How much of a coercive effect would sanctions against America be, if China and Russia instituted economic sanctions against us?
So a lot of the previous work on sanctions has used dyadic trade (i.e., the aggregate trade between states A and B) to proxy for the cost of sanctions.
This means that if A and B trade $1,000 worth of goods in a year, that tells us something about the costs that sanctions will impose, and it implies that the type of trade is irrelevant.
Our argument is that context matters too: if that’s $1,000 worth of matches, that may be less painful than if it’s $1,000 worth of Uranium, since there are fewer states that export Uranium.
So if we want to determine how much pain a trade embargo will inflict on a given state, we have to ask three questions:
- how much trade would be lost?
- How easy would it be to find a replacement for the sanctioning state?
- And how easy would it be to produce the embargoed goods domestically?
If it’s very easy to replace the sanctioner, then we wouldn’t expect economic sanctions to be especially effective, even if they account for a large amount of trade.
By contrast, if the sanctioner is very difficult to replace (a monopolist, for example), then even losing a small amount of trade can be painful.
You asked specifically about Russia and China. So the first thing that we need to do is to look at what the U.S. buys from those two countries.
If we look at data from 2016, then the story with China pretty much mirrors conventional wisdom.
The U.S. imported about $482B worth of commodities from China in 2016.
However, there are two categories of goods that constitute a disproportionate amount of trade: mobile phones (and component parts) and computer equipment. These are commodities that the U.S. tends to buy from China in large part because the latter can produce them relatively inexpensively, given its abundance of labor. But these commodities could be produced elsewhere without too much added expense.
Moreover, the U.S. is a huge market for China. The United States alone makes up about 19% and 36% of China’s global market for those two goods, respectively. So there’s every reason to believe that economic sanctions from China would hurt them at least as much as they would hurt the U.S.
Russia is a bit more interesting case for a few reasons:
- One is that Russia is currently (as of June 2017) under sanctions by the United States and considering implementing counter sanctions. So your timing is pretty appropriate.
- The second reason has to do with what the U.S. tends to import from Russia, compared to what it imports to China.
Now, the U.S. trades a lot less with Russia than it does with China; U.S. imports from Russia were about 1/10 of what they were from China in 2016.
Of the $15B of U.S. imports from Russia, nearly half comes from oil, another 8% from aluminum, and about 7% from Uranium. So, despite the smaller quantities, these commodities are of a bit more strategic importance than those imported from China, and we would probably expect trade disruption to be much more meaningful.
The U.S. supplies about 40% of its energy needs domestically and it imports about 60%. Of the imports, about 17% comes from Russia, which means that it supplies about 10% of U.S. oil.
Perhaps more notably, Russia accounts for nearly 1/3 of U.S. uranium imports. It’s also noteworthy that the U.S. isn’t a huge market for Russian exports of these goods.
Over 90% of Russian oil is sold to other consumers, and nearly 90% of uranium goes elsewhere.
So the United States doesn’t have quite the market power with respect to Russia that it does with respect to China, meaning that sanctions could inflict some pain, and they aren’t wholly infeasible for the Russians.
All of that having been said, the U.S. is really tough to harm with economic sanctions.
Despite China’s rise, the U.S. is still the world’s leading economic and military power. Chances are that if Russia chose to cut off oil exports, for example, the U.S. could use a number of strategies to offset the loss:
- It could increase oil production domestically
- it could reduce exports and consume more at home
- or it could call on countries like Canada and Saudi Arabia (from whom it already imports a significant quantity) to sell more
Ultimately, Russian sanctions would cause some pain to U.S. consumers (in the form of higher prices), but nothing drastic. And I wouldn’t imagine that it would have any effect on policy.
If OPEC were to cut off the American oil supply until we removed all American troops, what is the likelihood that we would concede to their demands? In that same line, why do oil producing countries not band together to have a more powerful presence on the world stage?
Let me start with your second question and work my way back. That’s really what OPEC is.
One of the first things you learn about if you study game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma.
Even when individual actors do what is in their best interest, the collective outcome can be suboptimal.
Cartelization is a way around this. Actors agree to certain rules (e.g., production quotas) in order to improve their overall payoff (in this case, avoiding price wars and keeping prices high).
Forming a cartel allows OPEC members to concentrate their economic power.
I’m guessing your question is ultimately about political power, which is undoubtedly related to economic power. And OPEC members have demonstrated this in the past.
In 1973, OAPEC members (essentially Arab OPEC member-states, Egypt, and Syria) placed an embargo on oil sales to the U.S. (in addition to a number of other countries), because of its support for Israel. And the embargo was painful for American consumers and generally successful. The Nixon Administration put pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, and OAPEC eventually ended the embargo.
So there have been cases in which oil-producing countries have come together and leveraged their strategic importance to pursue political goals.
And this gets back to your initial question: what would happen if OAPEC countries (I assume that OPEC countries like Indonesia, Venezuela, and Ecuador wouldn’t be involved in this) used their economic power to demand that the U.S. withdraw from the Middle East?
I’d first take issue with your premise, which is that these governments might want the U.S. to leave. I don’t think that’s true. The leaders in most of these countries are primarily interested in making money and staying in power. One of their biggest concerns is that Islamic extremists, like ISIS, will foment unrest in their countries and challenge their leadership.
If that starts to happen, they want to have U.S. soldiers nearby who have an interest in maintaining stability in the region.
However, if, for some reason, Arab leaders did demand the withdrawal of American forces from the region, I wouldn’t expect a repeat of 1973.
