In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, major world powers including the United States and the European Union have introduced sanctions on Russia. These wide ranging sanctions have been approached diversely by states, leading to distinct bilateral and multilateral approaches. The marked absence of a global consensus is notable. As the invasion and the sanction regime continues, the global economy is also slowing down with the imminence of a global depression. While the majority of analysis debates the efficacy of the current sanctions, this Q&A with sociologist and author of the A People’s Green New Deal, Max Ajl, political scientist and author of the forthcoming Race, Nature, and Accumulation, Bikrum Gil, and historian and author of Finance in Colonial Zimbabwe: Money, Sanctions and War Economy, Tinashe Nyamunda, analyses the structural and political nature of sanctions situating its modern iteration in a historical light. We ask them about the history of global sanctions, whether they an effective deterrent to wars, why countries in the global south have abstained from the current sanctions, how should we understand the current sanctions in the global order of neoliberalism, and whether sanctions are leading towards a new round of a non-aligned movement.
1.What is the history of global sanctions? Are they an effective deterrent to wars?
Max Ajl: Sanctions have a very long history within the world capitalist system. If initially they were meant to intervene in ongoing armed belligerent conflicts, they have become something else entirely under US aegis. They are not an alternative or adjunct to war, but war by other means, and furthermore a means to soften up target countries for direct armed warfare. They are primarily aimed from the core to the semi-periphery and the periphery (I use this term instead of global South because of the difficulty in classifying Russia and the complicated role of an ascendant China within the world system). They are engineered to severely damage the forces of production internal to nation-states. Their announced purpose has been to achieve “regime change” in those states, although in fact, that does not seem to be their general effect and so it is unlikely to be their general intent. The US/EU generally sanction countries not as an alternative to war, but because direct armed confrontation is often off the table when peripheral or semi-peripheral states have sufficient militarized deterrent capacity to make direct war unfeasible. For that reason, they are not only war by other means, but often the only means by which imperialist states can make war.
Bikrum Gill: There is a growing body of research into the history of global sanctions that suggests that sanctions function less as an “alternative to war” or “deterrent to war” and more, to borrow from the title of Nicholas Mulder’s recent book on the subject, as a “tool of modern war.” To understand the purpose and efficacy of sanctions as an instrument of war requires that we first understand how it has been forged out of the contradictions of the definite international political economy of our times – capitalist imperialism. Capitalism has functioned, since the long sixteenth century, as a world system structured around two primary contradictions: i) the capital-labor relation and ii) the core/periphery dynamic that first constitutes the grounds upon which the capital-labor relation emerges and subsequently comes to stabilize its contradictions so it can be reproduced on an expanding scale. The core/periphery relation is structured upon a denial of sovereignty to the colonized and imperially subjugated peoples of the periphery, which enables the colonizing and imperial core to exhaustively appropriate the world-scale surplus necessary to stabilize both capital accumulation and the reproduction of labor in the core. It is at the moment when resistance waged from the peripheries, in the form of decolonization and anti-imperialism, demonstrates a capacity to withstand the armed violence that is at the root of the denial of sovereignty, that sanctions emerge as a key strategy of the dominant capitalist states of the core to re-impose a diminished sovereign capacity upon the peripheries.
Sanctions have functioned within a framework of international law that, as Antony Anghie has demonstrated, has developed less as a means of establishing order amongst sovereign states and more as an instrument for reproducing different degrees of sovereignty across the world-system. Specifically, Anghie has shown that, from its intellectual origins in the juridical debates that accompanied the 16th century Spanish colonization of the Americas to its consolidation in the 19th and 20th centuries, international law has accorded EuroWestern imperialist states the right to wage endless war upon the peoples of the peripheries when the latter deny them the right to conduct commerce in their territories. Resisting EuroWestern commerce is, moreover, taken as evidence of an inherent irrational despotism that further calls into question the sovereign capacity of the colonized. Of course, the colonial “right to commerce,” as Fanon has shown, is grounded in a violent usurpation of the territories of the colonized and the re-orientation of their resources and labor towards provisioning the cheap inputs that stabilize capitalist production in the core.
Sanctions emerge as an instrument of war at precisely that moment when the colonized have reclaimed formal political sovereignty by, as Fanon argues, returning to colonialism a “greater violence” that alone can make it yield. While the ex-colonies may now have formal political sovereignty, they confront a contradiction in the economic sphere that constrains their ability to overcome the material deprivation of colonialism. The contradiction consists of the imperial core’s retention of control of the capital accumulated from the colonial surplus drain, leaving the “post”colonial state without the means to reorient their resources towards a form of national development that can overome the poverty, hunger, and overall underdevelopment inflicted by colonialism. It is in their monopoly power over the capital generated from the colonies that the imperial states grasp the logic of sanctions as an instrument of war that, in light of the increasing difficulty of subduing decolonization by armed force, alone can re-generate, in neocolonial guise, the underlying principles of the capitalist world-system. The logic of sanctions is captured in Fanon’s characterization of the capital flight from periphery to core that accompanies decolonization: “In plain words, the colonial power says ‘If you want independence, take it and starve.’” This imposes a condition of dependency which forces a re-peripheralization of the postcolonial state, as its access to capital becomes contingent upon a renewal of the inherited colonial economy.
From an angle which apprehends sanctions as an instrument of a counter-revolutionary war of colonial restoration, I would argue that we can locate the beginning of the history of global sanctions in the early 19th century imperialist reaction to the Haitian revolution. The revolution established the independent republic of Haiti through an armed struggle that the French colonial power had been unable to subdue. The Haitian revolutionary state would violate the colonial “right to commerce” in so much as it had, in abolishing slavery and reclaiming land from the former plantation masters, overturned the property relations through which France had drained a large surplus from the colony. Unable to re-colonize Haiti by force, France and the US responded to the assertion of Haitian sovereignty by imposing a punitive trade embargo upon Haiti. The French only agreed to lift their embargo, which had prevented Haiti from undertaking any trade with the outside world, if Haiti agreed to pay France a large indemnity for lost property and further agreed to provision France with heavily discounted exports. Haiti’s road to economic sovereignty was, as a result, re-directed into a debt induced dependent neocolonial path that would re-peripheralize Haiti as a provisioner of cheap inputs to the imperial core.
As Manu Karuka (2022) has shown, France and the US would continue to deploy sanctions as an instrument of colonial war across the 19th century, using embargoes and blockades to counter the resistance waged to imperialism in Cuba, Algeria, and the Phillipines. As decolonization and anti-imperialism accelerated and consolidated from the mid twentieth century onwards into formally independent states across the global South, imperial reaction would accordingly intensify and expand the deployment of sanctions as an instrument of colonial restoration. Sanctions would be targeted especially at those states that most explicitly called into question the colonial “right to commerce” by undertaking projects of nationalization and agrarian land reform that would fundamentally overturn the inherited colonial economic structure and thus make possible a reorientation of labor and resources towards sovereign national development. We can see evidence of such a history of “sanctions as counter-revolutionary war” in the sanctions applied against the following states: Peoples Republic of China, after it had defeated Japanese and Western Imperialism and abrogated the post Opium War treaties; the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) after it had defeated, first Japanese and then US imperialism; Cuba after it had defeated US imperialism and undertaken land reform and nationalization; and then later in the sanctions applied to Iran after its anti-imperial revolution; Zimbabwe after it moved to complete its independence struggle by reclaiming land from settler farmers in the 2000s; and Venezuela which was placed under punitive sanctions after the Bolivarian revolution undertook land reform and established greater national sovereign control over the oil industry.
The history of global sanctions is not a history of states seeking to resolve conflicts by peaceful means, nor is it a history of peaceful deterrence of recalcitrant states violating established norms of the international system. It is, rather, a history of counter-revolutionary colonial restoration. The material conditions for the emergence of sanctions include the limits of colonial military power evidenced by decolonization, and the concentrated control of capital exercised by the imperial core states which comes to provision the means through which sanctions can be threatened and deployed. Sanctions leave targeted states in a bind: either they relent and accept the conditions imposed by imperialism and in so doing consign themselves to a diminished quasi-sovereignty; or they continue with their projects of sovereign development but under conditions akin to siege warfare (Karuka, 2022) that inflict immense pain upon their people.
Tinashe Nyamunda: The idea behind sanctions, which is to act as a deterrent to military conflict appears borne out of a desire to coerce targeted nations without any loss of life or significant material resources. Wars are very expensive, costly and sometimes unnecessary; therefore, sanctions appear to be a tool for negotiating desired outcomes. Certainly, the League of Nations sought to use them to avoid any conflict as significant as the First World War which cost over 20 million lives and significant financial resources. The United States that entered the War in 1917 (three year after it broke out), for example, spent well over US$ 32 billion which would be the equivalent of almost US$ 628 billion today. Imagine how much the war cost those who were involved from its outbreak in 1914 and the infra-structural devastation in Europe. So, the idea was to avoid such catastrophic loss of life, property and financial resources. But as the case of the league’s sanctions against Italy in 1935 showed, the sanctions were not very effective. Ultimately, they failed to avoid the outbreak of the Second World War which cost the lives of almost 50 million people, and cost the US alone over US $341 billion before adjusting for inflation, despite it entering the war much later than the European powers whose countries and peoples were devastated. The United Nations and its sanctions regime was even more convinced about its responsibilities to avoid an even more devastating war given the emergence of the nuclear age in the immediate post-Second World War era.
It is this context that I view the importance of sanctions for the major powers. However, for me, sanctions are a function of power which are more useful when bigger military nations are negotiating the balance of global power and avoiding costly wars, or when the larger nations are trying to enforce their will on smaller nations accused of moving away from the values of democracy and human rights which the larger nations hold to be acceptable. But what is interesting is that the United Nations was established in the context of the imperialism whereby European powers such as Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium and the United States had colonial possessions. Colonial possessions were secured, in most cases, through violence and the aggression of larger powers on smaller ones, what could ostensible be regarded crimes against humanity today. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of these colonized territories were completely ignored without consequence. As such, despite the moral, material and strategic considerations behind the use of sanctions in global politics today, they were applied unevenly and are an exclusive tool of powerful nations that claim the moral authority to apply them. For example, A country like Zimbabwe does not have the power to apply sanctions against the United States over the invasion of Iraq, for example, but the United States has the capacity to apply sanctions and galvanize international support for measures against Zimbabwe for flouting human rights for instance. In that sense, they act as a function of the exercise of power by larger nations.
In terms of the effectiveness of sanctions, they are highly irregular. If the Russian invasion of Ukraine is anything to go by, despite the sanctions that have been applied on Russia, the war endures, lives continue to be lost unnecessarily and whole communities destroyed, especially in Ukraine. The biggest lesson of this war is that sanctions can also be a two way street. Whatever trade embargoes against Russia by the countries who are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Russia’s response to, for example, restrict gas supplies to Europe has devastating implications for energy supply as winter approaches. There are other unintended economic consequences, for example, how other countries have followed the example of Moscow to stop trading in US dollars and diversify their securities in a basket of other leading currencies which challenges the hegemony of the United States as a global key currency. Moreover, apart from specific effects such as the supply of wheat and wheaten products from Ukraine to parts of Africa, the war has led to sharp increase in the price of oil and has pushed the global economy onto the brink of a recession. In this context, as NATO attempts to galvanize the world against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, African countries absconded voting. This resulted in both the Russians and the Americans lobbying African countries support through diplomatic trips to try and persuade them to take their sides. What this reveals of sanctions is that when the elephants fight, the grass suffers. As such, at least in the recent case, sanctions are failing, as they have done to in other historical cases, to act as a deterrent of war. If anything, they appear to be a tool that can be harnessed with irregular success by the bigger powers in global politics.
2. Why have countries in the global south abstained from the current sanctions?
Max Ajl: By now, huge portions of the global are being sanctioned. It is logical that as the US places more and more countries of the periphery and semi-periphery under sanctions it destroys any possibility that most of those countries will join the sanctions regime. Moreover, while China and other countries have historically disdained to support many US sanctions, it is one thing to sanction a small and poor and peripheral country like Zimbabwe, or a Venezuela whose main export is petroleum (when the US and its clients like Saudi Arabia had the ability to bring more oil fields into production in response to declining Venezuelan/Iranian production). It is another thing to do so to Russia which is a major exporter of oil, gas, minerals, and cereals, exports which many countries of the Third World rely directly on for their day-to-day needs. Thus on the economic and political plane, there are pressures to move towards a de facto “non-alignment” with respect to US-EU imperialism’s current tools of domination.
Bikrum Gill: The total abstention of global South countries from participating in the current sanctions against Russia derives from both structural and ideological forces, with the two of course being inter-related. Ideologically, the abstention reflects a view of the world shaped by an experience of centuries of ongoing Western imperialism that has been waged across the global South, with devastating consequences. That there has never been any accounting given for Western imperialism, nor any reparations paid or sanctions applied, suggests, from a global South perspective, that Western sanctions against Russia have less to do with punishment and deterrence for violating norms of sovereignty and human rights in Ukraine and more to do with weakening Russia in order to strenghten US imperialism in the face of an emerging multipolar world. It should be kept in mind here that such experiences are not in a distant past. US led Western military invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya over the past two decades, the ongoing colonization of Palestine, along with the impunity with which US drone strikes have terrorized families and communities from Pakistan to Somalia, have deeply shaped the skepticism with which global South states view the humanitarian motives attached to Western sanctions against Russia.
