Chatham House: How Effective Are The United States’ Sanctions? 19.06.2023

Chatham House is the Royal Institute of International Affairs. It is based in St. James’ Square, Mayfair, London, a short walk from Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. I have been a member of Chatham House for several months but with me being based in Wales all of my interactions thus far have been on Zoom. I had to spend a few days in London for Infosecurity Europe conference for my #cybersecurity business, Four Four Cyber,. I used this opportunity to drop in to Chatham House and to check it out properly. Over four days I attended 5 proper events at Chatham House. I took notes and decided that I would write up these notes for each event and do some web posts on – Four of the events were ‘on the record’ but one event: the talk by British Army Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders, on Army Culture was under the Chatham House Rule so I cannot publish what was discussed at that meeting, unfortunately.

The first event I attended at Chatham House was a pretty intimate round table discussion on US Sanctions. Firstly ,I must say, that I was nervous about going to Chatham House. I’m only a little village hick from a little Welsh border village and at Chatham House I was rubbing shoulders with NATO members, Financial Times & The Economist journalists, powerful international politicians and business leaders etc etc. On reflection from the very outset, Chatham House was probably the most welcoming, inclusive place that I have ever been in my life. If you are a member and haven’t yet been then get there – you’ll love it! If you are not member then sign up and get involved. It’s about the same price as subscribing to a magazine. It’s like being in a serious news broadcast but being able to interact directly with what’s happening and affect global policy and change. It is democracy in action. Here are my reflections on my first Chatham House meeting proper: How effective are the United States’ sanctions?

There was about fifteen to twenty participants in this meeting. The Event was organised by Anar Bata, manager of the US and Americas Programme at Chatham House. The meeting was chaired by Dr Leslie Vinjamuri who is the Director of the US and Americas Programme and Dean of Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs. The guest speaker was Professor Daniel W Drezner who is a world-renowned American economist.

There were three key questions on the agenda:

  • How effective is the US’s use of sanctions as a diplomatic tool?
  • What is the current situation regarding the economic sanctions imposed on Russia?
  • What are the implications of sanctions for the rest of the world?

At the start of the meeting, Drezner introduced himself with a witty retort about his wife teasing him about delivering a meeting at the Chatham House of movie fame, as his wife had seen it in a recent film. He was down to earth and it was clear that he is a world renowned economist and political scientist. Since 2014 he has been a regular contributor to the Washington Post and he moves freely in the highest of US political circles, advising cabinet members and is well-respected in international relations.

Daniel W Drezner’s website can be accessed here:

He took us back to 1997 when the US was imposing a series of ‘test’ sanctions on Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. He says that sanctions are the Don Corleone of political tools. The ‘Godfather‘ if you like. They have mafia like effects with corruption running endemic during sanctions and often the people that sanctions are targeting end up lining their own pockets very comfortably on the black market and the unintended victims of sanctions are the innocent members of the general public. Another, perhaps more topical analogy is that sanctions have an ‘oxycontin’ effect, as once implemented they are difficult to quit – addictive.

Drezner also warned of the overuse of sanctions. At the height of the Cold War there were perhaps 10-12 episodes of sanctions per annum. At present we are seeing 60-70 episodes of sanctions being enacted across the globe. One of the most high profile sanctions cases has been that of the USA-imposed sanctions on Cuba. The success rate of sanctions is low – averaging 25%-45% success rate of the aims of sanctions. The aim, in their use, is that they are ‘precision-guided munitions’. That they will hurt the elite and spare the rest of the population of a nation.

When sanctions are imposed we see a lot of political variables: corruption, inequality, the gender effect. Sanctions are deleterious to women. They have a disproportionate impact when it comes to gender. It is women who are the consumers of the bare necessities and who feel the cost of sanctions in their purses.

During a conflict we have certain ‘laws of war’ Often the post-bellum situation is not properly planned and post-war policies are poorly developed by both victors and the defeated parties in a conflict. It can be argued that sanctions are in fact worse than war itself. War will affect a certain sector of society whereas sanctions spare nobody. In most cases sanctions engender corruption.
One of the primary uses of sanctions is as a political deterrent. Sanctions successfully assist the adherence of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Countries which are the prime candidates of developing nuclear weapons are often subjected to sanctions: Iran and the DPRK (North Korea) regularly have sanctions imposed upon them by the international community.

Western sanctions can, for example, be quite different to sanctions imposed by China. For example, the Chinese impose sanctions on the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. Human Rights considerations in the use of sanctions vary. There are national styles of economic statecraft. Chinese sanctions and Chinese economics are not the same as in the West. The West tends to threaten sanctions in order to change a policy. The Chinese are more passive-aggressive. They will impose sanctions and then immediately deny that they are enforcing sanctions. Until recently the Chinese have lacked the legal tools to impose sanctions like in the West so this might explain this style of economic statecraft. After recent legislation was drawn up in Beijing, China now has a number of laws that allow it to engage in the use of outright economic sanctions as part of its foreign policy.

