Sanctions: The new dollar imperialism uses and replaces the old Ruthless Criticism

[Translated from GegenStandpunkt 4-18]

On some innovations of the “America first!” era. The current keyword:


are known to politically aware citizens – in their previous form – as “measures” imposed by their own state in concert with others; against foreign powers accused of violating the order and morality of international relations; as restrictions on the free movement of commodities and money, capital and persons that held for the sanctioned nation prior to the imposition of sanctions; as “measures” that are intended to put pressure on the affected state and thus compel it to change its policy. In the political awareness of the sanctioning countries, any trace of the fact that these “measures” are extortionate acts of violence which are not much different than the accused state’s violation of international law vanishes behind the righteousness with which they are imposed – acts to protect the international system are construed as legal and need not accept reproaches of overreach – as well as the civilian nature of the action – as long as “the guns are quiet,” fair punishment of other nations is not considered violence, given everything else that the sanctioning states could certainly do. In the smug public opinion of the sanctioning states, the question that always accompanies such “measures” makes it clear that sanctions are both intended to be violent acts of extortion and are well understood and appreciated as such: are they effective? From this perspective, “doing without” direct coercion looks like a weakness.

In fact, sanctions only make an impact to the extent that the sanctioned state is damaged within the framework of the dependencies it has calculated with and has no alternatives or only worse ones. Somehow, of course, a state power always knows how to create possibilities for compensation – at the expense of its people, what else? The sanctions must then be even tougher in order to make an impact; this logic of escalation is an inevitable part of a civil extortion system between states and consequently raises the next questions. On the one hand, don’t sanctions hit “the wrong ones,” that is, the people more than their rulers who are, after all, the target of the extortion? This distinction between the people as unintended victims and the rulers as the real addressees of the imposed damage is not just mere hypocrisy; it ideally denies the government’s right to rule over its people and in practice aims to incite the citizens against their authorities who for their part are united with their people in propaganda and in practice, precisely in such a way that they pass on the impairment of their power as a damage to their own state’s maneuverable masses. The second question constantly posed by each escalation deemed necessary in sanctions concerns the costs incurred for one’s own side by the exclusion of a previously useful partner nation from normal civil commerce. Ultimately, all the beautiful business relationships that have made the other state so dependent suffer damages by being restricted. This is inevitably followed by the third question: how can the partners of the good guys and initially uninvolved third states be included in the imposed sanctions so that their power to extort is increased without unduly burdening their own businesses? Consequently, sanctions require a sanctions regime supported by as many states as possible.

For this result, the world economic order of the 21st century offers uniquely favorable conditions. A modern

sanctions regime,

as is now being practiced or sought by the USA in a number of cases is based on the fact that the freedom of international movement – which is used to extort states by threatening to revoke it – is an indispensable business condition for the capitalist economic life of all nations, especially the major ones, and thus the indispensable lifeblood of state power. Certainly, states can also be put in a jam by the detention of specific export goods or special trade restrictions; and more symbolic acts like travel bans for unwelcome persons are not rejected either. But sanctions in their final stage derive their power not from the damage they do to individual interests in a nation, but from the principle of economic dependency into which the states of the world have led themselves; that is, on the economic good per se, which they relate the wealth of the whole world to: the US dollar, which functions everywhere as means of payment, as reference unit for value, and as intermediary for the exchange of all other national moneys. Having disposal over this money is crucial. And not just in order for nations to conduct a foreign trade which is limited to a few surpluses and an unsatisfactory domestic demand while commodities are produced and circulated domestically. If the US government threatens to exclude some shady firms from the US market, or bans foreign credit institutions from the American financial market, or ultimately entire nations from use of the dollar in general, and it achieves an effect in this way, then this shows that the nations of the modern world, as capital locations of whatever caliber, only function as integral parts of a world capitalism that is based on a decisive premise: It is kept going by an internationally operating financial industry that creates the advances for work and the reproduction of the wealth of nations, accumulates surpluses and thereby generates more growth, and does so by using the American-denominated credit money or other national credit moneys whose indispensable final guarantee for their unconditional value is their exchangeability with the US dollar and which at any rate don’t circulate without reference to it as a universal means of business. Economically, the world of states now lives on the license of the USA which amounts to an invitation to capitalists as well as states to use their dollars worldwide for the accumulation of capital and as a financial basis of state power; second, on the perception of this license which in practice is taken as a given, and on compliance with this invitation by credit users and creators all over the world who have given America’s credit money its rank as world money par excellence and the credit of the USA its undoubted recognition as money capital.

