The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Looking at “Sanctions”

Sanctions, Iran sanctions, North Korea sanctions, Iraq sanctions, Iraq War, Russia sanctions, USA news, US news, USA today, American news

© Yury Zap

December 05, 2017 06:01 EDT

Achieving economic sanctity through economic sanctions.

According to The Guardian, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, insisted that China should impose “more stringent economic sanctions against North Korea” because it has “tremendous coercive economic power” over the regime.

Here is today’s 3D definition:


1. In modern diplomacy, a form of excommunication, inspired by the traditional practice of the Catholic Church, but applied with the intention not only to exclude but especially to cause physical suffering for entire populations

2. The policy a modern government puts in place whenever it simply cannot sanction another nation’s behavior

Contextual note

US administrations, past and present, are dedicated to the spreading of peace and democracy in the world and, for that reason, are averse to conducting wars. Instead, they prefer to apply economic sanctions to many nations to avoid the cost, inefficiency and trouble of warfare. They resort to war only when there is a threat to “national interests,” which is generally understood to be the economic activities of American business people working overseas.

War can thus be justified only as a response to acts of pure evil, such as threats by local governments to take control of their own resources rather than confiding them to peace-loving multinational corporations. During the Cold War, this sin against peace was easily identified by the label “communism” or “socialism,” making any number of governments tempted or influenced by such ideas targets for military intervention. Vietnam was the most spectacular example, but there were many others.

Because of its commitment to peace, especially since the end of the Cold War, when the threat of communism seemed to vanish for good, the US has repeatedly showed its preference for sanctions over war. Cuba, Russia and Iran are clear examples of nations where the humane policy of sanctions has been applied, just as was the case in Iraq during the 1990s (until it was imagined that there were weapons of mass destruction and war would be necessary).

Ever since, restraint has been the key. Today, the US applies sanctions in many different places, but it is actively involved in warfare in no more than five or seven countries (or 134 depending on how you count).

Sanctions are particularly useful because they can affect not only nations, but organizations, firms and individuals. For a complete list consult this document. And they have the advantage of appearing anodyne, even charitable, because they afford suffering populations the time and provide the motivation to organize a revolt against their own government, which of course never happens. Which means that preventive war — never actively sought, but finally assumed as a moral responsibility — will ultimately be justified for the sake of the helpless, defenseless, suffering people.

Historical note

In the late Middle Ages, the term sanction emerged within the Catholic Church’s legal system to denote “an ecclesiastical decree.” The church invoked the authority of a deity to apply force in sanctioning certain acts. Today’s sanctions are applied not only against acts, but against entire populations, which many consider a form of progress and an advance in efficiency. Rather than the nebulous authority of a God no one (not even the pope) could consult directly, today’s sanctions invoke the very concrete power of international trade, ultimately meaning the source of all money — a God more powerful because more concrete than a mere creator of the universe, too busy engineering the subtleties of quantum mechanics and deploying dark matter to take a direct interest in the policies of human governments.

Fire-bombing Dresden and Tokyo, dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts too brutal, messy and quite possibly immoral to constitute an effective model for controlling other countries and the world economy. But they did show that terrorizing and brutalizing populations could be an effective way of guaranteeing future economic peace for the businesses that were making the world a better place for consumers.

The strategy of state terrorism was born, eventually making conventional wars a thing of the past. And the key that emerged in the second half of the 20th century was none other than sanctions. It worked in Iraq during the 1990s. It’s been working with Cuba for over 50 years. It’s produced results with Russia, where it has even achieved the exceptional result of inciting Vladimir Putin to try to manipulate American elections, a casus belli at least for the Democratic Party in the US.

And it’s working with Iran by pushing it further into potential conflict with Saudi Arabia and Israel, justifying an unexpected alliance that could be just what it takes to win the war that breaks out once Mohammed bin Salman gets his act together.

Finally, if sanctions are the modern equivalent of excommunication, we should also acknowledge the degree to which medieval siege tactics have inspired today’s sanctions policy. It was the ideal solution to conquering effectively walled cities. Where kings and barons could only conquer one city at a time through the prolonged suffering of its population, we can now achieve the same thing at the level of entire nations.

Civilization has come a long way since the theocratic Middle Ages.

*[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.]

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

Photo Credit: Yury Zap /

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