectives of states’ foreign policies, as well as the protection of their rights and interests abroad. The silent hum of diplomatic activity that surrounds the normal maintenance of good relations is immeasurably important to building trust and coalitions between partners. Such relationships take years, and in some cases — such as between the UK and France — centuries to build.
With the abrupt rupture of ties, trust is put in jeopardy. States often require chastisement for clear breaches of mutually accepted diplomatic norms. However, using a full range of diplomatic instruments to secure agreement is preferable to a complete breakdown of relations.
In the last few decades, the world has become a very small place. Whereas in 1970 roughly 300 million people boarded commercial airlines, today well over 3 billion — almost half the world’s population — fly each year. Over 50 percent of us are now active Internet users, and almost half are active mobile Internet users. With such interconnectivity, no state can afford to disengage from the global system.
The US experience with North Korea is testimony to the positive effects of a mix of sanctions and other diplomatic tools coercing Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Diplomacy is no longer the exchange of grandiose letters of credence and gifts between far-flung monarchs. In this context, diplomacy is both integral to maintaining good political, and thereby economic, relations, and a tool to correct the actions of states that threaten the globalist status quo.
The late US President Theodore Roosevelt famously said one should “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Referring to foreign policy, he described his philosophy as “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.” As president of a country on the cusp of global leadership, he realized the importance of maintaining good relations.
In an international system of heavily militarized competitor states, he understood that the US, increasingly dependent on the global export of its goods, not only needed to show force, but more importantly build lasting ties with foreign states that would enforce its positions.
There are several examples of the successful implementation of such diplomacy during Roosevelt’s presidency, the most globally impactful being the leverage of his position as an impartial yet strong leader in bringing the Russian-Japanese war to an end. Though he was gifted for having “spoken softly” with a Nobel Peace Prize the following year, the more lasting gift was having entrenched US prestige and standing on the world stage.
Economic sanctions are central to such statecraft, and have been used by states since diplomacy was first coined by the ancient Greeks — dating back to at least 432 BC, when the state of Athens issued the Megarian Decree, banning merchants of neighboring Megara from Athenian harbors and marketplaces, thereby strangling their economy.
Since then, history has been littered with examples of boycotts (refusals to import), asset seizures and embargoes (refusals to export) to bring nations to heel. Though until 1945 they were used against military aggression, since then they have been implemented as a response to any number of violations of international law, from human rights abuses to developing unauthorized nuclear programs.
Though such policies are criticized as symbolic, the reality is that sanctions cause significant economic damage and can succeed in forcing a country to change objectionable policies. The US experience with North Korea is testimony to the positive effects of a mix of sanctions and other diplomatic tools coercing Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table. The trend of recent times is for sanctions to be used more often to avert conflict.
Such economic penalties offer a middle course of action between war and diplomacy, with lower risks and costs. At a time when Russian activity has drawn so much attention for the risk it poses to the status quo, diplomacy must prevail. In the words of the great Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck, who similarly faced threats from Moscow: “The secret of politics, make a good treaty with Russia.”
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).