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Removed Diplomacy: Why U.S. Sanctions Against Russia Have Gone Stale

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Since 2014, Russian and American diplomacy has been defined by economic sanctions. This has become the default, expected option for U.S. policymakers—but Russia has refused to concede, repent and ask for forgiveness. The U.S. had hoped Russia would experience just enough economic hardship that they would revert their course, retract their reunification with Crimea, and end any involvement in Eastern Ukraine. Almost seven years later, there is no evidence to suggest that Russia has any intention of buckling under the pressure and denying its national interests.

What the United States has failed to realize is that sanctions work on highly dependent countries. Russia is an independent country and has become more economically autonomous as a result of U.S. sanctions. The Russian domestic industry has flourished since sanctions were first imposed. Sanctions imposed by the United States are predicated on some combination of the following: either the United States has enough of an economic relationship prior to sanctions, so the loss of the United States as a trade partner alone is hugely detrimental to the target economy, or the United States can influence other countries who share a more extensive economic relationship with the target country to carry out the same policies.

Venezuela is a country that has been grievously affected by U.S. sanctions, as one would predict, given the country’s dependence on the exportation of crude oil, particularly to the U.S. With oil comprising roughly 95 per cent of exports and their petroleum industry making up 25 per cent of overall GDP, Venezuela is considered very resource dependent when engaging in international trade. Venezuela has also been plagued by Dutch Disease, which has largely prevented its economy from diversifying for the past century. In 2013, the United States brought in 29.5 per cent of Venezuelan exports and delivered 23 per cent of the county’s imports. Strangely, despite the sanctions imposed in 2014, Venezuela has grown more dependent on the United States. By 2018, 39.2 per cent of Venezuelan exports and 52.9 per cent of Venezuelan imports were in trade with the U.S. With this increased dependence on the United States after the implementation of U.S. sanctions. It is no wonder that Venezuela has been increasingly devastated beyond comprehension since sanctions were first imposed in 2013. Venezuela’s trade balance through this period has consistently been in surplus. However, the volume of trade has shrunk USD 101.9 billion, from USD 143.76 billion in 2013 to USD 41.86 billion in 2018. The country has been rocked by astronomical inflation, reaching as high as 344 509 per cent. Is it the same case for Russia? No, which is due, in part, to Russia’s Soviet legacy. The vast territory and harsh climate have also helped the Russians develop a much more diverse and independent economy. Additionally, the United States is simply not one of Russia’s main trade partners.

As illustrated by data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity, Russia and Venezuela couldn’t be more unalike. Russia’s largest trade partners for the past 20 years have been Germany and China. In 2014, when the sanctions were first imposed, Russia’s economy and international trade figures were at an all-time high. In that year, Russia exported USD 454 billion and imported USD 296 billion, a trade surplus of USD 158 billion. This year, the United States only accounted for 5.58 per cent of Russia’s imports and 3.87 per cent of Russia’s exports. In 2018, with even stricter sanctions imposed, Russia exported USD 427 billion and imported USD 231 billion, increasing the trade surplus from USD 158 billion in 2013 to USD 196 billion in 2018. Russia’s trade balance from 2013 to 2018 still experienced a shrink of USD 92 billion. A key difference between Russia and Venezuela is that from 2014 to 2018, Russian trade decreased by just 12 per cent, compared to Venezuela’s loss of 71 per cent. What does Russia have working to its advantage that Venezuela is lacking? Remember, for sanctions to work, they require high economic dependence from either the country issuing the sanctions.