On the basis of this dependence, states are fundamentally vulnerable to economic sanctions; not merely through the non-fulfillment of certain economic necessities whose non-fulfillment “hurts” them, but in the elementary functional conditions of their capitalist economies and thus the material basis of their power. Sanctions aim at forcing a state power not only to calculate damages and to weigh how many disadvantages the continuation of its incriminated policies is worth. Such a sanctions regime attacks the economic basis of state power and thus its very sovereignty.

It is clear this isn't possible for any other state than America; the toughest type of sanctions are a

Monopoly of the USA.

This does not mean, however, that they do their work at the order of the US government all by themselves, automatically. A single state sanctioned in this way really can’t withstand the pressure on its own. But there are a number of world economic powers that have – not in opposition to or even without the USA, but within the world capitalism dominated by US credit and as its agents – launched an autonomous creation of globally used credits and recognized credit moneys. They are certainly not in a position to replace the system of the global dollar economy; not least because they would have to suspend their competition with each other in order to attempt to do so; and even then – if they decided to exchange their credit moneys directly and to agree with third countries on zones for the free use of their currencies – they would not attain the unquestionable universal validity of US credit and the dollar, which capitalists and states all over the world fully count on. In principle, however, they are quite capable of organizing some participation for the victims of US sanctions in international business transactions that partially circumvent the money and the decrees of America. That is why, for effective use of its monopoly, i.e. for the exclusion of a state from the blessings of the capitalist world economy which effectively destroys its sovereignty, the USA needs the willing participation of these powers – its old partners and new formidable rivals. Obviously, the US does not leave this up to the free discretion of the masters of the euro, pound, yen or yuan. If and to the extent that the US government seriously means it, these colleagues are not only invited to participate diplomatically, but are also put under pressure. And indeed with the very dependence on a functioning world business with US credit and US dollars that is used to attack the sanctioned country – which for the great world economic powers is of a different but by no means lesser importance than for states without their own usable world money.

Thus, in the case of Iran, in this drastic form, the Germans are having the new experience that they are not per se on the side of the good guys and in the role of co-authors of extortionate sanctions against disrupters of the world order and their good customs, but are themselves being brought into line with threats to exclude companies from the US market, financial institutions from use of the dollar, and banks from the American financial markets. What Germany is experiencing here – and the next such experience is looming in the natural gas business with Russia which the US president does not like at all – is not simply the obstruction of some nice individual businesses, but an intervention into the power and the completely non-negotiable right of the German state to enter into or break off relations with other states at its discretion and to guarantee its capitalists free but rule-compliant use of their property and the security of their business from foreign whims. In principle no less than the actual addressees of America’s sanctions policy, the Germans – and the other Europeans, Japan, the People’s Republic of China – are confronted by an

attack on their sovereignty

by America’s ultimate demand for assistance services and the sanction threats it is making: a completely logical consequence of the American sanctions regime in its tough version.

In this fundamental implication, however, lies the immanent barrier – in this respect, the inner contradiction – of this type of civil extortion. The use of the dollar-based rules of global capitalism as a weapon aimed not only against lone exceptional states, but necessarily against all of them, especially the major partners of the world economy, calls into doubt their sovereign freedom of action. This violates the principle on which this order is based, that is, its universal validity, its character as an accepted premise of global capitalist business life and a condition on which all nations as world market participants set and practice their own freely and sovereignly calculated economic reasons of state. These rules of order – and thus the institutionalized world capitalism which the USA founded with its credit money and from which it derives the unlimited validity of its credit and its economic power over other nations – are being eroded by the polemical use of this power. In practice, this can be seen in the fact that the affected states, above all the powerful ones, consider themselves challenged, indeed compelled, to work as best they can toward an alternative, toward a national and international capitalism beyond the dollar-based world market and the US world money. Just because they are not able to do much about it doesn’t undo or minimize this challenge of emancipating themselves from the dominance of US credit. In any case, the US government – relying on the not yet formally terminated universal applicability of the established world economic relations which it continues to exploit as best it can – is provoking the interest and active efforts of the very powers that it needs for the success of its sanctions policy to circumvent, boycott, and diffuse America’s extortion directives. And at least this much has been made clear: to the extent that the US sanctions policy attacks the sovereignty of the partners and rivals it needs for this, it exceeds what the civil world order of global dollar capitalism actually has in terms of extortion power and gives the US its hand.

