Imperialist sanction, an instrument of coercion, and shrouded with lies

Sanctions as War Anti Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo Economic Strategy

Imperialist sanctions stand as instrument of coercion, and is shrouded with lies. In recent years, using the measure of sanction has turned out as a standard response to international controversies. (The Economist, “Donald Trump has shown a surprising enthusiasm for sanctions”, November 28, 2019, Imperialist sanctions act as a tool that boosts imperialist interests. 

Once, the United Nations used sanctions to support peoples’ struggle for self-determination. But, that role of UN’s sanctions has passed away. Now, this weapon – sanction – is almost solely used by imperialism, and this is turning unacceptable to most member-states in the UN. (Old Dominion University, “The role of the sanctions in diplomacy”, ODUMUNC 2020 issue brief, UN General Assembly Fourth Committee: Disarmament, ODU Model United Nations Society, n.d.) “Most UN Member States see sanctions as economic warfare by Western Governments — many of them their former colonial and imperial rulers — to assert control over their domestic affairs and political choice.” (ibid.) “Even for the country that uses sanctions most of all — the United States — they are highly controversial”, says the issue brief cited above, and it cites Jonathan Masters, a prominent foreign policy analyst: “What cannot be disputed […] is that economic sanctions are fast becoming the policy tool of choice for the United States in the post-Cold War world. Indeed, economic sanctions are increasingly at the center of American foreign policy as a policy tool to resolve several issues […]” (Jonathan Masters, “What are economic sanctions?”, Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations,  ©2023 Council on Foreign Relations,, Last updated August 12, 2019) Voting pattern in the UN General Assembly on US embargo on Cuba is evidence. For years, all members of the UNGA, except the US and one or two of its allies, vote for withdrawal of US imposed economic and financial embargo on Cuba, which was imposed in the last century, decades ago, and for which the Cuban people are paying high price – with hardship in life including extreme difficulties in essential medical treatment, with losing livelihood, with hurdles in economic improvement, although imperialist media incessantly tag these difficulties and hurdles as “failures” of the governing system in the Latin American country. A sheer show of lies and hypocrisy!   

Tim Beal writes in chapter 2 (“Sanctions as Instrument of Coercion: Characteristics, Limitations, and Consequences”) of Sanctions as War Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy (Eds. Stuart Davis and Immanuel Ness, Haymarket Books, Chicago, US, 2023): “States have a range of instruments of coercion at their disposal.” Tim cites Michael Beckley of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI): “[…] the United States would deploy every tool in its coercive arsenal — tariffs, financial sanctions, visa restrictions, cyber-espionage, and drone strikes.” It now appears the mainstream don’t decline the Empire’s coercive power-practice.   

Tim writes: Despite declining power, the US has a full range of sanctions, one of the most effective instruments in the country’s arsenal. “Any analysis of contemporary sanctions”, Tim logically argues, “must be centered on the US”, as the country “uses sanctions most often and with greater economic consequences than any other country.” Tim cites a hard fact: The US is “usually the instigator and enforcer of the application of sanctions by other countries either through bilateral dominance or through its ability to utilize the UN Security Council (UNSC).” Use of the tool tells about dominance of the country.   

In 2019, according to Tim, “the US had some 30 sanctions programs, the UNSC a further 14 and a number of other countries/organizations including Australia, Canada, the EU, Japan, South Korea had their own additional programs, but all of them were consistent with US foreign policy, and probably a result of American ‘guidance’. American dominance is slipping, especially in relation to peer competitors but at the moment the global sanctions regime speaks with US accent.” Here, Tim talks about two facts: [1] Slipping out of the Empire’s dominance, and that’s in relation to its competitors; and [2] the Empire’s cohorts – countries that faithfully follow the Empire. It’s now a major aspect in the world dominance system.   

