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”.