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Background:

I know how insane this would be if it actually happened, but it just dawned on me that countries with far smaller economies than those who impose sanctions on them (as we see in the real world) do not respond to sanctions with armed conflict.

If nuclear weapons are a deterrent to nuclear warfare (MAD), then why can't sanctioned states with coasts on important trade routes use medium-long range weaponry (that many posses) as a deterrent to sanctions? The logic being it would take far fewer bombs and manpower to destabilise a global power's trade routes than it would take for that global power to beat them in an all out war.

Question:

Lets say there are 2 countries:

  • The Republic of A
  • The Republic of B

And that the following things are true:

  • The Republic of A is a global power able to impose harsh sanctions on any country
  • The Republic of B has a coast on a very important water way
  • The Republic of B has a military able to pose a credible threat to the Republic of A
  • The leaders of the Republic of A are willing to do everything short of wage direct war against the Republic of B

Now, if the Republic of A imposes "crippling sanctions" on the Republic of B, but the Republic of B doesn't have the financial means to respond with a similar set of sanctions that "hurt" as much as the ones the Republic of A has imposed, why doesn't the Republic of B respond by using weapons (E.G. Ground to Sea) to "cripple" the trade routes of the Republic of A from their coast?

We see this scenario in a lot of different countries, a country with an army possessing medium - long range weaponry being sanctioned by a much larger country that doesn't want all out war, but despite their economy taking a hit they seemingly sit there and accept it or at most wage proxy wars in already devastated countries (E.G. Iran vs. Saudi/US coalition).

Why don't countries retaliate to sanctions with military action if they can't retaliate with sanctions? What's the reasoning behind this?

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  • 2
    Why doesn't Republic of B start a war with Republic of A that they likely can't win?
    – Joe W
    Jun 6 at 1:07

3 Answers 3

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Misuse of the term "trade war" in the question aside, it seem to be asking why a country like Iran doesn't attack shipping in an overt military fashion, in retaliation for sanctions. (This kind of military attack of would more appropriately be called "commerce raiding", rather than "trade war".)

Well, Iran tried that during the Iran-Iraq war, in the so-called first Tanker War. And ultimately the result was the destruction of large part of the Iranian navy by the US.

So Iran now is a "smarter bear" in the sense that it seizes ships and at least claims that it does so in its territorial waters, so it has some level of legal justification for its actions, although the countries whose ships have been seized recently claim Iran was doing in on the high seas, and consequently have accused Iran of piracy. And yeah, wars have been fought over piracy too in past centuries... So even the current course of action is not without some risk for Iran.

TLDR: you can't engage in overt military action and not expect some retaliation, possibly military as well.

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  • N.B: The supreme leader of Iran openly admitted that the taking of the Greek vessels was in retaliation for Grece's cooperation with the US on seizing some Iranian oil washingtonpost.com/world/… He countered the piracy claim by saying Iran was taking its oil back, which he says Greece had "stolen" from Iran. N.B. The UK had also accused Iran of piracy in 2019, after the seizure of Stena Impero reuters.com/article/us-mideast-iran-idUSKCN1UH16E
    – Fizz
    Jun 6 at 10:49
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I'm sure that this would happen if the logic were to pan out as written. But the problem is that there is a contradiction in the assumptions

The Republic of A is a global power able to impose harsh sanctions on any country

and

The Republic of B has a military able to pose a credible threat to the Republic of A

I'd rather not be a mouth piece for US propaganda, but the fact of the matter is that the country with the largest political clout (the US) also happens to have a military that can't be challenged by other countries. In reality, with some help from geography, no country's military poses a credible threat to the US. Not only that, but the US has unilaterally taken the role of the world police on the open seas. Piracy is practically impossible where the US navy patrols (which is most places in the world). Deciding to attack the US navy directly is inviting warhawk politicians to bomb your cities and install a more US friendly government.

Ultimately the problem with your scenario is that nuclear powers still maintain strong standing militaries (well, the US, Russia, and North Korea anyway). They can likely fight conventional wars and the ability to do so is necessary anyway. A nuclear deterrent only policy cannot work in practice due to salami tactics.

Let's take your example into perspective. Let's call the US country A and Iran country B. The US imposes sanctions on Iran. Iran cannot impose reciprocal sanctions (and doesn't have the political clout to enforce them anyway) so decides to attack trade routes. Said trade routes are protected by the US navy so they decide to either do nothing (current scenario) or attack the US navy. The US proceeds to invade Iran and install another government. Tale as old as time, and at this point it's the USA's MO.

Now let's say that country A is not the US. Let's say it's France. Unfortunately, trade routes are still protected by the US navy and even if it were not, France is a US ally and the US is quite trigger happy so the same scenario would play out. Moral of the story: Do not give warhawks an excuse to deliver "freedom" to your country.

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  • “the country with the largest political clout” — and also the most sanction-happy country, to the point where it’s rare to see significant sanctions that don’t involve the US.
    – cpast
    Jun 6 at 1:09
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I see several problems with your scenario:

  • shooting at nations' people and equipment tends to "heat up" their temper considerably. Rep A may suddenly get a lot more motivated, especially if it feels it has to set an example to keep others in line.

    • Country A doesn't have to go to a full war on B, it can "just" bomb assets and equipment of B, which is fixed in place, unlike country A's ships which can avoid the area until the coast is clear.
  • other countries tend to take a dim view of shipping getting attacked and especially if their own ships are getting hit. See the Lusitania for how well that worked out. Even if there isn't a huge power differential between A and B, that's an argument against B's little adventures.

Considering that even North Korea isn't doing this, there must be something pretty wrong with this idea.

p.s. there might be more legs to this idea if the passage was in nation B's territorial waters - which limits the possibility to some very few points in the world - but even then there is the notion of innocent passage.

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  • I would find it hard to believe that many would accept the attack on trade vessels regardless of territorial waters or not
    – Joe W
    Jun 6 at 1:48

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