At that time, it was an ally’s gains from war that were threatened, and not U.S. material interests. I would anticipate a more aggressive response from the United States. But, like I said, I wouldn’t really expect to see that situation materialize.
What would the layman find most interesting and accessible within your research?
A lot of my research deals with unexpected, or at least indirect, consequences.
My dissertation, for example, looked at how conflict bargaining between two states can affect future relations with a third.
The two journal articles that came out of the dissertation demonstrate that states reveal something about themselves when they are involved in a conflict, and that this information can be exploited by hostile third parties.
So the actions of a state during a conflict are going to be affected by how it expects to be perceived by outside observers. This can cause some leaders to behave more aggressively than they might otherwise be expected to behave. An obvious instance of this is the Vietnam War.
The U.S. inserted itself into a long, bloody, expensive civil war in a small country on the other side of the world, with no important strategic resources. This is the sort of thing we shouldn’t expect to happen.
Could you imagine the U.S. spending hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars to end a civil war in East Timor? Or in Burundi? Absolutely not. But in the case of the Vietnam War, it wasn’t really about Vietnam; it was about sending a signal to the Soviet Union.
The proxy wars that took place during the Cold War are fairly obvious examples of this principle, but it actually happens a lot more than that. States are generally more bellicose when they are worried about how they will be perceived by rivals, even if that works to their detriment in the present conflict.
Another example of indirect consequences comes from a paper I published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution with a colleague from Sabanci University (Kerim Can Kavakli).
It showed how expanding trade between two states—which the literature shows is peace-inducing—can encourage conflict with third parties, who are left out.
Now, I’m 100% in favor of free trade because it brings economic benefits to both parties involved in the trading. But there’s this strain of argument that suggests that because states that trade with one another are less likely to fight, increased trade will necessarily lead to something like world peace. We’d caution people making that argument to slow down.
Trade may be pacifying at the dyadic level, but it isn’t clear that it reduces conflict in the aggregate.
Bastiat talked about “that which is seen and that which is not seen,” when making his argument for economic liberalism.
He claimed that there are immediate effects from actions and policies, which are apparent to everyone, but then there are indirect effects that follow. We don’t directly observe these effects, but they’re there, and they are still a result of the action or policy.
If we want to determine the overall outcome of that action, then we need to take all of these different results into account.
Much of my research applies this same point to international conflict. If we want to understand how actions affect states’ willingness to fight, then we have to think about what indirect effects might result from those actions as well.
How did you become interested in your field of research?
Like many undergraduates, I initially went into political science with the intent of going to law school. One semester, I took an Introduction to World Politics class, which was taught in a seminar style and included a research paper at the end of the class.
While taking that course, I started to realize how much I enjoyed doing research. Looking back, what I did wasn’t especially original or rigorous, but it was something new, and it was really interesting to me at the time.
So I took a few other research-oriented IR classes, and eventually a graduate course. I really enjoyed all of these, and I think that’s what ultimately set me on the path toward a graduate degree in political science.
I think the fact that I ended up doing IR, rather than some other sub-field, was really a function of what I was exposed to as an undergrad. The courses that I took in American or comparative politics tended to be pretty traditional lecture classes that didn’t involve any real research or delve into the interesting questions within the academic literature.
But the IR courses that were available to me were more seminar-oriented and were more grounded in the literature. So IR just seemed more interesting to me from the start. I will point out, though, that I do incorporate some American politics into my work, and I coauthor with a few Americanists. So I wouldn’t say that my research is completely confined to IR.
What is the most interesting story in your academic career?
The most interesting thing that has happened in my academic career was probably the opportunity that came up during the year that I was finishing my Ph.D. and going on the job market.
During the spring, the Bruno Kessler Foundation (FBK), a research institution in Trento, a small town in northern Italy, put out a job advertisement for a new center focused on international politics and conflict resolution.
They were seeking to fill two postdoctoral positions, one of which was for someone with strong English language skills who took a quantitative approach to international conflict. I seemed to be well suited for the position, so I sent in an application. I interviewed with the search committee (via Skype) in early June. A few weeks later, they offered me the job, which I accepted.
At the time, I had briefly visited Mexico, Canada, and a few places in the Caribbean. I had never lived abroad or even traveled outside of North America.
Even at the time, I thought the idea that I studied international politics without ever having spent significant time outside of the U.S. was a bit strange. In fact, the first time I went to Europe was when my wife and I moved there that fall. I spent the next three years living in Italy, and working at the foundation.
It was a fantastic experience. I met many new people, made some great friends, and I was able to be quite productive. Italian IR is very different from American IR, and I have found that my style and that of my Italian coauthors complement each other really well. I learned a lot from my time at FBK. And I’d definitely encourage anyone who gets an opportunity like this to jump at it. The availability of these types of experiences are what make academia so great.
With all the funding in the world, what would you have researched and how?
That’s a tough one. Most of the research questions that interest me aren’t especially cost-intensive.
But one of my projects, which I’m working on with a friend from grad school, looks at military service and its effect on political attitudes and behavior. We’ve gotten funding to run a couple of surveys, but what we’d really like to do is a panel study that follows a large group of respondents (a thousand or more)—some of whom end up going into the military and some of whom do not—from high school through adulthood, re-interviewing them every few years to determine how attitudes change.
A large-scale panel survey like that would really let us get at how the experience shapes attitudes (if at all), by looking at changes in the same subjects. Unfortunately, this kind of study really isn’t feasible without significant incentives for respondents to continue checking in, along with significant investments for the surveys themselves.
So, unfortunately, unless I really am given all the funding in the world one day, this will probably remain a dream.