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Weapons Against the Weak


Aslı Ü. Bâli is Professor of Law at Yale Law School.

This post concludes our symposium on economic sanctions and TWAIL, presented in partnership with the Yale Journal of International Law.

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Sanctions are best understood as an instrument in the postcolonial arsenal of economic statecraft. This tool, the epitome of an international legal order that legitimates economic coercion, is disproportionately available to states in the Global North as a means of dictating terms to states disproportionately from the Global South. In this concluding post, I argue that sanctions, particularly as they have operated since the end of the Cold War, have served as a way for relatively united Western powers — led by the United States — to impose their preferences on weaker states. The era of unipolarity that has facilitated such one-sided coercion is, however, drawing to a close, and with it perhaps the age of ever-proliferating sanctions.

The advantages that accrue to states of the Global North from the relative size of their economies — itself a legacy of colonial extraction — has long enabled the coercive imposition of their preferences. Conversely, the same asymmetries explain the vulnerability experienced by states of the Global South whose weaker economies are easily targeted with punitive measures. And given the target states’ relatively small share of global economic activity, the collateral costs to the global economy of imposing sanctions on them remains low, as does the likelihood that any adverse consequences will redound to the states imposing the sanctions.

States with relatively smaller economies are also unable to generate any leverage through the imposition of reciprocal sanctions against the powerful. The greater the asymmetry between the state(s) imposing sanctions and the target, the more intrusive and damaging punitive economic measures can be, as Joy Gordon underscores in her post. A quick review of the states that have been targeted with the broadest packages of economic sanctions to date reflects the degree to which weak economies are prey to this logic: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela. Add to this list the sanctions against Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal in 2021, a stark example of the devastating costs to civilians of the discretionary imposition of collective punishment (by a state, no less, that bears disproportionate responsibility for conditions in the target state). A lawful instrument of coercion that imposes virtually no costs on those that wield it — while inflicting untold damage on its targets — amounts to what Manu Karuka has called “contemporary imperialist siege warfare.”

The humanitarian consequences of sanctions against states with small economies have long been chronicled, rarely occasioning more than sympathetic hand-wringing, as Alena Douhan’s contribution to this symposium makes clear. Understanding the role that sanctions play in an imperial geopolitical order helps explain their overuse despite evidence of ineffectiveness and humanitarian harm. As critical scholars have noted, the unrivaled hegemony of the United States in economic and military terms since the mid-twentieth century has meant that for three quarters of a century the United States has been uniquely positioned to enforce its preferences through sanctions with little blowback for its own economy.

If unipolarity was the permissive condition for this strategy, the return of multipolarity brings the imperial character of American-led sanctions into sharper focus. For the United States, sanctions have served as a means of disciplining actors who resist its geostrategic or geo-economic preferences, that is, as a governance tool in the management of empire. But imperial governance of this kind requires the sort of asymmetric advantage the United States has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. Today, in an age of inter-imperial rivalry, sanctions are a far less effective lever to enforce American preferences where potential targets might seek assistance from U.S. rivals and those rivals, in turn, are better able to resist when threatened with sanctions themselves.

The increasingly apparent limits of the utility and scope of sanctions deployed against states that have relatively stronger economies demonstrates the parasitic relationship between sanctions and asymmetry. Here, the Russian case is instructive: with the world’s eleventh largest economy and substantial agricultural and energy commodity markets, the country is well-integrated in the global economy. As a result, sanctions against Russia (following its invasion of Ukraine) have imposed massive collateral consequences — on global food and energy supply — affecting even the architects of those sanctions. The possibility of such collateral impacts meaningfully alters the cost-benefit calculus of sanctions, a fact which is made evident in the side agreements negotiated by Europeans to blunt the force of damage to the global economy (but which also blunt the effect of sanctions on Russia). Unlike most countries in the Global South, Russia also has many additional strategies both for evading the impact of sanctions and for imposing reciprocal costs on those seeking to impose them. As a recent congressional assessment notes, “sanctions have created challenges for Russia but to date, have not delivered the economic ‘knock out’ that many predicted.” This track record, together with growing geopolitical competition with China, may mean that the international order has already passed the point of “peak” American sanctions.

As the U.S. adapts its unilateral and multilateral geo-economic strategies to address the shifting global distribution of power, a deep irony has emerged. On the one hand, even hawkish American policy analysts now warn that the overuse of sanctions may backfire, encouraging countries to align themselves with other powers. On the other hand, analysts in powerful states now denounce economic aggression as worries mount that geopolitical asymmetries may not always favor the West. At the most recent G-7 meeting in May, powerful Western and pro-Western states led by the U.S. gave voice to a complaint more typically associated with the countries of the Global South. As the BBC reported, “in not one but two statements, the leaders of the world’s richest democracies made clear to Beijing their stance on divisive issues…[with] the most important part of their message centered on what they called ‘economic coercion.’”

The phrase “economic coercion” has a particular place in the evolution of the contemporary international legal order, a point made clear in Jessica Whyte’s post. Returning to this history helps underscore a striking about-turn in the geopolitical order as we move from the sanctions decades that have been the hallmark of American unilateralism to an era of multipolarity and attendant imperial anxieties.

The Birth of Neocolonialism

The topic of economic coercion was a hotly debated issue as the framework for the postwar international legal order was first being negotiated. In 1949 the International Law Commission (ILC) began work on a draft treaty to codify the rules for interpreting, enforcing, and invalidating treaties in the new United Nations era. Over nearly two decades leading scholars of international law — at the time drawn almost entirely from the West — served as special rapporteurs to the ILC, weighing in on the contents of the draft Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). By the time the initial 75 draft articles of the VCLT were adopted for negotiation in 1966, the United Nations had admitted more than sixty new members, the overwhelming majority of which were newly decolonized states with their own distinctive perspective on international law, sometimes at odds with that of the ILC.

