Sanctions Are a Form of Terrorism

Countries currently under US sanctions, per JojotoRudess for wikipedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0. The map was as of 2020; Russia and Belarus should now be re-coloured red. In addition, the US has embargoes, a type of sanction, in place against many of the above countries plus: Bolivia, China, Eritrea, Laos, Nicaragua, Palestine and Zimbabwe. 

The term sanction is the economic form of what has historically been called a siege — the cutting off of essential supplies to a country’s people to starve them into submission. An embargo is a form of sanction. The euphemism “sanctions” is meant to suggest that economic blockades are somehow more humane than physical/military blockades. They are not.

And sanctions have been repeatedly shown not to work. Even the right-wing Brookings Institute acknowledges this. The stated objective of sanctions, to force a political enemy to change its political course, is hence merely a form of propaganda, since almost never has that been the result of a sanction.

Their actual objective, and, I would argue, the objective that the US almost always has when it imposes sanctions, is to destabilize the political enemy to produce internal collapse, civil war, or, ideally, regime change. That’s what it wants in all of the countries marked on the map above.

So the actual target of sanctions is almost always the citizenry. The plan is that sanctions will inflict such massive suffering on the populace that they will rise up against their leaders and overthrow them.

There is a word for the use of tactics designed to unnerve, destabilize and oppress a population. It is terrorism. Oxford defines the term “terrorism” as: “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”.

(The inclusion of the term “unlawful” in the definition is telling — the editors were probably concerned that without that waffle word, they would be charged with defining the term too broadly. It is hard to imagine how the use of violence and intimidation against civilians could ever be described as “lawful”, but I suppose they are saying that after a declaration of war, terrorism becomes “lawful”. I don’t want to wade into that argument.)

So I would argue that all forms of sanctions (ie sieges) are by definition acts of terrorism. And when they are imposed by governments, they are by definition acts of state-sponsored terrorism. And that if you support or cheer at the imposition of sanctions against another country, you are in fact endorsing state-sponsored terrorism.

If that offends you — if you say “we had no other non-military alternative at our disposal, and something had to be done” — then please understand that you are repeating the argument almost every person ever decried as a terrorist has uttered. And you are also denying the historical reality that sanctions almost never work. And that the immiseration of a people’s citizens, in addition to causing vast suffering and often death, is likely to create a lot more enemies than supporters of your cause.

You may be thinking that I had Russia in mind when I wrote this post. I did not. I’m talking about Afghanistan. US sanctions against Afghanistan are essentially destroying the country’s economy and driving its citizens to starvation. The US effectively destroyed a country and its citizens hated them for it, so now it’s decided to starve them. As if their sanctions against Venezuela and Yemen weren’t bad enough.

The US is also testing out new forms of sanctions in Afghanistan — seizing Afghani bank accounts through their control of international monetary and financial agencies. Much of the money in these Afghani accounts is humanitarian aid from other countries. Biden plans to give half the booty to unnamed “victims of 9/11”. Huh? As if that is any different from seizing food physically at Afghanistan’s border. As if it were any different from physical terrorism, and theft.

These new types of sanctions — freezing and stealing money from international bank accounts of people in other countries — are not bloodless. When you block people from being able to access their own funds, and from buying goods from other countries, you are directly threatening them with deprivation and potential starvation.

And please don’t tell me that it’s only evil individuals who are being “sanctioned”. It doesn’t take much knowledge of international finance and the essentially unstoppable scourge of money-laundering to understand that freezing individuals’ bank accounts and travel rights has essentially zero impact on these individuals, whose wealth is, for a ton of reasons mostly to do with tax avoidance and money-laundering, mostly in anonymous numbered accounts in multi-tiered corporate holding companies in foreign countries (many of which rely on such moneys to keep their economies afloat). Targeting of individuals is window-dressing, designed to confuse the sanctioning country’s citizens to believe that it’s only the “bad guys” being sanctioned, when the opposite is actually the case.

You would be correct to be alarmed that the US government now feels it has the right (and even duty) to “freeze” and then steal the money from banks that are part of the international banking system, of anyone it deems an enemy. It means they could, if you or your country’s leaders offend them, seize and steal your money.

