A growing number of nations are engaged in behavior that the United States does not approve of—from selling advanced technologies to “rogue states” to actively supporting groups battling America and its allies. As the presidential candidates attempt to define their grand strategy, they must contemplate what tools the United States has for modifying the behavior of its adversaries.
After eight years of the Bush administration’s folly and miscalculation, it appears that America’s kit of coercive tools is limited and diminishing. In the aftermath of the Iraq war disaster, the notion that the US military might be deployed to pressure or even overthrow a recalcitrant regime is fanciful. A beleaguered country struggling to escape its Iraqi quagmire is neither feared nor respected by any potential antagonist.
In the absence of a credible military card, America could rely on diplomacy and negotiations as a means of restraining its foes. However, US politicians remain uneasy at any whiff of quid pro quo arrangements where, in order to obtain concessions in one area, the United States might have to compromise on its overall agenda.
So the preferred “middle ground” between confrontation and engagement remains “containment”—the elusive notion that, without resorting to open warfare, it is possible to exert sufficient pressure on another state to force it to accede to one’s wishes. The measures at America’s disposal might include cutting a targeted country’s access to global markets and sources of investment; forestalling its integration into the international economy; perhaps even building up other, neighboring states into some sort of regional bloc with deployment of military units along its periphery.
“Containment” appeals to a broad political spectrum in the United States. It allows an administration to claim that something is “being done” and to avoid the messiness of quid-pro-quo diplomacy, which might open a politician up to charges of “being soft” or “appeasing” enemies of the United States. At the same time, it avoids incurring the costs of direct confrontation—especially in terms of American blood and treasure.
But Washington’s ability to wield the measures of containment has weakened in the last decade. Consider the marked difference in the US approach to Russia. Ten years ago, Moscow’s dependence on International Monetary Fund loans gave the United States significant leverage over Russia’s behavior. Today, with oil prices over $100 a barrel and with the world’s third-largest dollar reserves, Russia is much freer to ignore US preferences.
Perhaps no country has been the target of American containment and sanctions policy more then Iran. From unilateral sanctions and the complete termination of US trade to restricting Iran’s access to global markets and international lending organizations, to trying to assemble (and arm) a coalition of states to oppose Tehran, an entire range of coercive tools have been employed. Yet, on issues that theUnited States cares about—stopping Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability, and ending Tehran’s support for terrorism and opposition to Israel—there has not been any degree of Iranian wavering. Nor has the regime collapsed under US pressure.
The impact of sanctions is even more diminished by the rise of industrial giants such as China. Where China goes, others have followed, among them European, Japanese, and Indian firms. Companies not interested in doing business with the United States shrug off unilateral American sanctions, as do governments uneasy about the Bush administration’s bullying.
But nothing succeeds in Washington like failure. Despite the abysmal record of sanctions, they enjoy widespread support across the political spectrum. The appeal of sanctions stems not so much from their utility but an absence of consensus on either use of force or robust diplomacy to deal with challenges like Iran.
The next president will have to confront these realities. With only a few exceptions—countries almost completely dependent on the United States for trade—economic sanctions against a country will work only if all major economic players, but especially China, support them. If Washington is unwilling or unable to bring Beijing on board, US-driven measures may hurt a country but be insufficient to change its behavior.
Americans can easily find much in the actions of other countries to be angry and dissatisfied about—but the basis of policy has to be priorities, not preferences.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.