Trump is often called an isolationist, but he is as interventionist as his predecessors. His strategy is simply to rely more heavily on US economic power than military might to coerce adversaries, which creates its own kind of cruelty and destabilization – and embodies its own brand of illegality.
US President Donald Trump has based his foreign policy on a series of harsh economic blockades, each designed to frighten, coerce, and even starve the target country into submitting to American demands. While the practice is less violent than a military attack, and the blockade is through financial means rather than the navy, the consequences are often dire for civilian populations. As such, economic blockades by the United States should be scrutinized by the United Nations Security Council under international law and the UN Charter.
When Trump campaigned for office in 2016, he rejected the frequent US resort to war in the Middle East. During the years 1990-2016, the US launched two major wars with Iraq (1990 and 2003), as well as wars in Afghanistan (2001), Libya (2011), and Syria (2012). It also participated in many smaller military interventions (Mali, Somalia, and Yemen, among others). While the Syrian War is often described as a civil war, it was in a fact a war of regime change led by the US and Saudi Arabia under a US presidential directive called Timber Sycamore.
None of these US-led wars (and others in recent history) achieved their political objectives, and the major conflicts have been followed by chronic violence and instability. The attempt to force Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from power led to a proxy war – eventually involving the US, Syria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates – that displaced over ten million Syrians and caused around a half-million violent deaths.
While Trump has so far eschewed a new war, he has continued US regime-change efforts by other means. Trump is often called an isolationist, but he is as interventionist as his predecessors. His strategy, at least so far, has been to rely more heavily on US economic power than military might to coerce adversaries, which creates its own kind of cruelty and destabilization. And it constantly risks flaring into outright war, as occurred with Iran this month.
The Trump administration currently is engaged in three attempts at comprehensive economic blockades, against North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran, as well as several lesser blockades against countries such as Cuba and Nicaragua, and an intensifying effort to cut off China’s access to technology. The blockade against North Korea is sanctioned, at least in part, by the UN Security Council. The blockade against Iran is in direct opposition to the Security Council. And the blockade against Venezuela is so far without Security Council engagement for or against. The US is attempting to isolate the three countries from almost all international trade, causing shortages of food, medicines, energy, and spare parts for basic infrastructure, including the water supply and power grid.1
The North Korean blockade operates mainly through UN-mandated sanctions, and includes a comprehensive list of exports to North Korea, imports from North Korea, and financial relations with North Korean entities. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that ten million North Koreans are at risk of hunger, partly owing to sanctions. “[T]he unintended negative impact sanctions can have on agricultural production, through both direct and indirect impacts, cannot be ignored,” the FAO warns. “The most obvious are restrictions on the importation of certain items that are necessary for agricultural production, in particular fuel, machinery and spare parts for equipment.”