Major Western democracies have decided to rely on economic sanctions to force improvements in human rights or the reversal of unwelcome foreign policy moves by despotic adversaries, notably Belarus, Russia and China.
The punishments have been imposed gradually in the hope that the slow tightening of the screws will persuade the targeted government to make changes to avoid further pain later.
Such ratcheting-up has become the go-to form of consensus-building by the United States and its European Union, British and Canadian allies, as US president Joe Biden tries to promote restrained, united diplomacy. He has made a point of contrasting this method to the abrupt go-it-alone style of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
The measured approach presumably has the virtue of keeping international disputes from spiraling out of control while building allied agreements. It’s also meant to avoid moves that might lead to open conflict.
But the less hurried approach has a major downside: It allows the targeted regime to digest gradual punishments while moving full speed ahead with domestic and/or foreign adventures that the West opposes.
In short, moderated Western pressure moves at a snail’s pace while the actions of the West’s adversaries not only remain unchanged, but move ahead speedily.
Take Belarus, the subject of new EU sanctions aimed to “change the behavior,” in Brussels lingo, of Belarus’s dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko.
The EU’s goal is to get Lukashenko to release political prisoners, especially a dissident journalist and his girlfriend who were jailed after being removed from a Ryanair passenger plane that Lukashenko ordered to land in Belarus.
New sanctions hit industries that produce export income such as potash, finished fertilizers and oil products. Besides those, there are also sanctions restricting investment and banking interaction with the continent.
The EU also enacted sanctions personally targeting several officials connected to Lukashenko’s regime. The individuals include judges, prosecutors, police, members of parliament and business proteges of Lukashenko.
However, the toughened sanctions recalled the failure of earlier penalties connected to the Ryanair incident. Those included sanctions on individuals as well as a ban on flights between Belarus and other parts of Europe.
Those penalties, in turn, followed last year’s set of restrictions aimed at Lukashenko himself and some associates after he had cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators and activists.
None of the pressures undid Lukashenko’s authoritarian tightening. The two young dissidents pulled off the plane remain in jail. The blogger, Roman Protasevich, appeared in front of cameras to praise Lukashenko while showing signs of torture.
Some 400 pro-democracy activists remain in jail, according to Human Rights Watch. Dissidents are fleeing the country.
Lukashenko’s resistance is bolstered by the attitude of a prized ally next door: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Support for Lukashenko may cost Moscow aid money and further sour Russia’s relations with the West, but no matter. Putin and Lukashenko share a determination to curb democratization at any cost.
Putin has resisted a host of Western sanctions. The West levied penalties against his government for its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, his support for eastern Ukrainian separatists and the annexation of Crimea.
Washington blamed Putin for the attempted assassination by poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The US froze assets of Russian officials and banned dealings with more than a dozen Russian chemical agencies that develop deadly poisons.
The EU followed by freezing the assets of the Russian officials and prohibiting them from traveling to Europe.
More sanctions may be announced this week as Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Europe, but so far none of those already in effect moved Putin. Ukraine remains under military threat, Crimea is formally part of Russia and Navalny, having recovered from his poisoning, remains in jail.
Through a vague new law against “extremism,” Putin effectively criminalized Navalny-affiliated opposition groups.
The sanctions approach has been used on China over its treatment of the country’s Muslim Uighur community and the destruction of democratic institutions in Hong Kong. The US, the EU, Canada and the United Kingdom sanctioned and imposed visa bans against individuals accused of persecuting Uighurs.
Beijing denies mistreating Uighurs and retaliated by placing its own bans on US and EU representatives, accusing the West of inventing “maliciously spread lies” about China.
In Hong Kong, China placed restrictions on who can run for the territory’s legislature. Also, authorities there began to prosecute democracy activists under a new security law.
The US forbade “significant” transactions with several Hong Kong officials, along with one member of the Politburo in Beijing. Brussels prohibited the sale of equipment to Hong Kong that could be used to spy on its citizens.
China again reacted angrily and placed travel bans on politicians in the US and Europe and on companies affiliated with them. Repression in Hong Kong continues apace. Hundreds of policemen raided the offices of pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper and froze its assets. The paper’s owner, Jimmie Lai, has been imprisoned along with other democracy activists.
Limits of collective action
What will it take to get Belarus, Russia and China to alter policies the West finds offensive?
It is not easy to agree on strong sanctions when Western countries try to move in concert. The EU requires unanimity to make important joint decisions. Plus, the democracies as a whole and countries individually have been reluctant to impose punishments that might hurt their own business dealings or home economies.
Even trying to deter Lukashenko, who rules a country of only nine and a half million citizens, momentarily fell prey to one European business interest. Austria, whose Raiffeisen Bank does business in Belarus, opposed an effort to impose economic sanctions – although it eventually relented.
The US administration ran into resistance from Germany when it considered getting tougher on Russia by blocking the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
For largely economic reasons, Berlin resolutely favored the construction of the line, called Nord Stream 2. Industries both in Germany and the EU are involved in the construction and the gas supply will help wean the country from electricity produced by coal-fired plants and nuclear power installations that are due to close in 2022.
Biden gave in so as not to offend the Germans and, theoretically, to keep them on board for future sanctions measures. Nord Stream 2 is expected to be finished by year’s end.
A tougher nut to crack
But sanction stakes are higher with China, the world’s second-biggest economy, than with Belarus and Russia, comparative economic weaklings. Companies throughout Europe, as well as the United States, operate major manufacturing plants in China. They all covet a piece of China’s enormous potential consumer market.
China is also a military powerhouse.
With all that in mind, Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron downplayed the recent NATO summit’s joint communique, which took a decidedly hawkish stance toward China.
The alliance declared the country a security “challenge,” because of its military efforts to intimidate Taiwan and its claims to South China Sea islands.
Merkel, however, cited Russia as the major challenge for the 30-member alliance. Macron added: “It is very important not to scatter our efforts and not to have biases in our relation to China. NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic. China has little to do with the North Atlantic.”
Such hesitancy, also privately shared by Italy, portends a very cautious approach towards China. That means that the kind of resistance to sanctions undertaken by Minsk and Moscow will be far stiffer when coming from China.
Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.