Why sanctions? A conversation with Gregory Wilpert

First published at VenezuelaAnalysis.

Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy, a book recently published by Brill, offers a comprehensive account of economic sanctions as a US tool for exercising power on the global stage. The text, which should be required reading for those with sympathy for humanity, includes a chapter on Venezuela by Gregory Wilpert. Here Wilpert goes over some of his key findings.

There is a tendential generational divide amongst the left in the Global North: older folks who lived through the Vietnam and/or Iraq wars center imperialism, while younger generations tend to focus on other (also important) issues. Indeed, if you lived to hear Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz overtly identify the US project as imperialist or talking about turning Iraq into New Jersey, it would be difficult to not center imperialism. One could argue that the fact that US policy has changed over the past few years – now it's more covert, deploying sanctions and proxy wars instead of outright invasions – has impacted the worldview of the younger generations in the Global North. I would argue that this is why books such as Sanctions as War, are all the more relevant. Could you explain why understanding sanctions policy is so important at the moment?

I think we need to see the application of sanctions in the larger context of two coinciding developments of the past few decades. First, there is the rise and weakening of US hegemony on the world stage. Second, there is the evolution of military technology and strategy toward what some military historians and strategists have called “fourth-generation warfare.”

Regarding the first development (the rise and weakening of US hegemony) the US probably reached the apex of its global hegemony around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The US was the only superpower at that time and enjoyed unrivaled ideological-cultural, economic, and military dominance over the entire planet. However, as neoliberalism became the pre-dominant economic policy in all countries of the world around this time, under US guidance or imposition, and welfare states were being dismantled, it was almost inevitable that resistance to neoliberalism would also come about. This is precisely what happened in the early 2000s, with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Latin America’s first so-called “Pink Tide.” In a way, this challenge signaled the beginning of the end of US ideological and economic hegemony. For a variety of reasons, the US could not impose its will, as it used to, solely with military might. It still did so in some countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but could not do it everywhere. Luckily for the US, though, the second development that I mentioned, of fourth-generation warfare, came into its own around this time as well.

That is, historically speaking, warfare has become ever more encompassing in terms of the types of weapons deployed and in terms of its targets. Ever since the establishment of nation-states in the 17th century, armies would initially fight only each other in what amounted to hand-to-hand combat (1st generation warfare). Then, with the development of firearms and cannons, they could fight each other across greater distances, creating far larger battlefields and potentially involving and killing far more people (2nd generation). The development of fighter planes and bombers then allowed war planners to bypass front lines and target military infrastructure deep inside enemy territory and thus also kill civilian populations in the form of so-called “collateral damage” (3rd generation). Then, with 4th generation warfare, military and political leaders began using all available modern technology to target the entire enemy population since the distinction between enemy military and enemy civilian population had already become completely blurred in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the weapons used, every available technology was deployed. In addition to traditional military equipment such as guns, bombers, and missiles, military and political leaders would also use cyber-warfare, psychological warfare, covert operations, and economic sanctions.

In other words, the use of economic sanctions as a weapon of war is the outcome of both US economic dominance – and the accompanying challenges to this dominance – as well as the generalization of warfare, where all available and weaponizable means are used against entire populations. Once we understand this, opposing the use of sanctions as a weapon of war becomes a key strategy in the effort to undermine US hegemony. This is, of course, in addition to being opposed to sanctions on basic moral principles because of their deadliness and their indiscriminate nature.

In your chapter for the book Sanctions as War, you identify two main reasons why the US chooses to deploy sanctions. Can we go over them?

Since my chapter deals with Venezuela, I would say that this analysis mainly applies to the case of Venezuela and would not want to generalize to the application of US sanctions against all other countries, even though it could be the same two reasons in most cases.

The first reason has to do with what I already mentioned, which is that Venezuela, under President Chávez, made an explicit effort to move away from neoliberal economic policy. More than that, Chávez became increasingly more radical during his presidency and wanted to establish 21st-century socialism in Venezuela. So the imposition of US sanctions represents an effort to undermine the Bolivarian-socialist project in Venezuela at a time when the US believed that doing so would cause the government, then led by Nicolás Maduro, to topple relatively easily and quickly.

The second reason has to do with Chávez’s effort to directly confront US hegemony on the world stage by building what he called a multi-polar world. He did this by building up South-South relations, both within Latin America and the Caribbean as well as globally. Within Latin America, he did this primarily by pushing forward projects such as UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) and CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States). Globally speaking this involved the development of ever-closer cooperation with countries such as China, India, and countries of Africa. However, since most of the sanctions took effect only after Chávez’s death and after UNASUR and CELAC had already been weakened because of the rightward drift of Latin American governments, this motivation probably played a smaller role in the imposition of sanctions against Venezuela.

There's no denying that sanctions always hurt the people. In fact, in March 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted that the Trump administration hoped to worsen Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis through sanctions. He said: “The circle is tightening, the humanitarian crisis is increasing by the hour. (…) You can see the increasing pain and suffering that the Venezuelan people are suffering from.” However, sanctions haven't toppled the democratically-elected Maduro government or, for that matter, any other government besieged by a blockade. In your essay, you argue that in the imposition of sanctions, the US actually operates to force the “opening” of more sovereign countries to the interests of international capital. Can you explain this hypothesis?

