The Senate floor today featured a rare event — a legislative showdown over a crucial current foreign policy issue. Last month, Senate Democrats granted Senator Ted Cruz’s desire for a floor vote on his bill re-imposing sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project in exchange for lifting his hold on President Biden’s ambassador nominations. He just couldn’t bring it home: today Democrats narrowly beat back Cruz’s bill by a 55-43 vote, which failed to gain the necessary 60-vote majority for passage.
But the episode contains important and disturbing lessons about the narrow domestic political boundaries constraining U.S. diplomatic flexibility abroad as we adjust to an increasingly multipolar world.
With its recent shipments of additional arms to Ukraine and its refusal to accommodate stated Russian security concerns during negotiations this week, the Biden Administration can hardly be called soft on Russia (which of course doesn’t stop domestic opponents from trying). The decision to suspend Nord Stream 2 sanctions was not motivated by a desire to accommodate Putin, but by concerns about pushing unilateral economic sanctions against our allies too far.
Germany’s decision to proceed with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a decision by the German government and German corporations to purchase badly needed energy resources for German citizens from a neighboring state. Imposing unilateral sanctions on all of the companies involved with the construction and functioning of the pipeline would have swept some German companies into the U.S. sanctions regime. More importantly, it would have been a blatant attempt to use raw U.S. economic muscle to reverse the domestic decision of an important ally.
While European states are and have been highly deferential to U.S. security priorities, such sanctions would have raised questions about U.S. respect for the sovereignty of our allies at a time when Germany is a crucial actor in the attempt to maintain a united European front against Russia. The July 21 joint statement by the U.S. and Germany regarding European security and climate concerns showed that Washington won commitments by Germany to oppose Russia and support Ukraine even as Nord Stream 2 moved forward without sanctions.
Russia’s actions in moving troops to the Ukrainian border raised even more questions about an immediate imposition of Nord Stream 2 sanctions. Imposing these sanctions immediately, disconnected from Russian actions against Ukraine, would have eliminated their potential deterrent value in preventing a Russian invasion. Reserving the card of cutting off Nord Stream for use in case of Russian aggression against Ukraine maximizes U.S. and European economic leverage.
In the end, these arguments (barely) won the day in the Senate. But the fact that it was such a close call, and that Congress so aggressively questioned the reasonable decision to suspend the sanctions, shows the extreme current politicization of U.S. diplomacy today. It’s remarkable that a prominent Republican senator, at a time when the GOP is claiming that Biden’s domestic policies are having all kinds of disastrous effects, used all of his political capital for almost a year to force a vote attempting to reverse a domestic decision made by a close U.S. ally located four thousand miles away from his constituents.
It’s equally remarkable that he would have carried a majority of his fellow senators. The Biden Administration’s choice to suspend the sanctions reflects exactly the kind of diplomatic maneuvering that will be increasingly necessary to maximize U.S. influence in a world where we are no longer the unquestioned hegemon and do not have the power to simply punish all those who disagree with us.