Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump hasn’t held back when speaking about the political crisis in Venezuela. Before the United Nations General Assembly, he demanded the full restoration of “democracy and political freedoms” in the Latin American country. A month earlier, he stunned many by stating that he would not rule out a military intervention. His UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, has echoed the fierce rhetoric, declaring that the US will not tolerate a “dictatorship” in Venezuela.
Observers are forgiven if they are perplexed. How is the administration’s position toward Venezuela consistent with its oft-stated insistence that every country has the right to be sovereign? Or with Trump’s promises that the days of Washington meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries are over?
I have no sympathy for Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, a left-wing thug who has maintained power by creating an unconstitutional new national assembly.
But let’s put that aside. Few administrations are truly consistent in their foreign policies, and any such consistency would probably be overrated in any case. Moreover, there is a much better reason to be perplexed about the White House’s approach to Venezuela.
It’s this: Given the strong rhetoric, it seems odd that the US has not yet used many of the non-military arrows in its policy quiver. Although a series of escalating sanctions have been put in place—including travel restrictions on some Venezuelans as laid out in the White House’s newest travel ban on Sunday—there’s an array of additional economic measures that could undoubtedly increase the pressure on Caracas and its oil-dependent economy.
For example, the US could restrict the sale of its own oil and refined products to Venezuela. It could ban the sale of certain US equipment needed by Venezuela to produce oil. It might also outlaw imports of Venezuelan crude oil or, perhaps, prohibit the use of US dollars for Venezuelan oil transactions, as it did with sanctions on Iran.
The impact of these different measures on the Venezuelan economy would vary significantly. But the fragility of the political situation in that country, and the extreme lack of diversification of the economy, make it very vulnerable to sanctions—even unilateral ones by the US.
So why has none of this happened? The most obvious explanation is that these measures could also impose costs on US consumers and companies. Or that they could create unwanted complications—such as the US government having to step in to prevent the Russian oil company Rosneft from suddenly assuming partial ownership Citgo, the US-based oil company (and with it, some American energy infrastructure), were Venezuela to default on its debt.
Sometimes things are as simple as they look—and the reluctance to impose tougher measures on Venezuela could be just a reflection of unwillingness to bear any costs at home. But other possibilities are at least worth considering—and may come into play if policy makers take a more historical look at the tools at hand.
First, if the goal is simply to speed the collapse of the Venezuelan regime, then a more aggressive set of sanctions geared to bring about default would make sense. The Maduro government is already teetering on the verge of default, with the state and the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA together owing $5 billion in principal and interest by the end of this year. Measures that would further reduce the foreign currency the regime received from its oil sales by increasing transportation costs or forcing the regime to accept deep discounts in price could bite hard.
A ban on the use of dollars in oil transactions could be calamitous. A default could be a precursor to regime collapse, especially if debt restructuring involved further austerity measures and put even more restrictions on imports of essential goods.
But no responsible foreign-policy practitioner can believe that the US’s end goal is the immediate collapse of the Maduro government. If regime change was not accompanied by other measures an implosion of the regime would serve neither US interests nor those of the Venezuelan people.
Meghan L. O’Sullivan is a Bloomberg columnist and the Jeane Kirkpatrick
Professor of the Practice of International
Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. She served on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007, and was deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan.