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sanctions, sanctions, and more sanctions: the linchpin of the republican study group’s national security strategy

Sanctions, Sanctions, and More Sanctions: The Linchpin of the Republican Study Group’s National Security Strategy

Author: Jacob Levitan

Jul 14, 2020

The Republican Study Committee (RSC) released its National Security Strategy, titled “Strengthening America & Countering Global Threats,” on June 10.  The RSC National Security Strategy emphasizes a grand strategy following President Trump’s vision of America First.  This memo analyzes the new direction in United States foreign policy advocated by the National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS operates under the flawed assumption that, while Great Power competition has returned, the United States has the means and international environment to operate as the hyperpower of the 1990s.  To this end, the NSS recommends emphasizing bilateral ties over multilateral coalition building.  The NSS identifies China, Russia, and Iran (as well as various terrorist/non-state actors) as the United States’ primary adversaries.  While the NSS makes several well-made tactical suggestions, the grand strategy it suggests is inherently contradictory and not in keeping with the United States’ capabilities in the contemporary world order.  

State of the Current World Order  

The NSS states that the United States’ security and very way of life are facing existential threats. According to the document, the United States arrived at this stage due to the failed policies of Democrats (specifically President Obama).  Due to the inaction of President Obama, according to the RSC’s NSS, the Chinese, Russians, and Iranians/Salafi-Jihadists have been able to grow in power and become great dangers.  Only because of the action of President Trump and his “America First” national security and foreign policy strategies has the United States started to properly respond to these threats.  According to the NSS, the Democrats have been a great obstacle to achieving American security and the advancement of American international interests.i 

The NSS states that the United States “is still the freest, most powerful, and most prosperous nation in the world.” ii  While there is a recognition that Great Power competition has returned, this is mentioned more to justify a hardline approach to China, which is identified as the United States’ greatest competitor and threat of first order.  However, instead of suggesting engaging smart power (a deft combination of both hard and soft power tools), the document only suggests besting the United States’ enemies through the use of punitive economic levers of hard power (as well as military). 


The NSS identifies the grand strategy of China in its ‘China Dream’ which “entails transforming the international system to one under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership.” iii  This is because the CCP is inherently inimical to the idea of Western liberal democracy, seen as a threat to the continued rule of the Party.  China aims to achieve dominance through “industrial espionage, intellectual property theft, malign political influence in democratic nations, making developing countries dependent on Chinese loans and construction projects, and discrediting liberal democratic notions of human rights.” iv 

The RSC identified intellectual property (IP) theft as one of China’s greatest malign economic practices (as well as a source of bolstering Chinese military modernization).  According to the report, the CCP steals American IP through industrial sabotage, strategic investment, corporate acquisitions, and cybercrime.v  In addition to stealing IP through corporate practices, the CCP has, according to the report, infiltrated U.S. academic institutions through students and its network of Confucius Institutes.vi 

Chinese companies are able to protect their malign economic behavior by claiming affiliation with the Chinese government, thus falling under the protection of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.vii  In order to counter this, the NSS recommends legislation requiring permanent Chinese representation in the U.S., making them vulnerable to U.S. courts.  Further, the SEC should require Chinese firms “to waive any potential claim of sovereign immunity if they do business in the United States.”viii  And to prevent cyber-espionage, the U.S. should sanction any and all individuals, institutions, organizations, and companies involved in significant theft of IP, cyberespionage, or that directly benefit from or use stolen IP.ix 

As for the IP theft in academic environments, the NSS recommends creating a list of all students and teachers from China studying in STEM fields.  They also require all Chinese students in the United States to notify the Department of Homeland Security if they should change their majors to a STEM major (as well as require periodic vetting when reentering the United States).x  To induce cessation of academic theft, the United States should also prevent leading Chinese leadership and their families (and active-duty Chinese military) from attending U.S. academic institutions.xi 

China also spreads a CCP-approved message, as well as disinformation in general, through its Confucius Institutes.  Funded by the Hanban (a CCP governmental organ),xii Confucius Institutes fund most of the Chinese studies curriculum on their respective university campuses, and the CCP reviews and approves all courses, events, and speakers at the Confucius Institute and anything funded by the Confucius Institute.  In Australia and New Zealand, they even influence local government.xiii  This has led to the self-censorship of United States universities when it comes to China.xiv  The NSS task force recommends Congress sanction all Chinese state-backed disinformation networks. Confucius Institutes should register as foreign agents to ensure they do not exert influence over host schools and require reporting of foreign gifts to universities starting at over $50,000xv—with the ultimate goal of removing all Confucius Institutes from the country.  

The NSS task force identifies human rights as a central tenet of United States foreign policy. Criticism of Chinese human rights violations, somewhat cynically, is recommended as a means for the United States to exert pressure on China.  The report notes the numerous Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet, against the Muslims of Xinjiang, against Christians, and the demise of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ in Hong Kong.xvi  Noting the CCP sees Xinjiang as central to internal domestic stability, the NSS task force recommends making human rights violations in Xinjiang as a central aspect of U.S.-Sino relations.  To this end, the task force recommends targeted sanctions against the Xinjiang Party Boss responsible for the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, as well as other notable CCP officials.  

