Imperialist sanction: A shard of history, NGOs, resistance [Part 3]

Sanctions as War Anti Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo Economic Strategy

While studying conflicts, Ray Dalio found: “[I]n most cases, before there is a shooting war, there is a mix of escalating economic, technological, geopolitical, and capital wars.”1

The study found, before officially start of the World War II, the conflicts really began about 10 years earlier with a series of escalating economic and capital conflicts. Those conflicts, or measures, fall into three categories:

[1] asset freezes/seizures;

[2] blocking capital market access;

[3] embargoes/blockades.

The study finds “the most severe levers” include “completely cutting a country off from your financial system or freezing all its assets abroad”. 

The study cited major 19th, 20th and 21st Century cases:

[1] Germany blocked financial access to Russia in the 1880s.

[2] Combatants used trade blockades and asset seizures during the WW I.

[3] Prior to the WW II, there was an escalating spiral of capital war.

[4] In 1956, after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, and the UK invaded, the US withheld IMF funds from the UK until British forces completely withdrew from Egypt.

[5] Against Cuba, the US maintains capital war sanctions, which began in the last century and persist yet – in the 21st century.  

[6] From 1973 to 1974, the Arab members of OPEC maintained total oil export embargoes against the US and other developed countries for the support US and its allies extended to Israel.

[7] During the period 1980-2003, the US imposed severe economic sanctions against Iraq, and froze financial assets of Iraq.

Today, in NATO’s war in Ukraine, similar economic and financial measures are imposed on/against Russia.

In short, the measures are categorized as sanction.

Siege warfare

“Sanctions are a form of siege warfare”, writes Manu Karuka.2 “A siege involves”, Manu Karuka writes, “trapping a population within a limited space, preventing any movement of weapons, food, and other supplies into that space. [….] Siege warfare is generally a very slow form of warfare. It fills the lives of civilians under its shadow with ruin and devastation, for as long as it lasts. […] [S]anctions add control over currency and finance capital. By joining the mechanisms of war and finance to attack the political and economic independence of poorer nations, sanctions comprise an exemplary form of contemporary imperialist siege warfare.”

Manu Karuka’s essay in the Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy “situates contemporary US sanctions within a longer history of imperialist siege warfare”; “discusses sieges in the development of the bourgeois state”; “compares imperialist sanctions, following the collapse of the USSR, to anti-imperialist sanctions against apartheid”; and “considers the effects of imperialist siege warfare on imperial society, against the principle of the unity of the besieged.”

A French massacre

Citing Benjamin Brower3, Manu Karuka, Assistant Professor of American Studies and affiliated faculty in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, and author of Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad4writes: “In 1849, French forces laid siege to Zaatcha, a fortified oasis in the Sahara. In the beginning of the summer, a tax revolt had sparked a broader uprising. Word of the revolt spread from Morocco to Mecca. After suffering a humiliating defeat that July, the French laid a siege in September. The besiegers breached Zaatcha’s walls on November 26 and slew everyone inside. They then razed the town, leaving it, in the words of one observer, ‘a mass of ruins and corpses’. The rebel leader’s decapitated head was mashed onto a post in the middle of the French camp. Three years later, French forces laid another siege on a more populous town, Laghouat, in order to quell another rebellion. After breaking through the walls, French soldiers spent the day massacring several thousand people before sunset.”5

One master teaches other

Masters of war – the imperialists – gradually developed the siege warfare. Manu Karuka writes: “French military in Algeria implemented lessons learned from US military tactics against Indigenous nations in North America. These French tactics, in turn, shaped the further development of US military engineering. In his 1865 Elementary Course of Military Engineering, Dennis Mahan, a faculty member at West Point, drew heavily on Vauban’s theories, and on the experience of the US Civil War, to urge military measures that would result in ‘success, at the least expenditure of time and blood’.”6

