Ending endless war has become an ever-present catchphrase, employed by Republicans and Democrats alike, to appeal to the majority of Americans who wish to see an end to ineffective U.S. wars and adventurism across the world, and better use of their hard-earned tax dollars. But, while we may think of war to mean military incursions, bombs and fighting, there is an aspect to U.S. warfare that is too-often absent from the discussion: economic warfare.
We have witnessed the consequences of this omission in recent days in the case of Cuba. Battered by U.S. sanctions and the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Cuba is facing its worst food shortages in 25 years. Like people anywhere in the world, many Cubans took to the streets to express their frustrations both with their economic plight and to protest their government, which has failed to address their grievances.
The idea that sanctions are a benign tool or an alternative to war denies the evidence that plainly shows their destructive impact on ordinary people suffering through economic devastation. Although U.S. government officials routinely talk about human rights and a “rules-based international order,” our sanctions policy and unilateral actions in the face of global condemnation undermine those very tenets. In fact, U.N. experts have argued that U.S. sanctions themselves violate “human rights and the norms of international behavior.” Not only do these policies contradict any claim to moral authority, but they also fail to achieve their stated policy objectives, create immeasurable misery for millions of innocent people, and cause instability in the targeted countries.
In a rare tweet on foreign policy, President Biden stated, “We stand with the Cuban people,” and cited their “economic suffering.” The irony was not lost on many commentators who observed that only weeks earlier the United States rejected — for the 29th consecutive year — a United Nation’s resolution to end the decades-long U.S. embargo on Cuba that has cost the small-island nation an estimated $144 billion and hampered its ability to combat the pandemic. As the international community overwhelmingly voted to end the embargo in a vote of 184 to 2, only Israel joined the U.S. in support of continuing the now 60-year embargo.
One has to question the judgement of maintaining the same policy position for six decades despite seeing no change. Since sanctions and warfare go hand in hand, the failure of these policies can lead to calls for military intervention, as we saw in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq after a decade of harsh sanctions failed to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Even now in the case of Cuba, there are some hawkish U.S. politicians suggesting airstrikes on the country.
Unfortunately, such lack of logical reasoning pervades our foreign policy. Like Cuba, Iran has been under U.S. sanctions for decades, which have left its government relatively unscathed as millions of ordinary people suffer through the consequences. Though critics of these states may argue that they use sanctions as an excuse to deflect from their own shortcomings, it does not in any way negate the human cost of U.S. sanctions, the fact that sanctions actually enable more corruption, or their failure to deliver on their stated goals. Instead, our sanctions policy continues to be at odds with the values of human rights and international cooperation that we supposedly endorse.
Although Iran came to the negotiating table with the United States in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal — a historic diplomatic breakthrough that promised Iran sanctions relief for allowing strict oversight of its civilian nuclear program — under the Trump administration the U.S. quickly reverted back to its more common pressure-only strategy. Again, this policy led to increased tensions and brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran. While President Biden was a staunch critic of Trump’s Iran policy and promised to restore the deal as a candidate, his administration has yet to take concrete steps to return to the deal or lift the sanctions that Biden himself acknowledged were impeding Iran’s ability to fight the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, instead of facilitating cooperation these policies have hardened Iranian attitudes and ushered in a less engagement-friendly administration in Tehran. Again, the international community supported and tried to save the nuclear deal, as the U.S. flexed its unmatched power to single handedly prevent Iran from seeing any sanctions relief and to smash its economy, forcing millions of Iranians into poverty. That the U.S. increased sanctions during a pandemic, and the Biden administration has not lifted those sanctions after six months in office, is another point of departure with the international community, which has emphasized the need to lift sanctions and pursue the cooperative measures required to combat this global issue.
The idea of an international community was created in the wake of World War II with the central aim of resolving conflicts and preventing the scourge of war. As such, ending forever wars is a global enterprise in which the U.S. plays a critical role. However, the obstinate refusal to modify our policies can be seen in our persistent use of military and economic power to force other countries to submit, rather than cooperate.
From the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the Cuban embargo and the reimposition of sanctions on Iran after President Trump quit the nuclear deal, the U.S. continues to use its might with little regard for human consequences, even in the face of global censure. But the United States must recognize that it is impossible to uphold the idea of a rules-based international order while unilaterally violating its mandates, and it is impossible to end forever wars as long as we do not recognize that economic strangulation is indeed warfare.
Dr. Assal Rad graduated with a PhD in Middle Eastern History from the University of California, Irvine in 2018. Her PhD research focused on Modern Iran, with an emphasis on national identity formation and identity in post-revolutionary Iran. Assal joined the National Iranian American Council as a Research Fellow in January 2019. She has written for publications including Newsweek, The Hill, and The National Interest, and appeared as a contributor on BBC World, Al Jazeera, and NPR.
A woman looks at the almost empty shelves while she looks for groceries and goods in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.