Russia and Germany have an interesting codependency on one another. The Nord Stream project has been a source of tension between the U.S. and Germany; a recent Bloomberg article points out that there is an anticipated clash between newly elected president Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The German chancellor openly supports the completion of the second pipeline because the project is a means for securing German influence over Western Europe, as they will maintain their status as energy distributors once the pipe project is complete. Merkel also understands that the German economy depends on Russian energy. Nord Stream has become the only option since the Ukrainian pipelines have gone cold. Merkel has received criticism from those close to her, including from Norbert Röttgen, the head of the foreign affairs committee in German parliament. In September of 2020, he is quoted saying, “We need to respond with the only language that Putin understands, the language of natural gas,” Meaning the one thing that Germany has at its disposal is the ability to back out of the Nord Stream deal to pressure the Kremlin into correcting their behaviour to satisfy western leaders. The only problem is that Germany is dependent on Russian natural gas. Germany has been falling behind other European countries in environmental efforts and has grown more dependent on coal power to supplement energy demand when renewable sources fail to meet the needs of the German people.

It’s important to consider is the continuation of oil trade between the Netherlands and Russia. If the West is so concerned about preserving its ideals, why hasn’t this trade been pressured? Likely because Nord Stream 2 is a relatively recent development, but the arrangement between the Dutch and Russia has been around for some time. What is odd, however, are the numbers. Between the Netherlands and Russia, there is hardly a difference in the dollar value of Russian exports in various petroleum products. It has maintained an average of about USD 33 billion for the past decade. This spans time both before and after sanctions. How does the West expect itself to be taken seriously if it is hyper selective about the battles it chooses to fight even when concerning sanctions. What is more comical about this particular deal is that the Netherlands supplies much of Western Europe’s oil. Henceforth, further defending the point of Western Europe’s dependence on Russian energy.

In conclusion, Russia has proven to be very resilient over the past six years. It shouldn’t be implied that the sanctions have not affected the Russian economy. However, Russians have faced pervasive negative externalities, such as inflation and decreased average national income, despite the sanctions having been designed only to affect a select group of individuals. Even so, the Russian economy is growing and proving to be insulated and resilient against increased trade barriers. At first, the sanctions appeared to have a tremendous effect on the Russian economy, shrinking it by 44 per cent from USD 2.292 trillion in 2013 to USD 1.272 trillion in 2016. Since 2016, however, the GDP has steadily stabilized and gained back 42 per cent of losses from 2013 figures at USD 1.7 trillion as of 2019. It can be surmised that if the U.S. continues to impose sanctions on Russia for years to come, the Russian economy will continue to grow, develop, and become more independent.

From our partner RIAC

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Americas

The hegemony of knowledge and the new world order: U.S. and the rest of the world

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In today’s world, knowledge and technological advantages determine – to a large extent – differences in the management of international policy. The increase in a country’s intellectual power directly defines an increase in its economic power, thus changing its position in the international competition for dominance.

The power policy, first in the agricultural age and later in the industrial age, was characterised by military and then economic hegemony, while the power policy in the information age gradually reveals the characteristics of knowledge hegemony at both the scientific and intelligence levels.

The hegemony of knowledge in contemporary international relations manifests itself specifically as unequal exchange in international trade, exploitation of high-value information and various conditions related to technological production. Hence, we see the transfer of polluting industries from privileged to poor countries: energy-consuming and high-intensity activities.

Western culture and values are disseminated vigorously, through the so-called soft power in information and mass media, and take on obsessive and oppressively hypnopedic forms.

Developed countries have patents in the use of outer space, as well as in the development of deep sea resources and in the production of environmental resources that pollute, while developing countries can only sigh as they look at other’s oceans and satellites, which fly around, do reconnaissance activities and monitor them.

The resources of the great and deep seas – which should be shared by mankind as they belong to everybody like the air, the moon and the sun – are instead exploited by the developed countries. On the contrary, they freely and ‘democratically’ share with the wretched ones only the evil consequences of environmental pollution.

With specific reference to sanctions and armed interference in international relations, the technique of violent and conscious bullying is adopted: whoever is militarily stronger imposes the validity of their interests, also at legal level.