In addition to the experience of endless Western war, global South states have, prior to this round of sanctions against Russia, been the primary target of US led sanctions. Whether in Venezuela, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Iran, Zimbabwe, Cuba, or DPRK sanctions have been experienced as an instrument of war that inflicts substantial pain upon the people of these countries. For this reason, viewed from the global South, a refusal to participate in sanctions against Russia is a refusal to participate in the escalation of war.
Most significantly, global South states have been compelled to act upon such ideological convictions due to their structural location in the world-system. To join in on the sanctions would have the effects of isolating themselves from trade and investment relations with Russia and, in so doing, to place themselves at risk of greater economic dependency upon the West. Again, historical experience demonstrates that the West exploits such dependence to impose neocolonial conditions upon global South states. Moreover, the sanctions against Russia follow upon the outrageous US seizure of the assets of Afghanistan, which might signal to global South states that it is necessary to build forms of economic interdependence that can withstand Western sanctions and generate forms of economic exchange that allow for more equitable distributions of global surplus value flows. The global South simply cannot risk either losing access to the key commodities that Russia provisions nor increasing their dependency upon a US led Western bloc that has never abandoned its imperial ambitions.
Finally, the abstention of global South states from participating in sanctions against Russia not only reflects a structural imperative to avoid increased dependency upon the West, but rather also demonstrates that we now find ourselves, much more so than any other moment in the past thirty years, in an emergent multipolar world order. Such an order is one in which the US led Western bloc has evidently experienced a substantial decline in its unilateral power to force states to fall in line under US hegemony. Global South states can now to a greater extent draw upon alternative South-South, or non-Western, trade and investment resources that allow them to conduct a more independent international relations policy.
Tinashe Nyamunda: Donald Trump’s presidency laid bare some of the attitude that at least a not so small group of white global north leaders may have of African leaders. His “shithole countries” comment caused significant damage to Africans perceptions towards the moral authority and leadership of the United States in global politics and significant disaffection. This should be viewed against the backdrop of the unequal application of human rights laws at the Hague where a number of African leaders have expressed that they are treated unfairly. Consider also the impact of the legacies as the Pact for the Continuation of the Colonization of African countries that has retained significant French influence in the political and economic affairs of African countries. Other examples include the inequitable handling of humanitarian crises in Africa compared to elsewhere in the world. For example, the attention given to Russian aggression was not equivalent to that given to crisis in the conflict in Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, for instance. Yet the invasion of Ukraine by Russia or the American response to Chinese sentiments on Taiwan have cause global instability. The handling of the Covid 19 and other pandemics also reveals glaring inequalities between the south and the global north.
Many African countries appear to not want to be aligned to any particular side. Secondly, they do not want to subscribe to the global north’s definition of what constitutes global. In case, choosing a side can be much costly than remaining non-aligned. In any case, Russia and China appears to have more entrenched histories of decolonization with African countries compared to members of NATO countries. All of these considerations contribute towards global south approaches to the application of sanctions against Russia. In this matrix, despite US Secretary of State’s recent pronouncement through the American strategy for Africa to make them equal partners in its development, African leaders remain very skeptical. As such, they appear to prefer non-alignment as a pragmatic option to avoid being drawn into super power conflicts which they do not have the capacity of sustaining.
In any case, there are countries such as Zimbabwe that are bearing the brunt of European Union sanctions and the United States’ Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA). Zimbabwe has managed to galvanise support of other African countries such as South Africa to speak out against American sanctions. Yet when the Americans need support, they would approach countries such as South Africa without considering their relationship with countries such as Zimbabwe. In certain spaces, American policies may be construed as imperial despite the moral reasons behind applying those sanctions.
