Why the latest round of sanctions matters

By Toni Michel and Jiang Yuan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/13 20:18:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In the nuclear age, where the number of wars between countries has seen a sharp decrease for some time now, economic and political sanctions have become the tool of choice for states and international bodies to signal discontent with another state's behavior. Their effectiveness is hotly disputed, with complete failures like in the case of North Korea and relative positive outcomes like apartheid South Africa.

The sanctions regime that occupies most people today is the political and economic standoff between Russia and the West in the context of the Ukraine crisis. For years now, the EU and the US have placed a range of sanctions on Moscow, which has responded by its own set of retaliatory measures.

The second half of July has seen an acute escalation in the use of sanctions, including the US Congress sanctions package sent to a reluctant President Donald Trump, the widening of EU economic sanctions against Russia after Siemens electricity turbines were being used in Crimea in alleged breach of the delivery contract, and finally Moscow's decision to order the US Embassy in Russia to cut 755 staff members.

What can we read from those three developments and how much has the ground shifted since?

There are three bigger trends to consider. First, we are witnessing the internationalization of the US domestic political crisis.

It rarely happens that a Congress controlled by Republicans would bind a Republican president's hands in foreign affairs out of distrust, stemming in part from the shadow of illicit contacts of the Trump election team to foreign powers during the campaign.

In addition, Trump's inability to ensure the smooth operation of his administration through coherent planning, careful messaging and adequate staffing of top positions is contributing to the chaos that is engulfing Washington and US foreign policy planning at this time.

While there is a possibility that Trump could learn some lessons from his first 200 days in office, it is likely that the standoff and blockade within the US political system will remain - with tangible effects on foreign policy.

The second important trend to consider is the EU's increasing realization that it must step up its own game and defend its interests more assertively - even against a long-standing ally like the US. This is because the above mentioned sanctions directly threaten European business projects that are still ongoing with Russian participation. Brussels has signaled that it would retaliate in the case of US sanctions against European companies - another sign that US foreign policy, usually formed in coordination with Europe on these matters, is dysfunctional.

Discussions on a common European army, a reinvigorated trade agenda and a combative approach toward Brexit equally reflect the larger point on growing European assertiveness.

Unlike the US, recent electoral defeats of right-wing populists in Europe and a slowly recovering economy have given the EU confidence at home and a mandate for substantive reforms internally and in Brussels' relations to the world.

Despite all that, in a previous Global Times Op-Ed I have argued that the political, economic and historic bonds that form the core of the transatlantic relationship are unlikely to be wholly destroyed by the current turmoil.

The third important aspect is Moscow's stance. While many have read the Kremlin's order to cut staff numbers at the US Embassy in the Russian capital by 755 as an escalation in the conflict around diplomatic compounds in the US, a closer look reveals that the facts speak a different language.

First, in practical terms, the expulsion will probably largely concern Russian staff at the embassy and mainly slow down visa-issuing processes. For context, about 900 out of 1,200 employees at the embassy are locally hired. Second, the issue at stake is rather minor and probably simply not worth dramatic countermeasures.

Furthermore, by keeping the response limited to the diplomatic sphere, Moscow is able to send a signal of strength without really burning bridges with the US president, whose disregard for the State Department and diplomacy in general are out there for everyone to see: The president still has so far not nominated a large number of top diplomatic officials, including ambassadors to critical posts like France and Afghanistan. Just like the rest of the world, Moscow is not yet sure what kind of man it is dealing with and is thus treading lightly.

All in all, the swirl of sanctions at the end of July signaled a new normal in world affairs and the wrecking-ball effect of the new US president. The US is stepping away from its claim to global leadership while Europe has woken up to fill some of the vacuum and act more independently. Even while Moscow's hopes for a decisive reset of relations for now seem on hold, the Kremlin has not yet decided on how to handle the relationship with Trump.

It remains to be seen, though, if we are witnessing a durable change or if, in a post-Trump future, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

The authors are analysts of post-Soviet and international affairs. Wang Pinrui contributed to this story. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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