There has been a shift in the narrative regarding sanctions. Russia looked at the West’s sanctions on Saddam Hussein and felt they were unjust. Often leaders are inept and sanctions are used to put pressure on them. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the preceding hostilities with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, have attracted increasing sanctions. Not all parties are in favour of sanctions and Russia can count on several major nations blaming both sides of the sanctions policies equally and remaining neutral. Often Russia has been able to divert critical international trade to BRICS nation allies like India and South Africa. This growing non-aligned bloc reduces the effect of international sanctions.

US sanctions of the global south often involve political pressure to improve Human Rights. Often these sanctions are short-lived. If the global economy doesn’t act with one voice, sanctions can be ignored and are ineffective.

Great powers are fighting eahc other in a sort of proxy ‘Cold War’. USA, China, Russia are sanctioning each other and counter-sanctioning in response. This leads to the large increase in the quantity of modern day sanctions.

Beijing is more stabilised these days and has a growing role as the world’s largest economy and has to be taken for its own merit in the political arena. It is no longer a rising power but is at the peak of its influence and global rise. It has to be taken for its own value system and we have to accept that Chinese policy is different to Western ideologies and even if the value system is different China has its say and role in the international order. Alternatives to the Westphalian system now exist and the world is not subservient to US hegemony.

A common misconception is that all interdependence cam be weaponised. This is not true. A lot of governments still believe this though and act accordingly. For example energy is used as a weapon – eg. Russian gas supplies to Europe.

What is the direct effect of sanctions? Have the sanctions against Russia proved successful? It can be evaluated that sanctions are indeed making life difficult for Russia. In a large country like Russia where the economy is dependent on large supplies of food and raw materials, these need a market and sanctions can disrupt that supply chain. These resources are exploited and corruption can become endemic, more so than it usually is. Russia is turning to traditional former Soviet satellite states such as Kazakhstan and Georgia to shift its resources and evade the crippling effect of sanctions.

We no longer live in a unipolar world. It is reverting back to a bipolar world. The sanctions may have negative effects on The US and The West. For example we are seeing shifts away from the SWIFT system. The Russians have been thrown out of SWIFT and this has led to a transfer and the rise of global alternatives. The rise of the Renminbi is aided by closer ties between Russia and China. Are we eroding our own future by using sanctions against great powers? What effect will the withdrawal of McDonalds and Starbucks have on nations? Already there is a new Chinese Bubble Tea enterprise franchise surging up the rankings of global fast food outfits. Once McDonalds capitalism is gone, can it ever return?

An case where the long term use of sanctions has been critically examined in detail is Iraq where sanctions have been utilised over a long period of time, allowing a wide range of data that is available for academic scrutiny.

One of the clearest effects of sanctions is the transfer and empowerment of the black market. Organised crime often dovetails directly with the targeted political leadership. Vladimir Putin’s closest allies from his days in St Petersburg as deputy mayor are hardened serious Organised Crime Russian Mafiosi. Serbia is a other case in point where sanctions, during the armed conflict of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, led to widespread blackmarket trading in everything from petrol to cigarettes. These blackmarkets keep the trade in goods and critical supplies flowing and often the blackmarkets become a critical part of the economic infrastructure and continue to exist even after sanctions are withdrawn. the empowerment of gangsters has it own effects and aren’t often included when sanctions are at the planning stage. There is no easy off switch and planning is now being done and is very difficult for the post war Russia and Ukraine situation.

Unfortunately I had to cut my participation in this meeting short so I missed the tail end of the discussion and hence any conclusions. I had to dash off to Parliament for an appointment with Jessica Morden MP. Luckily, to save me a load of hassle and time taking all my luggage through security at the Palace of Westminster, I had spoken to Anar Bata and she had agreed to look after my bags in her office at Chatham House.

I had a quick session in Parliament and then ran back up to Chatham House. It was a boiling hot summer’s day and I thought, “‘oh, it would lovely to kick back and relax a bit – seats are comfy in here’. Anar gave me my bags back and pointed me in the direction of the Chatham House library on the first floor.

I do a lot of reading already and have a pretty huge book review website that I’m quite proud of:

On the whole I mainly read international geopolitics non-fiction, spread out generally across the world but also deeply specialising in certain topics. The librarian was so welcoming and one of the most friendliest, chatty and polite and knowledgeable people I have ever met. He showed me how the library computer system worked. I’m allowed up to 20 books out at a time. I can renew easily online and if I’m stuck back in Wales and need to return some titles I can always courier them back up to Chatham House. I was busy scanning the shelves. There are books here that I’ve never seen on Amazon even. Just pure out and out specialist titles by senior global geopolitical experts. If you are into books this is a crack den library. I immediately tried explaining how I can’t possibly carry too many hardbacks as I’m already overloaded on luggage and have to get back to Wales. I limited myself to five but the librarian wasn’t happy with that and just kept dragging out titles randomly, feeding my curiosity, until I settled on borrowing 8 items. I sat, chilled, had a can of Tesco pop to build up the energy I’d need to lug off all my bags back down the Old Kent Road to my mate’s flat in Peckham where my base for the week is. London is all just a big game of monopoly. Yes, Mayfair is great and Chatham house is a jewel in the crown of the dark blue posh bit.

I’m back at Chatham House tomorrow and the next day and the day after so keep your eyes peeled as there will be a few more Chatham House posts coming soon.