Sanctions have become all the rage in international politics. The United States and its allies are increasingly and harshly imposing them on rivals. And those rivals reciprocate where they can.
Now American states are also increasingly participating. And that’s bad news – for the world and for US foreign policy. A highly publicized episode of a Chinese balloon entering US airspace appears to have re-energized such restrictions and sparked legislative proposals in at least 11 states.
On Wednesday, the South Carolina state senate passed a law prohibiting ownership of land in the state by citizens of the US geopolitical adversaries, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Cuba. The bill’s lead sponsor even likened a planned purchase of land in South Carolina by a Chinese biomedical company to the Trojan horse of Greek mythology.
Meanwhile, Texas State Senator Lois Kolkhorst has proposed a similar bill that has been widely passed conviction on human rights grounds, but has been defended by Greg Abbott, the state’s Republican governor. A simple reading of the original version of this bill would lead to the conclusion that any person holding citizenship of any of the listed countries, or companies they own, would be barred from owning real estate. This would have included US citizens who hold dual citizenship. Since then, the language has been softened to protect dual citizens and permanent residents, but not citizens of those countries residing in Texas on a visa.
Implementing such a language would impose new and unusual due diligence requirements on common land transactions. Meanwhile, creating special restrictions on property ownership for various immigrant communities ensures human rights.
Existing sanctions laws and Treasury Department appointments already deter leaders of those US adversaries from transferring money to the US or owning real estate in the country. Meanwhile, recently introduced federal law aims to prohibit American opponents from buying large tracts of farmland in the US.
So why should a state concern itself with what is essentially a matter of foreign policy and national security?
On the one hand, some scholars see sanctions as often a product of domestic politics, designed to empower the electorate, sometimes influenced by pressure groups such as “ethnic lobbies.” Those in this camp of scholars are more likely to believe that sanctions are not particularly effective. If sanctions are designed to please domestic spectators, they will not be designed and implemented with effectiveness and the security context in mind.
However, other scholars argue that sanctions are indeed imposed because of a meaningful effort to address national security concerns.
Like many in the national security scholarship community, I feel that both binary constructs often fail when faced with the history of economic sanctions. The truth is that foreign policy choices are the product of complex national security matrices that take into account both foreign policy and domestic political considerations.
But regardless of one’s general opinion on the effectiveness of sanctions more broadly, it is hard for anyone to deny that anti-foreigner policies adopted by state governments can have little other explanation than domestic and even local politics.
In the US, the executive branch has always been best placed to make foreign policy decisions because of its clear mandate and resources in this area. Congress plays a constitutional role in foreign policy matters, but it is much more likely to be influenced by domestic political pressures and national concerns.
The executive branch largely controlled sanctions policy throughout the Cold War era. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, as major threats to the homeland faded, Congress and sub-federal forces became increasingly involved in this field.
While Congress has largely relinquished its authority on war powers in modern times, it has become more active in sanctioning sanctions due to an impulse by members to be seen as projecting power against American adversaries, even when it loses its efforts of the president to conduct strategic policy.
What about state legislators and governors? They have no real national security personnel, nor the relevant mandate, as their elections almost always lack meaningful foreign policy discussion and are decided on provincial issues, whether taxes or abortion rights.
Yet their meddling in foreign policy is not superfluous – it may even be reckless, for global diplomacy and for US foreign policy. Here’s how.
The folly of state sanctions
As written, the said measures are unlikely to meaningfully impede the federal government’s ability to conduct its foreign policy. But one can envision a scenario where state-imposed sanctions do just that.
The state of New York and California preside over major hubs of the global banking community and the international technology supply chain. Texas itself is a major player in global energy markets. Other states may also use a more limited version of such powers.
There are already examples of cases where New York State has targeted European companies for their alleged sanctions violations, ignoring objections at the federal level. States, as the federal government has often done, can impose restrictions on companies operating in their jurisdiction in a way that has extraterritorial consequences.
This in turn creates a precarious dynamic. The federal government may have to appease or negotiate with state governments led by ambitious politicians who respond to special interests or target local constituencies.
Likewise, such sanctions allow opposition party state governments to actively undermine the diplomatic efforts of the federal government. For example, a federal effort to relax sanctions against Cuba could create political momentum for state sanctions in Florida, where families of those who fled communist rule form a powerful lobby.
Ultimately, sanctions are a foreign policy tool and the ability to modulate or even withdraw them is critical to achieving the political goals behind sanctions campaigns. If the president or congress had to lobby state governments, each representing a fraction of the total population, to change U.S. sanctions against a country, it would create a bizarre new obstacle to the federal government’s ability to fulfill its obligations. the field of foreign policy.
The proposed laws in Texas and South Carolina are textbook examples of sanctions as political greatness intended for domestic consumption. They are also a reminder of the jingoistic zeal that can be nurtured and exploited by state-level foreign policy amateurs.
As we enter what scholar Peter AG van Bergeijk calls the “second wave” of global sanctions, states are likely to look further afield to engage with human rights and global affairs.
Washington’s fundamental ability to conduct a coherent foreign policy is at stake.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.