“Many US sanctions”, writes Tim, “are unilateral” while “[m]ultilateral sanctions have the advantage of enabling the US to utilize its imperial power to multiply the reach of sanctions.” Unilateral sanctions imposed by the Empire are part of the world order that the Empire has built up. The world power persists with keeping intact this order. The same is with the multilateral sanctions. The question that the world today faces are urgent: Should this world order be allowed to go unchallenged? Bringing changes in the world order is a huge task comprising struggles of political forces having anti-imperialist character. The task is also essential for peoples striving to have their own way of life according to their choice. It’s an intra- and inter-country struggle sweeping continents. Alliance of peoples in lands is a major factor in this struggle; and this struggle should be anti-imperialist. In today’s world, there’s no scope to give up anti-imperialist position in people’s struggle, be it for democracy, be it for rights including fundamental, human, political, economic and ecological rights. And, for radical change, the struggle can’t give up anti-imperialist position, as the struggle for radical change is part of class struggle between the exploited and the exploiters, where imperialism stands with the exploiting classes. Unflinching anti-imperialist position in people’s struggles is because of imperialism’s [1] worldwide financial ties and power, [2] control over world markets, [3] worldwide political, diplomatic, military and ideological power, and [4] worldwide alliance with anti-people, anti-democratic, reactionary and retrogressive classes and political forces.                

Sanctions aren’t without objectives. It has certain functions. Tim raises a question, which explicitly tells: “The key questions about sanctions are what their [sanctioning country’s/countries’] objectives are and how to set about achieving them. […] [T]he real, underlying objectives are often hidden behind a hypocritical screen of obfuscation and mythologizing. This is not surprising because one of the big attractions of sanctions as against kinetic military action or other exercises in physical coercion is this chameleon-like ability to deceive.” Imperialist media and academia ardently carry on a number of tasks regarding imperialist sanctions: Propagate that “hypocritical screen of obfuscation and mythologizing” that hide imperialist objective of sanctions.

Kim writes: “[S]anctions and other forms of coercion are usually intended to benefit the coercer at the expense of the coerced.” This is imperialist trick – benefit self, imperialism, and sound “humanism”. But, imperialist propaganda machine that includes a section of media, a part of academia, and section of propagandists employed by imperialism never expose this reality: benefit the coercer at the expense of the coerced.  Amazingly, in countries, over the years, a group of “Left” or elements claiming to be “progressive” keeps trust on imperialism’s “humanism”. They advocate for imperialist sanction, cherish it, support it, and rely on imperialism imposed sanctions to advance self-political goal. But, in real term, the sanction that imperialism imposes is to secure imperialism’s interest. This role of these two parties – imperialism and its friends – has been observed in countries including Venezuela and Cuba.

Jonathan Masters writes:

“Sanctions have been the defining feature of the Western response to several geopolitical challenges […] In recent years, the United States has expanded the use of sanctions, applying them and ramping them up against adversaries in Iran, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela.” (op. cit.)

Expansion of use of the weapon, sanction, signifies a certain situation on the world stage. This situation includes condition of the Empire; and the condition includes extent of the Empire’s economic, financial, diplomatic and military power. Although the Empire’s use of the weapon has expanded in recent years, the weapon is not as sharp as anticipated by the weapon-owners in some cases. The Empire’s economic necessities sometime compel it to take some measures that blunt sharpness of the weapon.       

Jonathan Masters adds:

 “Sanctions have been used to advance a range of foreign policy goals […]”

The Empire’s foreign policy goals are its interests, completely self-interests. It’s sheer stupidity to find something else other than imperialist interests within the Empire’s foreign policy goals, as foreign policy goals emanate from economic-financial interests, and imperialist foreign policy goals are inseparably connected to imperialist interests. So, imperialism’s propagation of “for democracy”, “for different types of rights”, “for non-proliferation of nuclear arms”, etc. are mere [1] propaganda slogan to win over larger audience, [2] attain credibility and legitimacy, and [3] a simple trick to hide imperialist interests and actions.         

Jonathan Masters writes:

“Sanctions, while a form of intervention, are generally viewed as a lower-cost, lower-risk course of action between diplomacy and war. Policymakers may consider sanctions as a response to foreign crises in which the national interest is less than vital or where military action is not feasible.”

The part cited above keeps no confusion as it says “intervention”, and the Empire’s intervention is imperialist intervention. Now, it’s choice of others – whether or not to support/accept imperialist intervention. The point “lower-cost” of using the weapon is not always correct in all steps if interests of all capitals are taken into account. To a certain capital, it may be “lower-cost”, but to others that may be higher; thus, there’s an average cost. Whatever the “average cost”, gain of a certain capital and loss of another is a contradiction of interests within the camp using sanction as a weapon; and this contradiction is difficult, sometimes impossible, to reconcile. A few sanctions imposed on Russia as part of the Ukraine War stand as example of this contradiction.         