When I mentioned that one of the main objectives of the US is to undermine Venezuela’s anti-neoliberal and socialist policies, I think Washington has two sub-objectives in mind. First, it wants to prevent a country such as Venezuela from becoming an anti-capitalist alternative to the dominant paradigm, that is, to prevent a possible “good example” that could inspire people in other countries to follow a similar path. Second, it also wants to make sure that Venezuelan resources, mainly its oil reserves, are accessible to transnational capital.

Here we get into a bit of intra-left debate about whether the US is pursuing the interests of transnational capital or of US capital. This is perhaps too intricate a debate to get into, but I would simply say that I find the argument that the US government is pursuing the interests of transnational capital to be more compelling. Since most capital is completely intertwined and not really based in any nation, the US government does not care all that much whether BP (British), Exxon-Mobil (US), Total (French), or Eni (Italian) have free access to Venezuelan oil, as long as transnational capital has unimpeded access to it. Historically speaking we see this to be the case for all countries where the US has intervened. That is, the US has almost single-handedly set up an international order where the dominance and free flow of transnational capital is the primary principle. Countries that resist this international order are forced into compliance either via the application of fourth-generation warfare or, if they don’t put up too much of a fight, via the IMF, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization.

Could one argue that, in the Venezuelan case, the policy has somewhat succeeded because the government has shifted towards an economic liberalization of the economy over the past few years?

Yes, I think that is a legitimate argument. I mean, US sanctions have strangled Venezuela to such an extent that the government is desperate for capital. For the most part, it needs capital to rebuild its oil industry, which requires massive annual investments to keep the oil flowing and to keep refining crude. I cannot get into the complexities of Venezuelan economic policy, and I guess one could say it might have been possible to liberalize the oil sector for investment while keeping other more socialistic economic policies in place. Perhaps.

It would seem that sanctions actually function (paradoxically) so that sanctioned countries will come closer together. In fact, in the Venezuelan case, the Caribbean nation has strengthened ties with allies such as Russia, Iran, and China, as well as, of course, Cuba. Could sanctions end up turning against the interests of the US?

Yes, there are several ways that the imposition of sanctions ends up backfiring from their original intent, which makes you wonder why the US keeps pursuing them. First, there is the one you mention, of bringing sanctioned countries closer together in the form of cooperation agreements.

Second, and closely related to the first, the closer cooperation between Venezuela, Russia, China, Iran, etc., means that it potentially sets up a counter-hegemonic project, in opposition to US hegemony. For example, there is talk about setting up an alternative to the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. If that were to happen, it would greatly weaken US economic hegemony. Also, these countries are more and more likely to act as a block in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations.

Third, some research has shown that sanctioned countries become more independent from the United States and that this aids their economic development. This seems to have been particularly the case with the sanctions imposed against Russia, as economist James K. Galbraith has shown. I would argue this has also been the so, to a somewhat limited extent, in the case of Venezuela, where the sanctions have pushed the country to become more self-reliant in terms of agricultural production, something that Chávez always aimed to do but was never able to achieve during his presidency.

Fourth – and this one flies completely in the face of sanctions’ original intent – is that they tend to strengthen the hand of the targeted government. There has been plenty of political science research that shows that sanctions make populations more dependent on the central government for the distribution of goods and services, and that this means that the government is strengthened and not weakened at all by the sanctions. This is especially the case when the sanctions’ objective is regime change, as is the case in most situations, since the government is not going to concede anything when its own survival is at stake.

To return briefly to the question of why the US keeps imposing sanctions despite their having the opposite effect of their stated objectives, I think this makes it clear that sanctions have nothing whatsoever to do with the stated objectives. Instead, I believe that the primary real objective is to make the affected country so economically unviable that it becomes a poster child for why “socialism is unworkable” – at least, in the case of countries such as Venezuela or Cuba.

You conclude your chapter by arguing that it’s important that folks understand the “devastating and war-like effects” of sanctions, and that people should know that they are in violation of international law and even US law. Briefly, how do you make the case that sanctions are illegal?

While it is true that sanctions are illegal on many levels, I first want to point out that unfortunately there is also absolutely no enforcement mechanism to hold violators such as the US accountable.

In terms of international law, sanctions violate the UN Charter (Article 2.4), which clearly states that the use of unilateral force is illegal. Of course, the US claims that sanctions are not a use of force, which, to me, seems absurd. Also, the Geneva and Hague Conventions prohibit the use of collective punishment. Given Pompeo’s statement that you quoted earlier, it is not too far-fetched to say that sanctions represent a form of collective punishment. Then, the Organization of American States (OAS) charter (Article 19) states that all member countries are prohibited from interfering in the internal economic affairs of another member country.

Regarding domestic US law, the main means for imposing sanctions has been the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, which requires the president to certify that a country that the US intends to sanction be declared, “an unusual and  extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States.” President Barack Obama issued this declaration with respect to Venezuela in 2015 and it has been renewed by every president every year since then. For anyone with more than half a brain, however, it should be obvious that Venezuela does not represent such a threat to the United States. In other words, the declaration is patently false, and thus the legal requirement for imposing sanctions is not being met. Unfortunately, though, US courts are completely unwilling to take up foreign policy-related issues because these are considered to be the sole prerogative of the White House and of Congress.