That’s why it’s laughable that the US pundits lauding this new form of economic and financial terrorism and grand larceny take such pains to assure everyone “the minimum to reassure other countries and avoid escalation is to emphasize that the [current economic and financial sanction] measures are not intended to provoke regime change in Russia [or Afghanistan, or any other country].” Do they really think we’re that naive?

Because if you’re not so “reassured” you’re going to quickly act to protect your funds from similar seizure by the US if you or your government happens to do something they don’t like. As for your rights as an individual, forget it — you’re fucked. You get on some US black list as a sympathizer, you can pretty much kiss your money goodbye.

In the brave new world of unipolar US hegemony, that’s what sanctions are all about. Don’t mess with big brother — he has weapons at his disposal, that’s he’s now trying out, and encouraging his gang to try out, that can bring you to your knees, and leave you blaming your own government for your suffering.

Noam Chomsky famously said, describing the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, “A siege is an act of war.” For his trouble, he was banned from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories for life, and has been de facto banned from all the mainstream media in the west. Now that sanctions, the economic form of sieges, have become the US’s new favourite form of direct warfare (they use proxy states for their military wars), they don’t want Noam telling the progressives and pacifists of the world the truth about them.

I once thought the internet would blunt the influence of propaganda in our world. In fact, the opposite has happened. “War is Peace, Slavery is Freedom, and Ignorance is Strength”.

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10 Responses to Sanctions Are a Form of Terrorism

  1. Joe Clarkson says:

    In the brave new world of unipolar US hegemony

    This assertion is at the basis of your (apparent) argument that everthing bad that people do to each other around the world must be the fault of the US. If the US is in control of the entire world, it thereby becomes responsible for everything bad that happens.

    I wonder if you understand how much condescension this approach to international politics conveys. It’s as if no other people in the world have any agency at all. Has it ever occured to you that other nations might have disagreements with each other that have nothing to do with the US? That sometimes there are irreconcilable views between nations or peoples about what is just and fair and that a perceived injustice will be the inevitable result of any outcome?

    These irreconcilable situations are common. Ukraine-Russia, Israel-Palestine, Taliban-Non-Pashtun, China-Taiwan, North Korea-South Korea, are just a few examples. Is the US to ignore these disputes and stay out of them entirely? Assuming that your answer is “yes, of course”, then I suggest that your enthusiasm for isolation over intervention is misplaced. The two World Wars of the last century happened despite great efforts by the US to stay isolated from other people’s disagreements. The takeaway from the 20th century was that we ignore the rest of the world at our peril (and the rest of the world’s peril, too).

    What happens anywhere in the world is everyone’s business. Climate change, resource depletion and degradation of the natural environment are proof that we are all in the same small boat. The US has to intervene everywhere, as does China, Russia, and every country in the world. We will sometimes make things better and sometimes make things worse, as will everyone else.

    There will often be conflicts over the best course of action. It’s likely that eventually the sum of these conflicts will end in disaster, either nuclear war, climate destruction or the end of modernity and billions of premature deaths. But there is no alternative to engagement. If we all shrink into our national shells, disaster is absolutely certain. Only intense engagement can better our chances of success, slim as those may be.

    In any case, the US can’t fix everything nor is it to blame for everything. We just have to do our best to meddle in and muddle through. Sometimes that will mean a carrot and sometimes a stick, and both will be misapplied sometimes. Others will do the same and the results will often be a mess. We just have to get used to it.

  2. Apneaman says:

    Joe, the record (below) is very clear & speaks for itself.

    Mandela’s Daring Speech Against the Unspeakable Atrocities Committed by America

    “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world it is the United States of America. They don’t care for human beings.” – Nelson Mandela in 2003.

    List of Atrocities committed by US authorities

    Definition: An extremely wicked or cruel act, typically one involving physical violence or injury.

    Anyone with the courage & stomach to go through the list should make popcorn.

  3. Joe Clarkson says:


    The record of human atrocities is deep and long and covers every habitable square mile of the surface of the earth. The US is populated by humans who are no different than other people and we have certainly committed our share of atrocities.