VCLT treaty negotiations took place over two sessions in 1968 and 1969, with the Vienna Conference adopting the final text on May 22, 1969. One of the most contentious issues concerned the breadth of the definition of “coercion” as a basis for invalidating a treaty. Article 52 of the VCLT permits the invalidation of a treaty “if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force….” Delegations from newly decolonized states argued for a broader definition of coercion, to encompass forms of economic pressure used to impose unequal treaties. Proponents of this broader definition cited colonial-era treaties or those concluded in the midst (and immediate aftermath) of decolonization as premier examples of the problem. Specifically, they viewed treaties that granted metropolitan states excessive rights of trade or access to natural resources as coercive in the relevant sense. If international law preserved the right to impose such treaties, they argued, it would serve as a vehicle to entrench the economic domination of former colonies and establish a system of neocolonialism.

Nineteen newly decolonized states proposed an amendment to Article 52 that would have defined “force” to encompass economic or political pressure. The travaux préparatoires for the VCLT reflect the views of the amendment’s proponents; for one example, the delegation from the Philippines argued that the failure to regulate economic coercion would produce a system of international law in which “there would be no protection against measures such as economic strangulation, to which, many countries, and especially the developing countries, are especially vulnerable.” Western states — including both the U.S. and U.K. delegations — rejected the inclusion of economic coercion as a basis for invalidation, arguing that the concept of “unequal treaties” was vague and would undermine the stability of treaty relations. These states claimed that “strangling the economy of a country” could not be deemed to rise to the level of coercion contemplated by the UN Charter. In the end, opposition by First World countries and closed-door negotiations led to the withdrawal of the amendment in exchange for the adoption of a non-binding draft declaration condemning the use of economic pressure.

The concerns given voice at the Vienna conferences of the late 1960s were prescient. Newly decolonized states recognized that public international law might serve to authorize and legitimate forms of economic pressure no less coercive than the use of military force. Conversely, Western states precluded recourse to international law to delegitimize the advantages they had preserved for themselves in a highly asymmetric postcolonial order. Both sides understood that because decolonization was not accompanied by reparations or restitution, formal equal sovereignty was a legal fiction that offered newly independent states little protection from the de facto reality that former colonial powers retained an array of instruments to exploit the profound inequalities in the distribution of wealth and resources of the postcolonial world they created.

The VCLT negotiations reflected and reinforced an international legal order that permits the use of economic coercion. This permissive environment, in turn, has provided legal cover and even legitimacy to the strategies by which countries of the Global North have imposed increasingly punishing sanctions regimes against targets in the Global South. The pattern of economically powerful states using material asymmetries to impose ad hoc and discretionary regimes to enforce their preferences, often clothed in the language of international norms or values, exceeds even the dire warnings by Ghanaian statesman Kwame Nkrumah in the 1960s. Moreover, the asymmetries of material power and resource distribution that make sanctions so effective are themselves legacies of enslavement, expropriation, colonialism and imperialism, as TWAIL scholars have shown. In short, sanctions are a form of coercion that is quintessentially neocolonial, a tool by which the powerful impose punitive measures on the weak.

Sanctions in a Multipolar World

Until recently, mainstream international law scholarship suggested that such tools of economic coercion may be a normatively desirable means of enforcing international law unilaterally and even of refashioning or redefining international law through the singular acts of hegemonic actors. These accounts of sanctions, presented as a nonviolent means of enforcement — or imposition — of norms, abstract from the devastating impact on civilian populations; these coercive tools produce the violence of hunger discussed in Michael Fakhri’s post, preventable epidemics, and the related excess deaths by the hundreds of thousands. The proliferation of sanctions has long depended on obscuring their violence while treating the purported lawfulness of economic coercion as a source of legitimacy.

But today, as the asymmetries on which Western sanctions rely have begun to shift, the arguments in favor of such coercion are shifting too. The G-7 statements reflect the reality that economic coercion may no longer be a unidirectional practice of imposition by the Global North against states in the Global South. The return of economic coercion as a pressing agenda item for the G-7 rather than the G-77 suggests a turning of tables that also foreshadows the end of sanctions as we have known them in the post-Cold War era. Perhaps in coming decades, targets of sanctions in the Global South will be able to make recourse to multipolarity to find alternatives to the dollar hegemony, discussed by Ntina Tzouvala in her post, that has made unilateral financial sanctions by the United States and its allies so crippling. But more worryingly for the policymakers that until recently relied on the lawfulness and legitimacy of economic coercion to impose their preferences, countries of the Global North might now face blowback or even become targets of sanctions in their own right.

As the West faces rising powers capable of tilting the scales from economic asymmetry towards greater parity, the same states that once opposed international legal recognition of “economic coercion” have adopted the phrase as a strategy to contain China. In a context of inter-imperial rivalry, lawyers representing Western capitals will furnish new arguments to distinguish the “good” economic coercion of sanctions designed to enforce norms (and punish adversaries) in their own interests, from the “bad” economic coercion they now seek to proscribe. For those interested in advancing anti-imperial agendas, exploring the contradictions in this endeavor may offer a new window to resist sanctions and the forms of coercion that legitimate, legalize, and enforce an unequal and unjust neocolonial global order.