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What the Tillerson Hearing Got Wrong About Economic Sanctions

The viability of sanctions as a major part of U.S. foreign policy played a prominent role in the back and forth between members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s during today’s confirmation hearing.

As the former CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, Tillerson’s recalcitrance to testify to the positives of sanctions was perhaps understandable. In an exchange with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), he stated that these often impacted the bottom line of American businesses and characterized this as the primary intent of sanctions, stating “That’s the idea, to disrupt America’s business engagement in whatever country is being targeted for sanctions.”

While this perspective and its emphasis on protecting private enterprise from government action is understandable given Tillerson’s background, it is alarming that the man likely to soon be America’s chief diploma so improperly cast the purpose of one of the most potent diplomatic tools the nation possesses.

This, however, was not the only exchange in which governing officials’ views on sanctions was revealing. Later during the testimony, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) further fleshed out the issue, coming somewhat to the rescue of Tillerson by expressing his own misgivings about sanctions, particularly where Russia—which was very much the focus of much of the hearing—was concerned. Johnson expressed concern that U.S. sanctions against Russia might fail because they “work to solidify the Russian regime” and reinforce strong arm leaders like Putin by unifying support around him as a foil to Western aggression, a categorization that Tillerson agreed with.

This line of reasoning has logic to it, but it also insinuates that the United States should subjugate its principled opposition to human rights violators and aggressive regimes. The U.S. should tread on eggshells so as not to offend strong-arm leaders and drive them into actions that are more objectionable to a Western liberal agenda and more morally questionable. Under this line of thinking, hostility, aggression and abuses of the law are not the responsibility of the nations who behave this way, but of the U.S. because it was not overly circumspect in avoiding sensitive diplomatic issues.

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This is utterly backwards. To say sanctions are suspect because of what they may drive an unfriendly nation to do is like blaming a parent for their child’s tantrum by not acceding to their demands.

America’s strength in the world rests on its principled use of force, its decision to utilize its powers to remain faithful to those values which govern it domestically through its international actions. There are two kinds of power which governments can wield: soft power and hard power. The latter involves actions rooted in force; the former involves all lawful government actions which stop short of this. Sanctions, then, are important because they attempt to stymie political bloodshed. Especially as foreign policy hawkishness has grown unpopular, economic actions are an important policy tool. They allow the U.S. to maintain its principles, take a stand against nations whose policies it finds objectionable and do so without actively influencing the sovereignty of other nations.

The effectiveness of sanctions is only part of the point. Yes, there is some question as to whether damage is done to objectionable leaders or to the more innocent citizenry of a nation—though objections to this take a short-term rather than long-term view of politics and regime stability and ignores the economic harm statists do to their own people. But they are more than an economic policy; they are also a symbolic act of speech. By refusing to do business with nations and other international actors who have questionable motives, the U.S. maintains its own liberal foundation and demonstrates to the world that these beliefs have meaning. Sanctions allow the U.S. to develop a foreign policy that is consistent with the principles that guide its domestic policy. It is alarming that current government representatives like Johnson and soon-to-be diplomatic officials like Tillerson are ignorant of this.

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About Katherine Revello

A recent graduate of the University of Maine, where she majored in journalism and political science, Katherine Revello is an aspiring political commentator. Her focuses include theory, the philosophy of money and populism. Currently, she is a graduate student at Villanova University. She is the founder of The Politics of Discretion, a blog dedicated to advancing her philosophy of discretionism. Follow her on Twitter: @MrsWynandPapers