    I’m not going to get into a litany or counter-litany of “what-about-that-atrocity” with you. The record does not speak for itself, it is created by people who have their own agenda for doing so, an agenda which unsurprisingly always includes a quest for ‘truth’, ‘peace’ and ‘justice’.

    Dave’s thesis in this post was that “all forms of sanctions (ie sieges) are by definition acts of terrorism”. It looks like you may agree with him. If so, Nelson Mandela was definitely a terrorist. “His greatest impact was as a moral leader, but Nelson Mandela also left a legacy in diplomacy by helping popularize the use of international sanctions to pressure a government to change its policies.”

    Are we to say that the US and NATO are following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela with regard to sanctions against Russia? Perhaps it just depends on whose ox is gored.

  4. Ivor Tymchak says:

    “We will sometimes make things better…”

    Joe, can you please give me one example where America made things better when it intervened? And by ‘better’ I mean the change it precipitated did not benefit America either directly or indirectly in the short or long term. Thanks.

  5. Joe Clarkson says:


    I’ll ignore your condition that indirect benefit is disqualifying since any action that makes the world a better place provides an indirect benefit to everyone, including America.

    So here is a partial list of what I judge to be positive foreign interventions (after WW2):

    The Marshall plan.
    Defense of South Korea
    Supporting the resolution of the Suez Crisis in favor of Egypt (in concert with the USSR)
    The Berlin airlift.
    Creation and operation of the Peace Corps
    Support for Solidarity in Poland.
    Support for the mujahidin in Afghanistan.
    Prevention of right-wing coups in El Salvador.
    Intervention in Kuwait to prevent Iraqi takeover
    No-fly zones supporting Kurdish autonomy
    Participation in UNISOM in Somalia
    Support for the reinstatement of Aristide in Haiti after a coup
    Intervention to protect Bosnia and Kosovo
    Intervention to support the Uribe government in Columbia and resolve the civil war
    Support for the government against al Shabaab in Mozambique
    Support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion

    A lot of operations under the various aspects of Operation Enduring Freedom were probably positive, especially in Africa and the Phillipines, but I don’t know a whole lot about them.

    I leave it to you to create the long, perhaps much longer, list of interventions that did more harm than good, but I think it’s extreme to say that every aspect of US foreign policy is bad.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Wow, Joe. Those are startling examples. To say that things are better TODAY than they might otherwise have been in Egypt, Poland, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Iraq, the Kurdish areas, Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo, had the US not intervened. We’re talking mostly ruined countries, failed states, corrupt and ideologically extreme and ruthless autocracies and oppressed citizens — TODAY. If those are examples of how US/NATO intervention has been good, well, then, I’m speechless.

    And, to be clear, the US is just the leader of the western bloc that has inflicted such damage in so many countries over the past 60 years; all of the NATO and other “allied” countries’ governments are complicit. And most of the citizens of those countries, thanks to decades of propaganda, secrecy and censorship, have no idea how much carnage and destruction that cabal has wreaked around the world. I’ll even allow that many on the front lines of these “interventions” went in with the best of intentions. But the results — millions dead, whole economies and ecologies destroyed, tens of millions displaced — are a far, far cry from the sustainable peace, democracy and “freedom” that they said they were fighting for.

  7. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Thanks, Joe.

    I’ll be honest with you and admit that my question was a trick one (but not dissimilar to how foreign policies work for any superpower so it makes a valid point).

    You can’t provide any real examples because none would make any sense. Superpowers don’t come about by accident, they’re created by ruthless sociopaths who are driven by one guiding principle: the expansion of territory to exploit resources. If a territory holds few useful resources – say a desert with no oil, why would a superpower be interested in what the politics are of the impoverished indigenous peoples? They wouldn’t. Thus, by definition, any intervention HAS to be motivated by self-interest.

    I can only think of one instance where an intervention gives the appearance of bestowing benefit on a particular group of foreign people: the one used for divide and rule. This is where the superpower assists and rewards a dominant tribe to defeat its local enemies thereby weakening the overall resistance a region might foment against the superpower’s eventual takeover of the region (this is the tactic Russia is trying to use against the West in an attempt to breakup unity).

    The majority of ‘ordinary’ people are kind and caring, so foreign policy has to be sold to them in those kind of terms otherwise the illusion of benign governance would vanish and everyone would see the naked greed that is at the heart of any power-hungry leader(s).