3. How should we understand the current sanctions in the global order of neoliberalism?
Max Ajl: These sanctions are attempts to cut off countries from the world in order to rip apart their productive capacity: to destroy their industrial and agricultural sectors, prevent them from technological development, and reduce the well-being of the poorer sectors of the population. There is a popular discourse that sanctions constitute failed attempts at regime change, or will continue until governments’ change in targeted countries. I think it’s a little more multifaceted than that. One, they mean to alchemize possible or potential models or beacons of Third World change – Venezuela and Zimbabwe, for example – into basket cases. The effect is to delegitimize the idea of social change, tarnish socialism as an emancipatory horizon, and make clear that states which resist, to any degree, the neoliberal arrangement and the US-EU insecurity architecture will be severely punished. They are warnings. They are also meant to aggravate internal unease with prevailing models of development – something absolutely inevitable in any state. In this way, they create huge social fissures that can be converted into US-supported-and-funded “color revolutions” which surf any kinds of unrest. They are also meant to soften up countries before invasions: as in Iraq. This is the intent; the effect is not reducible to those explanations, because there is resistance and because the US-EU are not omnipotent.
Bikrum Gill: Sanctions have rapidly escalated during the neoliberal era. This is due, in the first instance, to the financialization of the world economy that has been a principal component of the neoliberal accumulation regime. This has provisioned the United States, which dominates the financial and banking sectors, with an expedient economic instrument with which to increase the reach and costs imposed via sanctions.
The US has used its power over the deepening financialization of the world economy to, in particular, wage economic war against those states from the periphery and semi-periphery that have most clearly challenged the hierarchy of the neoliberal global order. Neoliberalism, as a global order, functions in significant part as a project of colonial restoration that undermines sovereign national developmental projects through policies of liberalization, privatization, and financialization that weaken global South states and open space for the takeover of its key resources by domestic and transnational capital. States that have, to varying degrees, challenged this orthodoxy since the early 2000s, by increasing, or re-affirming, state control over the commanding heights of the economy, have found themselves subject to financial sanctions. This has not only prevented targeted states from accessing Western capital and consumer markets, but it has had the effect of disrupting the attempts by such states to construct alternative trade and financial efforts, as the US control over the global financial and banking sectors enables it to apply punitive measures to those caught trading with sanctioned states. In this way, the sanctions regime under neoliberalism is about more than just the targeted state; they are designed with the aim of re-affirming US economic power over global surplus flows in a context in which non-Western states, and especially China and Russia, are attempting to build alternative global economic architectures.
Russia and China, as Samir Amin and Domenic Losurdo have argued, constitute the clearest challenge to Western hegemony of the neoliberal order. China, particularly over the past decade has clearly re-affirmed its state as the directive force of its national development project, and it has demonstrated a form of integration into global markets through which it has maintained and even strengthened its economic sovereignty. Russia, which has remained more in line with the neoliberal framework, has, nonetheless, challenged the global ordering that was established by the neoliberal counter-revolution. In particular, here it is necessary to recall that the neoliberal shock therapy that was imposed upon Russia by the West in the 1990s granted an excessive power to domestic and transnational capital to loot the Russian economy, which resulted in what was possibly the steepest “peacetime” decline in life expectancy in modern history. In response to this, and to NATO military expansion to its border, the Russian state from the early 2000s onwards, but especially over the past decade, has exercised more disciplinary authority over capital and has itself become a more active economic player. The Russian state has been active in establishing forms of economic interdependence that are less dependent on Western capital and trade relations. The Russia led Eurasian Economic Union and, to a much greater extent, the Chinese led Belt and Road Initiative, are potentiating an alternative global economic architecture that can re-route global surplus flows away from the West. Sanctions against China and Russia since 2014 can therefore be understood as responses by the US to the increased challenge these states pose to the hierarchical global order of neoliberalism the US advanced in the late 20th century.
Tinashe Nyamunda: For me it is tussle for power which is manifesting itself in economic terms. Even if there is military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, there appears to be much more at stake. Although Russia is directly involved, Ukraine is viewed by many as a NATO proxy. At the end of the day, this appears to be more of an ideological conflict and battle for control in the international economic order. It has also expressed itself as challenging US dollar hegemony and viewed as attempts to trigger a shift towards a much more multi-lateral order, whatever the power implications may be.
