The Tragicomedy of Sanctions or the Theater of the Absurd

Draconian sanctions by the US famously punish the innocent, not weaken targeted governments. Contrastingly, sanctions seeking to contain China’s technological capability appear to have stimulated Chinese industrial development. Everyone inside the Beltway is left wondering why.

This colorful illustration depicts economic sanctions – political and economic decisions to protect international law, and defend against threats to international peace and security © graphicwithart / shutterstock.com

September 05, 2023 22:10 EDT

The Washington Post has published an article designed to strike fear into the hearts of Washington’s foreign policy wonks. Sporting the headline, “New phone sparks worry China has found a way around U.S. tech limits,” the article tells a story far more serious than an eventual military showdown over Taiwan. This story is about real, everyday warfare, economic warfare. That is where world domination is in play, not the Kabuki theater-style conflicts that regularly take place in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq or Ukraine.

The article informs us that Huawei’s new generation of smartphones delivers a resounding, though not yet necessarily fatal, blow to what has become the US hegemon’s most sacred mission: containing China. First launched by Trump loyalist and adviser Steve Bannon along with a group of conservative friends in 2019, the policy has been faithfully adopted and refined by the Biden administration.

The idea of containment as the basis of foreign policy emerged during the Cold War. The nation to be contained then was the Soviet Union, which collapsed and disappeared three decades ago. The expansion of NATO over that timespan, despite promises to the contrary, would appear to demonstrate that the obsession with containing anything associated with Russia endures, consciously or unconsciously. The practical result of that “idea we just can’t get out of our heads” is the current conflict in Ukraine.

But when Foggy Bottom strategists consciously evoke containment today, they are speaking about China, not Russia. There are two justifications for this choice. China has conveniently remained an officially communist regime. More significantly, China, despite current woes, is quickly becoming the world’s most powerful economy, challenging the hegemony of the US for the top spot. That alone justifies a policy of containment.

The Post article explains the gist of the matter. “U.S. sanctions were intended to slow China’s progress in emerging fields like artificial intelligence and big data by cutting off its ability to buy or build advanced semiconductors, which are the brains of these systems. The unveiling of a domestically produced seven-nanometer chip suggests that has not happened.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary future definition:

US sanctions:

A powerful non-explosive weapon developed by the American military-industrial-political complex in the late 20th century and deployed excessively in the 21st, leading eventually to the disenchantment of the majority of humanity and the dissolution of the post-World War II normative order often referred to as the “rules-based order.”

Contextual note

Perhaps the most telling comment in the article was this one: “Biden administration officials declined to comment.” Sanctions have become the go-to instrument in keeping the “rules-based order” intact and asserting Washington’s authority to judge and punish the infringement of any of the rules. It is unthinkable that anyone inside the Beltway might acknowledge not only that sanctions haven’t worked but may have backfired.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio recently elucidated his fear that the dreaded weapon of sanctions, essential to the existing world order, may be wrenched from American hands by the eventual success of the intention stated by BRICS countries to dedollarize the global economy.

Back in 2021, the United Nations reported this fairly obvious advice in the headline of an article, “Punishment of ‘innocent civilians’ through government sanctions must end.” The article focused on economic cost. “Activities essential to every country’s development suffer when unilateral sanctions are imposed.” Economic warfare, though not conducted with destructive weapons, is still warfare and tends to be destructive of people’s livelihoods, if not directly their lives.

In this case, sanctions have produced the opposite of their intended effect. They have accelerated China’s development of cutting-edge technology. This means that China has not only achieved what it may not have achieved without the sanctions, it has also potentially inverted the existing customer-supplier relationship, to the detriment of American industry. China has long been a rich market for US technology. If it produces its own, it disappears as a market. It’s no wonder the Biden administration has been reduced to silence.

Historical note

The Washington Post interviewed one US expert who articulated the long-standing paradox at the core of US ideology. Americans have been taught to view the virtue of free trade as supreme, the foundation of capitalism and the key to their prosperity. At the same time, the US, as the “indispensable nation” feels it must control or at least police the markets, meaning they will be less free. This raises a fundamental question no one wants to address: are freedom and control compatible? This existential question has dogged the history of capitalism since the Gilded Age, when the success born of entrepreneurial freedom produced situations in which private companies found themselves in the position to control an entire marketplace.

The historical response came in the form of the anti-trust legislation best associated with President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt. Freedom-loving Americans learned to accept the idea that the government must play a role in maintaining the freedom of marketplaces. That seemed to solve the problem at the national level. But, in the course of the 20th century, the question of monopoly and the behavior of cartels became displaced to the international level. Anointing itself the defender of free market ideology for the entire globe in the face of Soviet communism during the Cold War, the US discovered, at the international level, the inebriating secrets of global monopoly.

Following World War II, US foreign policy became dominated not by the management of international relations between sovereign states, but by the defense of “the national interest.” This was defined not as the defense of the nation’s integrity within its borders, but rather in economic terms and extended to a global scale. The US assumed its role of “leadership of the free world” and concretized it through the reign of the dollar.

Quoting Willy Shih, an economist at Harvard Business School, the Post article describes US Cold War policy and its unintended effects. “Washington faced a similar quandary of how to hobble the Soviet Union’s technological development during the Cold War. The U.S. Defense Department developed the technology and restricted its export, wary of it in the hands of rivals. But the export restrictions pushed Moscow and other governments to develop their own versions.” Shih felt it appropriate to add, “you have to wonder if the same thing is happening now with Huawei.”

If any of the aliens David Grusch and others claim have visited the earth were to examine this situation, wondering how human beings reason today about the paradox between freedom and control, they would most likely be puzzled by the choices the US government has repeatedly made. The reigning orthodoxy seems to suppose that order exists only if the US government is free to exercise control.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those aliens might have expected to see humans, suddenly aware of the danger of nuclear warfare, engage in a concerted effort to eliminate the obvious risk of the destruction of humanity itself. Similarly, if they are still watching, they might expect today’s nations to be working together to solve, rather than simply debate existential questions raised by climate change or the perceived threat of AI.

Instead, those aliens, had they continued their observations starting with the Cold War, would have observed a never-ending competitive arms race to see which nations could show themselves capable of wielding the most coercive power. Competition, not cooperation, has become the dominant gene in the DNA of modern nation-states. Powerful states proudly allow that gene to express itself without restraint. But what history teaches us today is not only that competition may be bad for one’s health, but that it also serves to incite the adversary to become stronger and presumably more threatening.

One of the experts cited in the Post article predicted the likely reaction to this news about another nation’s successful R&D. “This development will almost certainly prompt much stronger calls for further tightening of export control licensing for U.S. suppliers of Huawei.” But that is bad news for America’s “national interest,” because China has been a fabulous market for US high tech industries. The same expert noted that “U.S. semiconductor companies would prefer to be able to continue to ship commodity semiconductors to Huawei and other Chinese end users, to maintain market share and stave off the designing [without] U.S. technology from Chinese supply chains more broadly.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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