    This analysis applies to all superpowers, not just America.

  8. Joe Clarkson says:


    To be clear, I didn’t say that those countries are better TODAY because of a US intervention decades in the past, although some are, like France, Germany, South Korea and Poland, but rather that the interventions made things better AT THE TIME, which seemed to me to be the meaning of Ivor’s request. I hope you can now regain your speech.

    I am curious why you see power relations between countries, between empires, in such stark, absolute terms, as if every action or inaction of the US or NATO must be perfect or else the West is a carnage-wreaking “cabal”.

    Just look at the history of empires worldwide. You’ll see lots of atrocities committed by all of them and also actions that provided years of peace and prosperity both within the empire and other places outside the empire, too. The Western empire is no different.

    Ivan is right that empires are guided by self-interest, but self-interest doesn’t make every action of an empire bad by definition. Sometimes interests of the empire and interests of others outside the empire overlap. Sometimes they don’t. Often, perhaps most of the time, it’s hard to tell.

    Besides, even if there were no empires, even if the populations of all societies were no greater than the Dunbar number, there would always be social conflicts and conflict resolutions that someone would disagree with. Sometimes that resolution could involve extreme measures such as expulsion or death. That wouldn’t make a tribal social structure intrinsically bad. It’s the same with empires.

    In my view, foreign relations mistakes are far down on the list of blame-worthy things that the West is responsible for, so it’s hard for me to get upset about it. The end result of western science, technology and modern ‘progress’ is destroying the climate, creating a human population explosion and will cause far more premature death than all the wars the countries of the world have ever fought (although a major nuclear war would give modernity a run for its money).

    All this world-destroying damage is a result of everyone just wanting a better life for themselves and their children. That doesn’t make us evil, it just makes us human. Humans have flaws and need a lot of mutual forbearance and forgiveness, especially for one’s self. That’s my intention, and I’m stickin’ to it.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    I agree Joe. Sadly, there’s a saying about “good intentions”. Just as Putin isn’t “pure evil”, neither are the CIA/USDOD/NATO governments. My response to this whole war is that it could have been avoided if either side had been a little more understanding of the other, and it could likewise be quickly ended. But I don’t think it will be. My response to this war is steeped in fear. I remember the Cuban missile crisis. I remember the 1983 accident in the USSR where a nuclear war was avoided only because Stanislav Petrov said “wait a minute those readings don’t make sense”. I just wish we could stop repeating the same mistakes.

  10. Joe Clarkson says:

    Yes, the larger context of the war in Ukraine is terrifying. I’m 73 and moved with my wife and young children to Hawaii in 1986 to keep them from being exposed to the number one nuclear target in the world at that time (the Trident submarine base on the Hood Canal in Washington). It was just a few miles away from where we lived on the Olympic Peninsula. There was a lot of stupid sabre rattling going on between the Reagan and the Brezhnev administrations at the time. Our first choice was New Zealand, but that was not possible for Americans with modest means back then and probably still isn’t.

    I fear for my children, grandchild and my mother, who all live in Portland, Oregon. I wish I could convince them all to come stay with us for a few months until things calm down. Sometimes creating a nice lifeboat like we have here isn’t enough. You still have to convince loved ones to climb aboard.

    I wake up every morning wondering whether this will be the day after a massive nuclear exchange that vaporizes millions. Why we can’t collectively get together and just abolish nuclear weapons is mystifying.

    I have often thought that one common human failing is a lack of imagination. I thought that if people could really vividly imagine what warfare is like, actually viscerally feel the fear and pain of the battlefield, see the body parts in their mind’s eye, they would never consent to have a war take place. I once tried out that theory with a WW2 vet who had a lot of horrific combat experiences. He agreed that war was so bad that very few people would ever willingly do it, but he said that fear for family and loved ones can drive people to do almost anything. He also said that once the killing starts, a desire for revenge just keeps it going and going.

    Many politcal leaders are so blasé about starting wars it’s disgusting, and yes, America has had its share of them. About the only good thing I can say about Trump is that he didn’t start any new wars. I hope we’ll be able to say the same of Biden.

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