Hunger-plan against Soviet Union

In this warfare, imposing hunger on the adversary is a determining element. Germany, during the World War II, writes Manu Karuka, attempted “to implement this ‘terrible remedy’ […] The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was organized around a Hunger Plan, seeking to use food as a weapon to serve German strategic interests. The Hunger Plan intended to address the wartime shortage of food within Germany, making the isolation of Germany impossible. Targeting the industrialized areas of the Soviet Union for mass starvation would advance the destruction of communism. The guidelines drafted during the planning phase flatly concluded that ‘tens of millions of people will starve to death when we take what we need from the land’. As Field Marshall Erich von Manstein would testify at Nuremberg, the Hunger Plan was a core component of Nazi Germany’s prosecution of a ‘special war’ against the USSR, an ideological war aiming to achieve the ‘extermination of the Bolshevik system.’”7 Manu Karuka cites Nuremberg Trial Proceedings 1946. Communism is such an enemy of the Nazis, of the propertied classes, of the exploiting classes that they designed a mass murder, murder of tens of millions! And, all after this devilish motive of the exploiting classes, communism is denounced by a quarter convinced by propaganda of the exploiting classes. This quarter may be unaware of class conflict between the exploited and the exploiters. Motive behind condemnation of communism by the exploiting classes is perceived easily – communism goes not for transfer of tools of exploitation from one class to another, but for abolition of all tools of exploitation forever. 

After the USSR

Manu Karuka presents further facts that are no less fatal: “The politics of hunger would persist after the dissolution of the USSR, which sparked catastrophic drops in caloric intake, and millions of excess deaths over the following decade. The apparent Cold War victory of the capitalist bloc saw a widespread intensification of hunger across Eastern Europe and the formerly colonized countries.”8

There are more facts: “Internationally, the use of sanctions increased at such a rapid scale that the 1990’s was memorialized as the ‘sanctions decade’. The US has led this trend, imposing about two-thirds of sanctions since the 1990’s. 75% of US sanctions have been imposed unilaterally.”9

This war mechanism, “a gentler alternative to war” wide with web of financial power is, according to Manu Karuka, “[a] policy of collective punishment”10

The poorest

“[S]anctions”, writes Manu Karuka, “have been consistently justified as a means to trigger political pressure on governments. By enforcing economic isolation, sanctions have exacerbated the suffering of their primary victims: the poorest and most vulnerable people in targeted countries, producing widespread malnutrition, debilitating illness, and premature death. During a period of spectacular growth and concentration of international finance capital, the US and its allies have aggressively asserted political control by mobilizing the core institutions of international finance, and international currency flows. Human rights, defined in the narrowest terms of individual property rights, replaced anti-communism as the core justification for imperialist violence. Whereas anti-communism raised the specter of a communist threat to an ‘American way of life’, human rights instead invoke US responsibilities as ‘the last best hope of man on earth.’ Human rights [have] provided the ideological cement for US unipolar power.”11

Political imperative: unity of the working class

Manu Karuka raises pertinent questions that exposes character of imperialist sanctions, and presents an approach to alternative:

“What bearing can those outside of the siege have on the debates over unity or surrender, debates taking place amidst the gnashing teeth of hunger? Those outside of the siege instead face the question of reinforcing or breaking the siege itself. This, in its way, is a question of unity or division among the besieging forces. Is the siege justifiable? Who benefits from it? Who will benefit from the ways society will transform, in the process of laying and sustaining a siege? Does the siege advance the emancipation of poor, working class, and oppressed people? Behind these questions lies a political imperative: the unity of the besieged — the international unity of the working class — in order to advance the unfulfilled project of decolonization.”12

This question related to imperialist sanctions – emancipation of the working class, the exploited – should never be forgotten. Rather, progressive, anti-imperialist forces, the politics of the working people should raise this question of emancipation of the exploited in functional terms while examining imperialist sanctions, while facing divisive, sectarian politics.

Communication infrastructure

Stuart Davis discusses “two interrelated arguments regarding the place of communication within an anti-imperialist understanding of economic sanctions.”13

His first argument: “[E]conomic sanctions cause significant damage to the communication infrastructures of nations targeted by the US and allies.”14

His second argument “leverages the empirical examination of economic sanctions’ far-reaching deleterious impacts on national communication infrastructures within targeted states to make the claim that both academic and foreign policy-oriented discussions of communication rights and linked concepts (including freedom of the press) need to be expanded to attenuate the influence of sanctions.”15

Stuart Davis thoroughly examines film production in Cuba in the face of US-imposed sanctions and “counter-hegemonic television production in and beyond Venezuela”. These are areas of people’s struggle in defiance of imperialist sanctions: “As part of the Bolivarian revolution initiated in the early 2000s, the Chavez government focused specifically on building infrastructure for both community-based television production (through the creation/subsidization of new community media projects and increased funding to existing projects) and for a regionally oriented pan-Latin American television network (TeleSUR). Community-based television programs like the oft-discussed CatiaTV were enabled by the Chavez administration to 68 Davis provide avenues for Venezuela’s most marginalized communities to document and broadcast their lived struggles.”16