The US government is practically testing out where this barrier lies – predictably, as a first example, in the “case” of Iran. It does not, however, make the objectives of its sanctions policy dependent on the result, the enforced willingness of the other major world economic powers to cooperate, affects on Iran or even more so in general. After all, it has other instruments at its disposal which it has long since used diplomatically and practically when necessary. Sanctions are only one option for the US, and by no means the best when it comes to the destruction of an annoying sovereignty. That instrument has indeed been pushed to the limit – according to Trump, by the most wonderful sanctions regime the world has ever seen; but if America needs partners for this and has to force them to participate, then in the end this is simply a bad way to do it: a counterproductive concession to the state of affairs that the world calls “peace,” yet which is really – again according to Trump – nothing more than a surrender of America’s power interests; a concession to powers who take advantage of this untenable state of affairs at America’s expense and, with their well-meaning warnings about the harmful repercussions of an overly far-reaching sanctions policy, only weaken America.

The path of civil extortion consequently leads back to the starting point from which the economic ruin of an identified opponent is certainly comparatively easy, but a mere means to an end, and forwards to the endpoint, that the use of civil extortion is not adequate for this end: disempowerment of enemy powers and the unification of rival sovereign powers. After all, it is only a substitute, and one that is inadequate in the final analysis, for direct coercion by means of military force. And indeed, at least in the calculation of the US president, such superior force that the attacked sovereign can only save itself by unconditional capitulation in view of the threat.

The US president makes the appropriate next step to

extortion by military means

forwards and backwards, remarkably undogmatically: solely committed to the holy egoism of his nation, he doesn’t hesitate to mix up the petrified enmities of the imperialist world; even those his national establishment relentlessly recommits him to, so that these conflicts resume momentum.

A variant of the process from economic to pre-warfare military extortion, at least in the form of a diplomacy threatening nuclear annihilation followed by a “détente” in the form of a joint declaration of good will on both sides, he rehearsed with North Korea. The massive skepticism of his Washington entourage toward the North Koreans and toward Trump’s smothering embrace offensive guarantees in this case a sequel until an independent North Korean sovereignty is actually mooted.

Another variant is being pursued with the Islamic Republic of Iran: a total synthesis that has long gone beyond civil coercion to economic strangulation assisted by the rest of the world, especially by the EU, to energetic initiatives for domestic subversion and to threats of military annihilation made credible by the engagement of the brothers Israel and Saudi Arabia. In relation to its European partners, this policy provides a double clarification: the high-calibre sanctions regime against Tehran is forcing them to reveal how much sovereign freedom of action they dare take vis-a-vis the transatlantic superpower, or vice versa: how little economic pressure America needs to bring them into line.

The new president approaches the other great nuclear power, Russia, with an open mindedness that alarms the establishments of both parties in the US and welds them together in a bellicose united front. In Congress, it has pushed to exclude the new Russian capitalism from dollar business on a massive scale. And while the alliance with the unloved Europeans has revived in the form of NATO manoeuvres and joint declarations of incompatibility against a Russia with its own imperialist interests, the president has announced the termination of a beautiful old nuclear disarmament agreement between the USA and the ex-USSR which in his view is not being adhered to by the Russians anyway and only gives the Chinese the freedom to equip themselves with medium-range nuclear missiles, something that is out of the question for reasons not worth mentioning. The ancillary nuclear war scenario which Trump has opened with the new edition of an arms race with medium-range missiles for the European theater has gained the US president a wider perspective on American superiority: He tells the Russians, the Chinese and anyone else who would like to feel addressed that he has so much more money than they do for such devices – and also for an arsenal that secures his country’s military dominance in space – that they certainly have no choice but to “come to their senses” in the end. A genuinely convincing combination of economic and military extortion of the military and the economic main rivals, namely to resign without much fuss to the status of hopeless inferiors in relation to the superpower. At the same time, a nice offer to capitulate so peacefully that it doesn’t hurt Donald’s bromance with his colleagues in Moscow and Beijing.

The Europeans are also served notice by all these initiatives: namely, that their economic interests as well as their military security needs and their right to a strategic say is no longer a concern for US world politics, ranking more as a disruptive element. After all, they are given the opportunity through the transatlantic alliance to make themselves useful as a regional counterweight to Russia and to pay money to America, which Trump has more of than all the enemies and problem cases in the world put together, but which the Europeans owe him for reasons of fairness. And certainly more in the future than up till now. For – to say nothing of everything else – what other protection would they have from Russian medium-range nuclear missiles, whose treaty Trump has just terminated?

No, this is not the “return of the Cold War.” Rather, it is the dawning of the first

pre-war period of the 21st Century

– not in the sense that more and bigger “military actions” than those that have already “broken out” are to be predicted. It should rather be noted that the US administration is demanding that the rest of the world adopt America’s position on unconditional surrender; that it is using the power of its globalized dollar capitalism as a weapon for this purpose; that in the logic of this extortion, the next step to military force is on the agenda; and that this step definitely no longer looks like an outside alternative, but rather as a not at all far-fetched perspective.