In modern international relations, inequality and hierarchy are preserved, and are determined by differences in power, economic and human potentials. The voluntary nature of an organisation does not exclude coercion and domination. The softness of politics in comparison with the empires of the past hardly indicates the absence of coercion and domination as such, writes Ivan Timofeev.
The modern policy of sanctions resembles, to some extent, the management practices of the Mongol Golden Horde. One of its elements was a system of labels (jarligs), orders, or permissions that were issued by the khan to his vassals. We remember well from history textbooks about the jarligs which were issued to rulers, that is, the permission the khan granted to the Russian princes to own this or that land. Jarligs were also issued to the clergy, freeing them from taxes or giving them other privileges. The jarlig was an instrument of imperial policy, fixing the decisions of the khan in relation to rulers or institutions dependent on him. It had a transboundary character, that is, it was a tool for managing a subordinate, but at the same time alien territory. On the one hand, it was the property of the khan. But on the other hand, it was a separate state unit. Historians have traced the subsequent influence of the Horde’s legacy on the formation of a centralised Moscow state.
For example, the historian Georgy Vernadsky underscored such an influence. It would seem that it makes sense to discuss Horde practices in relation to Russia, pointing to the “Asian” nature of its political power, its despotism and excessive concentration of power. A similar narrative, in one form or another, has been developing for centuries among Russia’s Western neighbours. However, some imperial practices appear to be universal. Today they can be observed in US policy and, to some extent, in the policy of the European Union. Russia itself has largely lost its imperial heritage, becoming a nation-state even to a greater extent than its Western rivals. Which, of course, does not preclude a transition to an imperial organisation in the future under certain circumstances.
The characterisation of the modern US and EU as empires gives rise to two risks at once. There is an intellectual risk, associated with the obvious differences between the empires of the past and modern political entities. In many respects, they are simply incomparable. The comparison of modern industrialised mass democracies with the despotic and economically primitive empire of the Mongols is sure to prompt indignation among some and a condescending smile from others. The Americans and Europeans themselves created the idea of regulatory risk. For all the differences between them, the Western states are defined by their belief in the free organisation of their political institutions, which precludes violence or coercion. Their political communities are organised voluntarily, unlike the empires of the past, which were organised on the basis of violence and coercion.
The American and European identity is grounded in the idea of the superiority of the political governance they created. It seems to be the most fair from the point of view of the equality of people in their rights, as well as the freedom of citizens within the limits of the social contract. The “significant others” for such an identity are both the despotisms of the past and some modern states that rely on autocracies. First and foremost, these include Russia and China. The superiority of capitalism and the market is also part of the Western identity. It is opposed to non-free economies, in which the state plays a key and directive role. From a normative point of view, calling the US and the EU empires would be almost tantamount to a political provocation.
Nevertheless, such a thought experiment seems justified, especially since it reflects certain intellectual developments. Among others, we can recall, for example, “Empire” by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. This experiment posits two assumptions. The first is that in modern international relations, inequality and hierarchy are preserved, and are determined by differences in power, economic and human potentials. The second is that the voluntary nature of an organisation does not exclude coercion and domination. The softness of politics in comparison with the empires of the past hardly indicates the absence of coercion and domination as such.
In the 20th century, the United States was indeed able to create a unique international community that could be called a “soft empire”. At its core, no doubt, was an instrument of force and coercion. It took shape as a result of the Second World War, in which the United States, together with its allies, defeated and then occupied a number of large states (Italy, Germany, Japan). Much more important, however, was the economic, technological, and financial superiority of the United States. America became the most important source of reconstruction of post-war Europe and Japan, which later became major economic players. The United States not only did not interfere with their development, but also benefited from it. During the Cold War with the USSR, a Euro-Atlantic community system was formed, in which the United States dominated both militarily and economically, avoiding excessive control and coercion. Such control, however, was characteristic of the USSR’s relations with its allies in Eastern Europe, despite the fact that the Soviet economic base turned out to be noticeably smaller than that of the United States and its European allies. The differences between the Western and Eastern blocs in terms of the level of coercion employed during the Cold War, made it possible at the ideological level to underestimate its presence in the ranks of the former and exaggerate in the ranks of the latter.
The movie epic Star Wars in the late 1980s became a kind of archetype for mass consumption, illustrating the differences between the two systems. The victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc can be considered the pinnacle of the development of the American “soft empire”, and globalisation, which gained momentum in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, when it peaked.
Europe, in turn has developed its own “soft empire”, fundamentally different from the United States, but at the same time closely connected with it. It was never based on military-political coercion. The European Union, which was established to facilitate economic integration, created its “universe” through the establishment of common standards and rules of the game, which were accepted by its members voluntarily. However, over time, the European project acquired a growing political component. So far, it has been insignificant as a military-political player, remaining a junior partner of NATO. However, through the strength of its standards, rules and bureaucracy, the EU has established a relationship of power and coercion with its member states and in the orbit of its economic influence that is no less effective than the use of force.