News serving elites

Junki Nakahara and Saif Shahin “look at 10 years of news coverage of US-led economic sanctions against three adversaries — Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela — in major print and broadcast media.” They “contend that the coverage not only serves the interests of […] the power elite — the country’s political, corporate, and military brass — but also reinforces the legitimacy of US hegemony in global politics.”17

“Media companies,” Junki and Saif write, “because of their ‘concentrated ownership’ and ‘profit orientation’, have to rely on governments and businesses not only for advertising revenue but also as their primary sources of information. They also want to avoid ‘flak’ — attacks from organizations affiliated with centers of political and financial power. In addition, media personnel themselves tend to be committed to ‘anticommunism’ as an ideology.”18 Command, dictation and control by capital over media are evident in this system, which is touted as “democracy”. In this “democracy”, exploiting capital is owned by a few, and that few control everything including media that compose narratives, explanations, analyses. Then, whose “democracy” does it turn out? The mainstream denies identifying character of this “democracy”, a system serving a few.

Junki and Saif’s “analysis […] renders the question of media independence moot. The media emerge as not simply influenced by but instead as an integral part of […] power elite, with the same interests—and the same commitments—as the political, military, and corporate brass.”19

NGOs serving imperialism

Non-governmental organizations (NGO) have a role in imposing imperialist sanctions. “Since the formation and expansion of their influence in the 1970s,” writes Immanuel Ness, “NGOs have transformed into agents of the USA and European allies, conducting an essential task that had previously been the preserve of the CIA, MI6, and government disinformation agencies. As conjectural independent entities, human rights NGOs wittingly or unwittingly serve as useful instruments of Western states.”20

Citing Ann Marie Clark’s Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms21 and Robert Pee’s “Containing Revolution: Democracy Promotion, the Cold War and US National Security”22 Immanuel Ness presents facts that may taste bitter to NGOs/exponents of NGOs:

# Amnesty International (AI) “had been infiltrated by British operatives as a means to target states that the government opposed. Peter Benenson, a founder and first General Secretary of AI, resigned five years later in 1961 in protest at the organization’s refusal to condemn credible allegations about torture of political prisoners by the British government in Yemen. Benenson concluded that the human rights organization was infiltrated and incapable of fulfilling its founding goals.”

# “Along with Human Rights Watch (HRW), AI has promoted its status as a leading human rights monitor of abuses worldwide, despite its continuous and reliable support for positions advanced by the USA, Britain, and Western states.”

# “[W]hilst the two NGO [AI and HRW] denounce human rights violations among opponents, they almost never criticize infringement of personal freedom at home.”

# “Since the 1980s, NGOs have become even more dependent on the US government to fund their democracy promotion operations. Thus, human rights and democracy promoting organizations lack independence and the credibility to be taken seriously by foreign states, even if they may convince the US media and sway public opinion. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), founded in 1983, is a conduit for identifying and funding democracy promoting NGOs.”

# “Human Rights NGOs have proliferated in the 21st century to monitor violations of personal freedoms and advancing Western concepts of the ‘rule of law.’ […] NGOs operate as an integral part of the foreign intelligence and secret operations of the USA and its allies to destabilize governments through advocating sanctions, typically on dubious grounds. […] NGOs are wittingly or unwittingly engaged in discrediting states which oppose US and Western policies, leading to the imposition of damaging economic sanctions. NGOs have justified their position by encouraging targeted sanctions against state elites. Yet, in most instances, economic sanctions deleteriously affect strategic industries which are integral to foreign exchange earnings, thus contributing to economic deflation and the inability to purchase essential food, medicine, and integral supplies to meet human needs. In this way, HRW, AI, Avaaz, and other NGOs destabilize state economic capacities necessary for the development of human rights and legitimize public opprobrium within target states of foreign meddling […]”23

The Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy is rich with facts, arguments and analyses that expose imperialist design, imperialist tactics, imperialist wars against peoples in countries. Its other chapters cover, among others, China (“Sanctioning China’s tech industry to ‘secure’ Silicon Valley’s global dominance”, and “The political economy of US sanctions against China”), Cuba (“US sanctions Cuba ‘to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government’”), North Korea (“The Western Frontier: US sanctions against North Korea and China”), Iran (“A century of economic blackmail, sanctions and war against Iran”), Yugoslavia (“Sanctions and nation breaking: Yugoslavia, 1990–2000 “), Zimbabwe (“Targeted sanctions and the failure of the regime change agenda in Zimbabwe”), Iraq (“Iraq: Understanding the ‘Sanctions Warfare Regime’”), Syria (“Writing out Empire: The case of the Syria sanctions”), Venezuela (“The US war on Venezuela”), Russia (“Trying to unbalance Russia: The fraudulent origins and impact of US sanctions on Russia”). The list seems a brief record of imperialism’s worldwide war against all forces that move or like to move against imperialist interests.