4. Are sanctions leading towards a new round of non-aligned movement?
Max Ajl: The non-aligned movement emerged against the background of centralized, state-controlled blocs offering an alternative and more egalitarian way of organizing the world economic system – China and the USSR. Now although the USSR is gone, China is certainly not, which offers a potential buffer in the form of capital, sovereign technological capacity, potential loans, assistance with political and social infrastructure, etcetera. So when we talk about the shift to multi-polarity, which by definition means that US militarized accumulation and associated de-development policies have less free reign within the world system, we are talking about something with some resemblance to non-alignment, but in a markedly different historical era – when alternative poles of accumulation are stronger but their ideological cohesion and distance from the US-sponsored regime is weaker. Nevertheless, there are a range of burgeoning alternatives to the US-dominated system, from alternatives to using the dollar as the currency of settlement, slowly increasing South-South trade and diplomatic assistance and support, and South-South links which enable countries to break free from the sanctions straitjacket. I still would prefer we be a bit ginger with the historical analogies, because the forces which led the non-aligned movement were sometimes market socialists, sometimes were, like Nasser, supporting national liberation movements all over Africa while nationalizing imperialist-capitalist concerns domestically, and so forth. While there is still support for Arab-region national liberation movements, this is less a constitutive element of the new multi-polarity. I say all this to remind us that we need to keep in mind that while of course the non-aligned movement was non-aligned and heterogeneous ideologically, it was often in a direct ideological challenge to US-European capitalism. This is not the case at the present, which means that there is a need for a lot more struggle against internal contradictions, and in favor of domestic working-class and peasant interests, to re-constitute a bloc capable of really moving history in an emancipatory direction.
Bikrum Gill: There are indeed clear signs that the sanctions regime accelerated by the United States in the neoliberal era is experiencing heightened contradictions. Sanctioned states, such as Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, have been deepening economic cooperation and diplomatic ties in an effort to collectively withstand the impact of sanctions. The rise of China as an alternative source of investment capital and markets has provided further breathing space for sanctioned states. In fact, Giovanni Arrighi argued quite early on that China’s ability to re-route global surplus flows towards the global South provides a stronger material basis upon which to reconstruct a non-aligned movement than had even existed in the Bandung era. Sanctions have, in many ways, compelled global South states to expedite the construction of alternative trade and financial networks that can function independently of Western power. It is this that has provided the material basis for the emergence of a new non-aligned movement wherein global South states can take independent foreign policy positions.
As I mentioned earlier, global South states have indicated that they view sanctions as an escalation of war and have clearly expressed a position of “neutrality” in relation to what is effectively a war between the West and Russia. This position emphasizes the importance of dialogue and negoitation in achieving immediate peace in Ukraine and a broader lasting peace based upon a collective security framework that includes Russia.
Lastly, a renewed non-aligned movement, that draws its strength from the material basis of the emergent multipolar world order, holds the potential to effectively demand an end to the West’s endless wars against global South states. Ending these wars, whether economic or military, opens space for a historical accounting of colonialism and imperialism, and a reconstruction of a balanced multipolar world order.
Tinashe Nyamunda: The question of alignment is a very clear one. Rather than non-alignment, I see the African response to this sanctions discourse as an expression of African agency. Unlike in the colonial period when they voice was muted and their actions imposed by imperial powers, in a post-colonial dispensation, African countries can exercise their sovereignty to some degree. In questions of sanctions against Russia, at least half of them exercised their right not to participate in the interests of their national interest and after considering the implications of such a move. The response of the Americans and Russians is particularly revealing of the influence that African countries have attained in determining global affairs.
Recently, the Biden administration undertook a re-engagement policy in Africa which is at least partially informed by Russia and China’s rising influence in Africa. American Secretary of State. Anthony Blinken has taken a tour of African countries to promote the American Strategy for Africa. But some media reports have suggested that the trip is also, in part, aimed at countering Russia’s footprint in Africa. In particular, that it’s a reaction to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent visit to the continent. He visited Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (https://www.state.gov/the-united-states-and-africa-building-a-21st-century-partnership/link).
Although Blinken’s first visit to Africa as Secretary of State took place before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is difficult to dispute the United States’ growing concern over Russian and Chinese influence on the continent. This is why, for the first time, the discourse of equal partnership informs the American strategy for Africa. Moreover, there is a recognition by the Americans that they cannot force Africans to choose their side, so their soft power approach has been to ask African countries to consider partnering with the US in the development of countries on the continent and promising to spend significant amounts of money in this effort. Looked at in this way, the African approach to the latest discourse on sanctions is informed by its countries best interests and a pragmatic approach to the issues. They do not wish to be entangled in this conflict, although they are economically affected by it. In some ways, their apathy towards the sanctions issue may actually be a deterrent for both sides by avoiding splitting the world into two camps and the tussle for influence over them may, in some ways hopefully help to de-escalate tensions. Moreover, they fully recognize the limitations of sanctions and therefore chose to be pragmatic about conflicts that do not have a direct implication to their own national interest.
Farwa Sial is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester in the UK. Her research focuses on comparative development, Industrial policy, corporations, economic geography and the changing landscape of development assistance. She tweets at @FarwaSial.