With the Chinese military’s rapid modernization, it has become the second-largest in the world, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy having become the world’s largest in terms of total assets.xvii  The task force notes that given the Chinese army’s rapid development in high tech aspects of warfare, including but not limited to artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, and 5G, it is vital for the United States to compete.  The task force recommends the exploration of combined public and private initiatives in the development of United States hypersonic capabilities.xviii 


The task force argues that while China is the premier global, long-term threat to American hegemony, the Russian threat is more immediate.  Supporting this is the fact that while both countries seek to tip the global scales away from the Liberal Enlightenment ideals upheld by the United States and the West, “only Russia has attacked neighboring states, annexed conquered territory, and supported insurgent forces seeking to detach yet more territory.”xix  This is demonstrated by Russian aggression in the Iron Curtain/post-Soviet countries of the Balkans and Black Sea basin, where Russia has attempted a coup in Montenegro,xx engages in hybrid warfare in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, and courts NATO ally Turkey.  

Russia’s actions are not confined to its neighborhood.  Russia is a destabilizing actor in the world by its support of Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar, its support of the Assad and Iranian regimes, disinformation campaigns in the United States, and cultivation of pro-Russian, anti- American parties in Europe.xxi  The task force argues Russia’s current ability for power projection was due to the negligence of the Obama administration, who dismissed the idea of Russia as the United States’ “biggest geo-strategic threat.”xxii  The task force implies that Russia is anti-Western only because of President Putin, claiming “Russia’s aggressiveness and anti-democracy efforts” come from President Putin’s desire to preserve himself and restore Russia as a superpower.xxiii 

The task force believes the lesson to be drawn from Russia’s continued aggression is that the United States has simply not applied enough sanctions.  Among the first actions to be taken against Russia should be to officially designate the Russian Federation “as a State Sponsor of Terrorism for its support of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and the Russian Imperial Movement.”xxiv  This comes as part of Russia’s strategy of maximum effect through minimal resources, deploying small units of Russian troops to “hot spots around the world to constrain and shape America’s actions.”xxv 

Given the resurgence of Russian aggression, it is necessary to pursue a renewed policy of containment against Russia.  This should be done, the task force notes, by the continued defense of Ukraine, through the strengthening of NATO and NATO allies, and more sanctions.  The task force notes that the “severe economic sanctions” implemented against Russia in response to Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Ukraine has failed to constrain President Putin’s aggression.  The solution, therefore, should be “the toughest package of sanctions on Russia ever proposed by Congress.”xxvi  This includes designating Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, sanctioning the purchase of new Russian sovereign debt, and sanctioning key Russian propaganda chiefs under the Global Magnitsky Act.xxvii  Further, the United States must provide more lethal aid to Ukraine as well as enact the Georgia Support Act.xxviii  And finally, the United States should move to support the pro-democracy movement in Russia.xxix 

Iran, Rogue States, and Salafi-Jihadists 

Iran, due to its funding of terror across the world and destabilizing the Middle East region through Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, is listed as the tertiary threat (in addition to terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda).xxx  As with China and Russia, the document asserts that Iran has grown to the threat level it has because of President Obama’s policies.xxxi 

The task force recommends maintaining President Trump’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran, involving additional sanctions against Iran’s military and economy.  Additionally, sanctions should be made against those who partner with Iran economically, as well as those supported by Iran—the Assad regime, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hezbollah and its Lebanese allies.  It should also remain United States policy to attempt to reform the societies in Arab countries (and in Iran) along United States-Western Liberal democratic values.  

In addition to confronting Iran, the report says it is vital to United States interests to counter Salafi-Jihadist terrorists by waging a war of ideas against Salafi-jihadi ideology.  The United States should also eliminate the safe havens used by the Salafi-Jihadis, and work to block funding and state support for extremists.  This will be accomplished by forcing Saudi Arabia to eliminate Wahabism and extremism from its educational materials,xxxii sanction those states and individuals who fund Salafi-Jihadists and use military force to deny operational safe havens to terrorists. In addition, it is the position of the NSS to remain in Afghanistan.xxxiii 

To better protect the United States from terrorists, the NSS task force paradoxically recommends bolstering Congressional authority only to give that power back to the Executive vis-à-vis foreign terrorist organizations.  The task force argues that a new standing authorized use of military force (AUMF) should be issued to allow the President “to respond to both Iranian-backed aggression and terrorist threats such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.”xxxiv  Congress would have to act again to update the AUMF to include new FTOs, yet given the scope that the task force claims is Iranian-backed aggression, this would greatly expand executive powers.  Additionally, the task force suggests codifying EO 13224 with enhancements made by President Trump.  This would allow the Department of the Treasury to list Specially Designated Global Terrorists in conjunction with the State Department’s authority to designate entities as FTOs.xxxv  In essence, this allows the President to claim a group is an FTO without confirmation by Congress. 