Part three of the Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy includes [1] “Blowback to US sanctions policy”, by Renate Bridenthal, [2] “International solidarity against US counterinsurgency”, by Sarah Raymundo, [3] “Boycott and sanctions as tactics in the South African anti-apartheid movement”, by Jesse Bucher and Stuart Davis, and [4] “Settler colonialism, imperialism and sanctions from below: Palestine and the BDS Movement”, by Corinna Mullin.

Battle of Carabobo, Katipunan Revolution

In “International solidarity against US counterinsurgency”, Sarah Raymundo, director and a member of the faculty of the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Center for International Studies, and a key political organizer for the International League of Peoples’ Struggle and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (bayan/New Patriotic Alliance) and the Chair of the Philippines-Bolivarian Venezuela Friendship Association, “documents lessons learned from building international solidarity from a Global South perspective”. She cites the Battle of Carabobo of 1821 in Venezuela and the Katipunan Revolution of 1896 in the Philippines. “The Battle of Carabobo”, writes Sarah Raymundo, “was the crucial victory which brought independence to Venezuela and became the basis for Simon Bolivar to establish the foundation of Gran Colombia in South America and Central America, encompassing present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The Katipunan Revolution of the Philippines was the first national revolution in Asia to defeat a Western colonizing power […]”24 The Katipunan Revolution, according to Sarah, inspired “the development of revolutionary anti-colonial consciousness throughout Asia. The Katipunan Revolution played a crucial role in rousing Chinese revolutionary anti-imperialists in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, under the leadership of Sun Yan Sen.”25

“In the eyes of US imperialism”, writes Sarah Raymundo, “a nation like Venezuela that refuses US imperialist privatization of its key economic sectors, control over its oil and finance should be isolated, and its people punished severely. The US also uses brazen tactics such as commanding other nations to be complicit to its criminality by imposing the same sanctions on Venezuela. This is a breach of international peace, sovereignty and equity among nations, and justice.”26 She presents a concrete proposal with a concrete argument: “To capture the concrete reality of our time, we need to proceed with concrete analysis of concrete conditions. US imperialism is the principal enemy. Our current situation is different from the conditions that partly shaped two imperialist wars. The First and Second World Wars involved opposing military coalitions. In our time, NATO had and continues to unleash horrific wars as the sole military coalition controlled by US Imperialism.”27

The almost 400-page Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy is an essential book to have a comprehensive idea with an anti-imperialist perspective.

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



1. “Capital Wars from 1600 to the Present”, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order,,the%20composition%20of%20levers%20used%20has%20broadly%20shifted

2. “Hunger Politics: Sanctions as Siege Warfare”, in Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy, editors: Stuart Davis and Immanuel Ness, Haymarket Books, Chicago, USA, 2023

3. A Desert Named Peace: The Violence of France’s Empire in the Algerian Sahara, 1844–1902, Columbia University Press, New York, 2009

4. University of California Press, 2019

5. Manu Karuka, op. cit.

6. ibid.

7. ibid., emphasis added.

8. ibid.

9. ibid.

10. ibid.

11. ibid.

12. ibid., emphasis added.

13. “Economic Sanctions, Communication Infrastructures, and the Destruction of Communicative Sovereignty” in the Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy

14. ibid.

15. ibid.

16. ibid.

17. “All the president’s media: How news coverage of sanctions props up the power elite and legitimizes US hegemony” in the Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy

18. ibid.

19. ibid., italicized in the original.

20. “Transnational allies of sanctions: NGO human rights organizations’ role in reinforcing economic oppression” in Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy

21. Princeton University Press, USA, 2010

22. International Politics, 55, 2018

23. Immanuel Ness, op. cit.

24. Sarah Raymundo, “International solidarity against US counterinsurgency”, in Sanctions as War, Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy

25. ibid.

26. ibid.

27. ibid.  

This article is the concluding part of a three-part series introducing the book on sanctions.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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