The American dollar is a convenient and efficient instrument for international settlements. The EU is a large market, and the euro has also taken on a prominent role in international finance. Of course, the humanism and “softness” of Western “empires” have had their limits. Whenever the use of force was relatively unhindered and technically possible, it was employed quite harshly. This was evident in the defeat of Yugoslavia and Iraq. Against Iran, however, the possible use of force ran into the prospect of much larger losses. The use of economic measures made sense as a cheaper, but at the same time devastating alternative technique for using power.
Economic sanctions can be considered the key technology of the modern “soft empires”. The US is far ahead of the rest of the world in their application, although the EU is also using them to a growing extent, and the UK has incorporated them into its independent foreign policy post-Brexit. The global nature of dollar settlements allows the US financial authorities to track transactions around the world, restricting them where they conflict with political interests. In a global economy with a US-centric financial system, blocking US sanctions is likely to result in extensive losses or even spell ruin for any large company with an international presence. The use of blocking sanctions to target strategic exporters can cause enormous economic damage to the economies of individual countries; this has been aptly demonstrated in the use of sanctions against Iran, Venezuela and Russia. The use of secondary sanctions, as well as fines and criminal prosecution for violating US regulations, has led to businesses being disciplined, regardless of their country of origin. For example, the Chinese authorities condemn the US sanctions, but Chinese companies have been forced to take them into account and generally avoid violating them, fearing financial losses and the loss of the US market. Until February 2022, Russian big business also attempted to avoid violating the US sanctions regimes, even though Moscow officially condemned their use, and Russia itself had been hit by a number of restrictive measures. European businesses have also been hit hard by US fines and are complying with US regulations despite Brussels’ grumblings. The European Union itself is actively developing its own tools and restrictive measures.
The modern policy of sanctions also gives rise to the reincarnation of the practice of issuing “jarligs”. By imposing restrictions in a particular area, the US Treasury can, for example, issue a general license that allows certain transactions. Similar permissions are possible in the policy of the European Union. Two recent examples illustrate the use of “jarligs” vis-à-vis Russia.
The first example is the situation with food exports from Russia. Formally, the United States did not impose an embargo on the export of Russian grain, fertilizers or agricultural products. However, a number of Russian agribusiness assets have been hit by blocking sanctions. Fearing secondary sanctions and fines amid large-scale financial and economic sanctions against Russia in the wake of the outbreak of the military conflict in Ukraine, foreign banks have refused to conduct transactions involving export deals for Russian suppliers. For similar reasons, shipping companies have refused to ship Russian products. Combined with the difficulties affecting Ukrainian food exports due to hostilities, rising food prices, droughts and other factors, restrictions on Russian supplies have threatened to have serious global consequences. The answer was the “jarlig” of the US Treasury in the form of a general license for transactions involving Russian food.
The second example is that of Lithuanian attempts to partly block Russian transit to the Kaliningrad region. EU sanctions prohibit the import, transportation and transfer of a number of Russian goods. Under this pretext, their transit through Lithuania was blocked. In this case, the “jarlig” had already been issued by Brussels, which specified that the sanctions do not apply to the transit of these goods by rail.
In the context of the sanctions tsunami, Russia will have to face the good old practice of bans and “jarligs”, recalling the experience of the Horde. The “jarlig” will be issued where the interests of the initiators of the sanctions so require. They can also be given out as rewards for “behavior change”. Ultimately, in the modern doctrine of sanctions policy, “behavioral change” is one of the main goals. Accordingly, Russia can either continue to rely on “jarligs” or create conditions under which foreign restrictions can be circumvented. In relation to the aforementioned example with food exports, we could talk about a system of financial settlements with consumers of Russian exports independent of the control of Western authorities and an accelerated build-up of our own merchant fleet. With regard to Kaliningrad transit, this means the development of maritime transport to the Russian exclave. Such measures will require investment and political will. The alternative is dependence on “jarligs” that can be issued today and revoked tomorrow.
The experience of the Golden Horde, like many other empires, is that “jarligs” lose their meaning when the mass of players who ignore them becomes critical. Western “soft empires” continue to retain a large margin of safety. However, the resistance of major players like Russia may gradually undermine their dominance. Involving China in the process will pose an even more serious challenge to the “soft empires”. China’s policy will be extremely cautious, but the experience of an economic attack on China during the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States has already forced Beijing to take measures to ensure its economic sovereignty and develop insurance mechanisms for use in the event of inevitable exacerbations. So far, China puts up with “jarligs” for its large companies. However, the question is, how long will such humility last?