How a Threat to Russia Might Actually Lead to More Damage to the United States

To some, it seems all-too-clear. In the wake of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley has repeatedly called on her allies to freeze assets of the Russians linked to the attack. The aim: to squeeze Russia’s economy.

To others, it’s a sneaky bit of trade-craft. In the diplomatic world, leverage works in three main ways: threatened or exorbitant punishment, occasional modest hits, and a strong public signal that other countries will comply if you do something. The Trump administration’s threat to target Russian leaders with financial sanctions — yet another in the campaign of escalating confrontations with Moscow that Mr. Trump has led since taking office — appears to be an explicit effort to leverage the post-crisis ruble. For years, the Russian economy has been weakening due to Western sanctions over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine and by what the West believes is the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Washington has long hinted that it would act if economic weakness persisted. But what has been less clear is how.

A formal threat can be more coercive, insofar as it tends to rattle foreign leaders and empowers them to resist unilateral actions by Washington. It can also wear off, as was the case when President Ronald Reagan threatened to inflict consequences on the European grain embargo, and if the United States and allies followed through with it, that very action eroded the hand of the U.S. threat. It can also backfire. The United States’ response to an OPEC oil price spike during the summer of 2008 is a case in point. Mr. Trump’s talk of a 20 percent oil rise is forcing other OPEC members to cease their production increases.

While it’s always possible to take a more assertive posture in geopolitics, a threat can also be misguided: taking action for the purpose of doing so is often a poor decision. In France, for example, the debate about the raising of the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 62 goes on longer than would be justified by the costs of financing an extremely modest pension. Regrettably, this is one of the more proven economic mistakes of the last 50 years: making “unnecessary” capital improvements leads to less investment, lower output, and higher unemployment.

“The tragedy of Libya is that the regime ultimately ended, but the resulting transition was so painful and deep, and the disruption so pernicious that Libya never returned to its former glory,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in May.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Trump’s threat appears to be quite modest — and it doesn’t bear on U.S. foreign policy, regardless of whether it is aggressive or not. It might therefore be tempting for his aides to see it as a quiet signal. Foreign policy professionals do that at least every now and then — but it can also be undertaken purely out of a desire to be flexing national political muscle. It is hardly unusual for foreign policy experts to publish white papers that make vague noises about one thing — often on principles like the necessity of multilateralism or the relevance of international law. Of course, they do not lead to the imposition of all kinds of punitive action. It is a tall order to convince peers to close trade or deprive Russians of billions of dollars.

But as much as Mr. Trump wants to flex U.S. muscle, it is also clear that he would rather have allies respond than him, and his approach will have the net effect of strengthening not weakening Moscow’s position, whatever Washington’s goals may be. Like the tanks that poured down on the streets of Kiev in 2014, the idea that Russia is suddenly “unmoored from European integration” might be very seductive in diplomatic circles. It is useful to use abroad, and helpful in public relations, to press for other countries to take similar action against Russia.

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