The root cause for generating knowledge hegemony lies in the polarisation of the intellectual status of the nation-State. Western developed countries have already crossed the threshold of an information society, while developing countries are still struggling to climb towards industrial civilisation from the most primitive and closed state of existence. Although developing countries hold most of the world’s natural and human resources (just think of Africa), they are far behind in science and technology. Just look at the continental histogram of the 207 Nobel Prizes in Physics from 1901 to 2017 (winners are counted by country of birth except for the Algerian Nobel Prize winner Claude Cohen-Tannoudji [1997], who was born when Algeria was a French territory):

Source: Nadua Antonelli <<Africana>> XXIII (2017) page 12

If they have no means to study, even the greatest and most brilliant brains cannot make discoveries or file patents, looking only at the sky and the earth.

About 80 per cent of science and technology staff and their achievements are concentrated in developed countries. The knowledge advantage gives developed countries the right to set the rules of the game and of communication for all global knowledge production and dissemination. In particular, the developed countries’ knowledge advantages in the military and high-tech media enable them to expand their influence on the civil and military fronts and achieve their strategic objectives.

Developing countries wander between traditional society, modern industrial civilisation and post-industrial civilisation, and are often challenged and oppressed by the third party’s hegemony of knowledge.

The new economy created by the information revolution is still a ‘rich-country phenomenon’, the core of what is called ‘advantage creation’, under the cover of ‘competitive advantage’, or rather: competitive towards those who cannot compete.

The country leading the information revolution is the United States, which is the biggest beneficiary of these achievements. The digital divide highlights the status of the US information superpower. In the global information sector, in 2000 the central processing unit production in the United States accounted for 92%, and software production for 86%.

IT (Information & Technology) investment in the United States was 41.5% of global investment, Microsoft’s Windows system accounted for 95% of global platform applications, while the US Internet users accounted for more than half of global Internet users, and 58% of all e-mail goes through US servers.

E-commerce is worth 75% of the global total and US commercial websites account for 90% of the planet.

Currently, there are almost three thousand large-scale databases in the world, 70% of which are in the United States. There are 13 top-level domain name servers in the world and 10 of them are located in the United States.

The above figures far exceed the share of US GDP, which is 28% of the world total. The United States is far ahead of all countries in the world, including the other developed countries. The leading position in information technology allows the United States to control the basics in the field of information with its strong economic and talent advantages, as well as to master the actual rights, and to set standards and formulate rules and regulations.

The status as cradle of the information revolution has brought enormous wealth and development benefits to the United States. Since the 1990s, the development of information technology and the rise of the related industry have become an accelerator of further economic advancement in the United States.

In the growth of US GDP – from 1994 (the beginning of the Internet) to 2000 – the share of the information industry in the value of the country’s total output has caused the economy to rise from 6.3% to 8.3%, and the contribution provided by the information industry development to the actual US economic growth is estimated at 30%.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States – with its strong national-global power and the relative hegemony of knowledge/information – was already ready to build a new world order.

Knowledge is also the soul of military hegemony. Since the 1990s the United States (after the USSR’s demise) has taken advantage of its absolute leadership in information technology to vigorously promote a new military revolution and equip its armed forces with a large number of modern sophisticated weapons, especially cyber weapons: an overwhelming advantage in the conventional field, clearly overtaking the Third World, as well as its Western allies.

The US superiority in equipment ranges from one to two generations (i.e. from 15 to 30 years) over developing countries and from 0.5 to one generation over allies. All this has established the hegemonic status of the United States as the world’s number one military power.

Gulf Wars II (1991) and III (2003) (the first was the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88), the Kosovo War (1999), the Afghanistan War (2001- still ongoing), and the Iraq War (2003-2011) were four localised wars that the United States fought to establish a new world order after the Cold War. During those events, the US hegemony was strengthened on an unprecedented scale and its attempt to establish a new order made substantial progress.

Moreover, backed by strong military advantages (scattering the planet with its own bases and outposts), as well as economic and technological advantages, those events ensured that the United States had and still has a leading position in the world, thus making the White House a planner and defender of the new world order. (1. continued)

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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