Often, U.S. officials treat these rules as an obstacle preventing them from taking strong actions. Yet these restrictions provide America with a strategic advantage: They give foreign countries and businesses some reason for trust. When the United States gives in to the temptation to weaken these protections — as when the Trump administration threatened to freeze Iraq’s accounts at the New York Federal Reserve after it requested the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2020 — it undermines the long-term strategic interest of the United States.
Overreach, then, is the more immediate threat. No one expected the array of sanctions, designations, technology controls and asset freezes to be assembled as quickly, or at such scale. Now there is a nearly palpable air of giddiness among policymakers. Every day brings new restrictions that build on one another. European officials have mused that they might use this new form of economic warfare to “bring down” Mr. Putin’s regime or “provoke the collapse” of the Russian economy.
These statements were hastily clarified, but they illustrate a deeper danger. As a new book by the historian Nicholas Mulder emphasizes, the “economic weapon” of sanctions and blockades doesn’t work nearly as predictably or effectively as its proponents imagine. The more powerful sanctions are, the greater the danger that they will lead to an unpredictable response. As Mr. Mulder demonstrates, fears of sanctions helped propel Nazi Germany’s territorial ambitions. More recently, when Iran was feeling badly squeezed by sanctions, it was accused of attacking shipping through the Straits of Hormuz, a key chokepoint in the global energy economy. The closer Mr. Putin’s regime comes to collapse, the more likely that it will lash out.
This doesn’t mean that the United States and its allies should stop using their control of global economic networks as a weapon. This is one of the few means they can responsibly use against a nuclear power in an unprovoked war.
But their measures should be just harsh enough to reach specific goals: to protect Ukrainian independence and to limit, to the greatest extent possible, Russia’s aggressive gains.
The minimum to reassure other countries and avoid escalation is to emphasize that the measures are not intended to provoke regime change in Russia. America may also need to adjust and recalibrate sanctions to contain economic fallout and unexpected consequences for allies as it did in 2018, when U.S. sanctions against Oleg Deripaska threatened to disrupt aluminum supply chains in Europe.
Similar adjustments should aim to prevent wide-scale human suffering in Russia and elsewhere. Negative economic restrictions have to be balanced by positive economic aid to countries at risk of hunger. The United States should also explicitly lay out the circumstances under which the executive branch will apply such economic measures, the range of permissible goals that they can accomplish, the review procedures that will ensure they are proportionate and the circumstances under which they will be withdrawn.
These commitments will help minimize the very real risk that future economic conflict will turn violent. Once many thought that an interdependent world economy prevented war. It would be bitter indeed if it provoked war instead.
Henry J. Farrell of Johns Hopkins and Abraham L. Newman of Georgetown are professors of international affairs and the authors of the forthcoming book “Underground Empire.”
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