Jonathan Masters tells about the Empire:

“The United States uses economic and financial sanctions more than any other country.”

This wider use of sanctions by the Empire signifies its power and limits of power. But, this power now-a-days encounters counter-measures in some areas. In some areas, the counter-measures virtually foil, or at least weaken sanctions.       

Jonathan Masters writes about other states in relation to sanctions imposed by the Empire:

“[M]any governments consider these [US] sanctions a violation of their sovereignty and of international law.”

It’s a rising trend. Now, to many countries, sanctions don’t go without question, and without resistance. Rather, states are coming together to circumvent/blunt sanctions.    

Sanctions always aren’t fully effective weapon. Jonathan Masters cites that fact:

“[S]ome experts warn that sanctions should be viewed as a double-edged sword, one that can help the United States achieve policy goals in the short term but, if used carelessly, may put the country’s financial leverage at risk in the long run. Former Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and former State Department official Richard Nephew write that ‘today, the country largely gets its way because there is no alternative to the dollar and no export market as attractive as the United States. But if Washington continues to force other nations to go along with policies that they consider both illegal and unwise, over the next 20 to 30 years, they are likely to shift away from the United States’ economy and financial system.’”

This fact, bitter to the Empire, is gradually coming to light. Sanctions imposed on Russia and de-dollarization is the example.

Tim Beal examines sanctions in chapter 2 of Sanctions as War Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy from a number of angles: taxonomy, objectives and functions of sanctions, sanctions and soft power, sanctions and US imperialism. While discussing militarization and imperialism, Tim Beal cites Gareth Porter (“Anti-Interventionist Think Tank’s Debut is a Dud.” Consortium News, February 28. 2020, -think-tanks-debut-is-a-dud/): “The antimilitarization advocates [in the US] are not benign, pacifist or anti-imperialist, it would be naïve to expect that.” And, then, Tim Beal adds: “They”, the so-called anti-militarization advocates, “merely prefer a more intelligent and nuanced projection of power.”

Again, Tim Beal tells another bitter fact, as Tim cites editorial board of Wall Street Journal (“Options for Removing Kim Jong Un.” September 4, 2017, 4556500): “Although starvation of a population is usually considered a war crime the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal explains that ‘Withholding food aid to bring down a government would normally be unethical, but North Korea is an exceptional case’.” Imperialist logic and ethics is self-explanatory – imperialism doesn’t refrain from withholding food as weapon against a people it considers adversary.

At the conclusion of the chapter, Tim keeps no ambiguity:

“Sanctions are often portrayed, by those that utilize them, as a humane alternative to war, a well-intentioned, proportionate and restrained effort to preserve peace and good international relations. The targeted countries are described as belligerent states intent on wreaking destruction on the innocent and benevolent ‘international community’. Their leaders are depicted as indifferent to the sufferings of their people, happy to starve them in pursuit of their evil designs.

“This book and this chapter convey a different message. Sanctions are a mode of war and an instrument of coercion usually in pursuit of hegemonic objectives. Sanctions tend to be wrapped in shrouds of obfuscation and hypocrisy and their facility for being disguised in objective and consequence is a great source of attraction for their users. Like kinetic war they tend to be employed by the strong against the weak and so are nearly always aggressive.”

With this perspective, Tim Beal boldly indicates a task:

“It is vital to demolish the carapace of propaganda to expose what lies beneath. The dreadful effects on countless people around the world but even more important the coercive objectives that drive sanctions and cause the devastation. Madeleine Albright’s assertion that ‘the price is worth it’ is seldom given the analysis it deserves. The price was half a million Iraqi children but outrage is insufficient. We need to ask what was the ‘it’ that was worth such a price. Imperialism cannot be defeated until its motives, nature, and instruments of coercion are understood.”

Propagandists employed by imperialism hide imperialism’s motive, etc. and continue telling lies. They hide the fact: Imperialism has asked them to propagate imperialist position. It’s, therefore, people to tear down the shroud of lie and bring truth to light.

Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy

Editors: Stuart Davis Immanuel Ness

Published in paperback in 2023 by Haymarket Books

P.O. Box 180165 Chicago, IL 60618, USA


Note: This article is 2nd part of a three-part series introducing the book on sanctions.

 Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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