The Ideas Gap in U.S. Foreign Policy

America has two big options for dealing with thugs like Vladimir Putin — but one is unthinkable, and the other doesn't work. When it comes to global leadership, are we out of ideas?

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Russia

In recent weeks, residents of Crimea have lived through a sudden, jarring halt of everyday life. Since Russia annexed the region, many businesses and government offices have been shuttered. Heavily armed, masked men with no stated allegiance roam the streets, performing arrests and searches. The expansion of sanctions against Russia, however, is unlikely to change any of this; at best, it will signal to Vladimir Putin and his inner circle that any further incursions into Ukraine could be economically painful—a message that may or may not resonate with Putin, whose motives for action are not solely, or perhaps even primarily, economic.

Unsurprisingly, then, there’s a palpable feeling of resignation around these latest sanctions—American officials even conceded to the Times, on background, that (at least in the short term) they will probably fail, as earlier measures have, to “noticeably change Mr. Putin’s calculus.” That wouldn’t be too surprising: As The Washington Post noted yesterday, scholarly research shows only 13 cases since 1921 in which sanctions have fully achieved their goals. Their effectiveness might be slightly upgraded if we take into account an interesting research finding, noted recently by Zack Beauchamp over at Vox, that sanctions function best as threats: They encourage internal dissenters to engage in public protests by suggesting a measure of international support for their cause.

This is an intriguing discovery, but it’s by no means cause for optimism. If sanctions are a lousy policy option, making a practice of threatening them would hardly be an improvement. Imagine, for instance, what would happen if waves of Crimeans took to the streets, encouraged by the anticipation of truly crippling sanctions against Russia. Would the armed men who have appeared in their country suddenly start observing the laws of war? Would they hold their fire? And in the end, would the sanctions even come—or would the violent crackdown against protestors only worsen the conflict and risk further escalation? One could also imagine this finding leading to a troubling new tactic in international affairs. Would policy-makers try to encourage internal protests against authoritarian regimes by threatening sanctions and creating false hope among dissidents—knowing that, should the protests lead to brutal crackdowns, there is little likelihood of intervening on the dissidents’ behalf? Even if used sparingly, this cynical tactic would be self-defeating: Activists aren’t fools. They would soon learn that threats of sanctions were hollow and opportunistic, and their willingness to protest would perversely diminish.

There is a broader point here regarding America’s influence against repressive regimes. I have argued elsewhere that President Obama has been a prudent steward of American foreign policy, but I don’t think he—or anyone else—knows what policy option should fall between sanctions and intervention. The former seems toothless, and the latter, after Afghanistan and Iraq, is a political nonstarter even when it’s justified. (And it’s hard to argue that there’s any global conflict—including, tragically, in Syria—where U.S. intervention could currently be justified.) There was a time, not so long ago, when some scholars considered economic sanctions a viable alternative to military interventions, with the added benefit that sanctions don’t turn into decade-long quagmires. But the verdict is in on that argument, and it’s not good.

Where does that leave the United States’s leverage over leaders like Putin? Practical political ideas must fit the age, and for some time going forward, people are likely to greet military interventions (even minor or multilateral ones) with extreme skepticism. Unless American leaders are happy to fall back on the mostly feckless alternative that sanctions have turned out to be, this seems to leave a huge gap in our foreign policy toolkit. It’s time to seriously ask: Does anybody have a better idea?

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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