Small World: Diplomatic crimes and punishments

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Imagine the recent scene in the White House situation room in which senior (appointed) officials are debating how to respond to Russia’s take-over of Crimea.

The experts on the media and Congress will speak up first for they will provide the most important bit of context in which the president’s decision must be taken. Then, some knowledgeable folk will talk about the attitudes of U.S. allies in Europe and around the globe. How far are the Europeans — who have big investments with Russia and depend heavily on Russian deliveries of oil and natural gas — willing to go? The Pentagon and CIA will weigh in with their list of moves, short of firing a shot. Finally, someone who can pass as a Russian expert will offer a judgment how that country might respond to elements of the toxic stew under contemplation.

At the end of the conference table will sit the president who must make the final decision. How will the ex-social worker, ex-professor, anti-war liberal decide? He will, almost certainly, have heard before the meeting from private pollsters and special friends who will offer sage advice. He might not decide at all. A naturally cautious man, he may delay, retire for deep, uninterrupted (except for telephone conversations with key friends, e.g., German’s Merkel) thought and then pronounce.

Thus, in all likelihood it was that the elite around President Putin (but not the man himself) were sanctioned by Washington — denied visas, assets here frozen. Later, the list is expanded for a few other names and a bank and Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight is suspended. Worse to come is muttered.

Thus, one more country is subjected to Washington’s favored form of torture: the sanction — so far in this case, the mildest of versions. Five things we can say about this tool of diplomacy:

• Sanctions don’t usually work. That is, they rarely change the policy or behavior of the sanctioned government. Sanctions did the job with South Africa in good part because they had almost worldwide adherence. They put a squeeze on Iran because they were ruthless, but probably were not decisive. Elsewhere the object of our pressure has shrugged.

• Sanctions do work — at home. Imposing sanctions is an administration’s way of saying to critics, “Look, we’re doing something. It doesn’t cost much. Be patient.”

• Sometimes, if the recipient is big and tough enough, sanctions can provoke costly retaliation. It remains to be seen whether Russia will react by harming sanctioning nations that depend on it — for gas, trade or for cooperation with thorny world issues.

• When the purpose of sanctions is to separate the government of an unpleasant regime and its people, watch out. In World War II (a recent study instructs us), bombing German civilians had the opposite from the intended effect, which was “to drive a wedge between people and regime.” Instead, like latter-day sanctions, the result was “to increase civilian dependence on the state and the party.”

• Finally, undoing sanctions is a lot harder than imposing them. Easy for Congress to vote punishments against Iran or Russia; hard to find the votes to undo them.

The Crimea crisis is still hot. Big thinkers in the administration and in Europe are still trying to devise ways to push Russia into retreat. At some point, maybe after talking to wise parents or spouses without talking points, the big thinking bureaucrats just might reflect and drift toward a different perception: Maybe, the West isn’t just dealing with President Putin. Maybe he’s closer to reality than we are in speaking of Russian history, sensitivity and nationalism. Maybe, we are dealing with a nation, not a clique.

Another thought intrudes on established, establishment Western truths: Maybe Russia is more important as a partner — even a difficult, tricky one — than as a target of outrage. We are as dependent on Russian cooperation on Iran, Syria and the Middle East as Europe is on the economic linkages.

At that point, Big thinkers will start the search for face-saving measures. That, after all, is the only way to help Ukraine, which must reside between East and West and depend on both. A new regime in Kiev could salve sores and enable the West to shelve sanctions. With luck and skill, the diplomatic talks proposed by Putin may ease the crisis. We – if not Senator McCain and company — should hope so.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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