American International Order and Future Direction of American Foreign Policy  

The NSS acknowledges that American values such as freedom, human rights, open markets, and democracy were fundamental in establishing such multilateral institutions as the United Nations (UN), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Bretton Woods system.xxxvi However, the document makes recommendations calling for a pullback from these systems and a shift from multilateral alliances and organizations in favor of bilateral treaties.  The supporting argument expounded in favor of this foreign policy favored by President Trump is that adversarial countries like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and Syria are taking over the UN in order to attack the United States. 

In the strategy espoused to contain China on an international level, the task force recommends strengthening bilateral alliances, rather than multilateral.  The countries suggested for deeper cooperation, both militarily and economically, are India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, and Taiwan.  These bilateral ties must focus on Free Trade Agreements (FTA) to bring these countries out of China’s influence.  The United States must also establish an FTA with Kenya as part of the Prosper Africa campaign to counter Russian and Chinese influence in Africa, as well as establish an FTA with Brazil due to its pro-American leanings.xxxvii  

The NSS asserts that human rights technocrats are creating “human rights inflation” which endanger true human rights as philosophized in the American concept of negative rights, as opposed to the positive rights espoused in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.xxxviii  Through these positive rights, human rights abusers like Russia, China, and Venezuela manipulate the UN to their own ends and hypocritically criticize the United States. Similarly, it is stated that this human rights proliferation is enabling Geneva to dominate the United States.xxxix  Meanwhile, human rights abusers have become emboldened due to the mistakes of the Obama administration.  

In order to reverse this, Congress should codify Executive Order (EO) 13818 as an amendment to the Global Magnitsky Act to maintain the ability of the President to sanction serious human rights violations.xl  To defend American definitions of human rights, Congress should amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, striking references to the UN and Organization of American States in defining whether or not a country has violated internationally recognized human rights.xli  To further protect human rights, as well as reform the UN and ensure American influence, Congress should pass legislation mandating only voluntary payment to the UN, so that the United States may fund only those UN agencies advancing U.S. interests.xlii 

The United States also needs, according to the report, to amend its foreign aid policy.  Voting records in the United Nations should now become a mandatory criterion determining whether a country—such as Kenya, Jordan, or Egypt—receives economic or security aid.  Lastly, to streamline efficiency, the State Department should be shrunk, as well as allow hiring outside the State Department for foreign service officer positions.  The only suggestion made by the NSS to strengthen the State Department has been to resurrect the United States Information Agency, an agency designed to promote American versions of events abroad.xliii 

Concluding Analysis 

Overall, this document attempts to form a grand strategy but often contradicts itself.  It recommends boosting Congressional authority regarding terrorist threats, only to recommend policies allowing the Executive to skirt Congressional approval.  It recommends a bolstered international presence—both militarily and economically—yet wants to reduce the size of the State Department’s diplomatic corps.  The document only recognizes the Indo-Pacific (East and South China Seas) and the Middle East as theaters of competition, ignoring other important regions such as the Greater Caspian, Western Hemisphere, and Arctic regions. 

It emphasizes the beneficial nature of American values in U.S. foreign policy, touting the creation of institutions like the UN, yet recommends either receding from or punishing these institutions in favor of pursuing narrower bilateral relations.  The task force flip flops between proclaiming China and Russia the United States’ primary threat, announcing the United States is in a Great Power competition like those of the 19th century. 

The only consistent points listed were the threats of China in global competition, the need for enhanced sanctions, the failures of President Obama as well as greater executive authority.  The Republican Study Committee’s National Security Strategy does make some well-noted tactical suggestions, particularly regarding China’s malign economic practices and Russia’s disinformation campaign.  The document fails to recognize that the American unipolar moment has ended and ignores the need for alliances.  The RSC’s NSS does not provide recommendations in keeping with the current national interest and fails overall to provide a coherent grand strategy for the United States.  

[1] Republican Study Committee’s National Security Strategy, pp. 4-5

[2] Ibid. p. 6

[3] Ibid. p. 8

[4] Ibid. p. 8

[5] Ibid. p. 10

[6] Ibid. p. 13

[7] Ibid. p. 7

[8] Ibid. p. 11

[9] Ibid. p. 12

[10] Ibid. p. 14

[11] Ibid. p. 15

[12] Ibid. p. 18

[13] Ibid. p. 18

[14] Ibid. p. 19

[15] Ibid. p. 20

[16] Ibid. p. 9

[17] Ibid. p. 25

[18] Ibid. p. 26

[19] Ibid. p. 33

[20] Ibid. p. 32

[21] Ibid. p. 34

[22] Ibid. p. 34

[23] Ibid pp. 33-34

[24] Ibid. p. 36

[25] Ibid. p. 34

[26] Ibid. p. 35

[27] Ibid. pp. 35-37

[28] Ibid. pp. 38-39

[29] Ibid. p. 40

[30] Ibid. p. 41

[31] Ibid. p. 42

[32] Ibid. p. 57

[33] Ibid. p. 61

[34] Ibid. p. 48

[35] Ibid. p. 62

[36] Ibid. p. 64

[37] Ibid. p. 28

[38] Ibid. p. 65

[39] Ibid. p. 65

[40] Ibid. p. 68

[41] Ibid. p. 68

[42] Ibid. p. 71

[43] Ibid. p. 79

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