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Readings N.24

Agathe Demarais, Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against US Interests, New York: Columbia University Press, 2022, 304 pp.

Economic sanctions have become a very frequent tool in US foreign policy. Coercive measures such as trade tariffs, financial penalties and export controls affect a massive number of individuals, companies and governments across the world. Some of these sanctions target non-state actors like drug cartels and terrorist groups. Others focus on nation-states like North Korea, Iran, and Russia. Washington sees sanctions as a low-cost tool, even if they often fail at their stated goals and produce collateral effects that run counter to US interests.

Agathe Demarais, who leads the Economist Intelligence Unit, a former advisor to the French Treasury, explores the effects of sanctions on multinational companies, governments, and citizens, based on interviews with specialists, decision-makers and consumers from sanctioned countries, also broaching ways to work around Us-imposed penalties. But that’s only a part of the story. Sanctions also change relationships among countries, bringing Us-opposed countries closer together, or pushing them into Russia and China’s arms. With examples ranging from commodity markets in Russia to COVID response in Iran and China’s cryptocurrency ambitions, Backfire sheds light on the transformations caused by sanction regimes on global geopolitics and economies. And it does the same for their operational and time limits, laid bare in the circumscription of effects that provoke changes in the states where they are enforced. Which means that, without an array of parallel political, military and diplomatic tools, sanctions are factually limited mechanisms and, in some cases, counterproductive.

Jessica Barnes, Staple Security: Bread and Wheat in Egypt, Durham: Duke University Press, 2022, 320 pp.  
At a time when cereal has returned to the centre of geopolitics and conflict, we would do well to look at the role that bread and wheat play in Egypt’s day-to-day. Egypt leads wheat imports, although its purchases represent less than half of domestic consumption. Jessica Barnes, a Professor of Geography with the University of South Carolina, who’s penned another important book on the intersection of politics and water in Egypt, Cultivating the Nile, goes into detail on the structuring role that bread plays in Egyptian subsistence and the relationship citizens maintain with government, as the state engages in a massive subsidy policy to keep prices low and consumption rationed.    
But, as Barnes points out, most of the wheat grown in Egypt never reaches the market. It forms a part of the mix of subsistence crops grown annually by farmers for family upkeep. Government is the single, legal domestic buyer, complementing that with centrally-controlled imports and distributing the grain among mills that supply millions of private bakeries with flour. Continued reliance of Egyptian farms on subsistence agriculture is impressive in a country that has long produced cotton and other agricultural products that find their way to global markets. In other words, the government’s constant focus on stability prevents the market from tipping the scales. 
It’s worth our while to understand how food habits, a subsistence economy, and the government's relationship with consumers in Egypt has such far-reaching impact on social and political stability (and apply the lessons learned to countries with similar profiles) but also how disruptions in cereal trade, staple price inflation and the geopolitics of wheat could lead to sudden, wild tension and internal conflict. That’s another piece in the puzzle that shows how the effects of war in Ukraine go beyond European borders.   

Michael J. Green, Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo, New York: Columbia University Press, 2022, 328 pp. 
Michael J. Green is a professor of Asian Studies in Georgetown university and one of the scholars best acquainted with Japanese foreign policy. On his latest book, he argues that Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan from 2006 to 2007 and 2012 to 2020 reoriented Tokyo’s strategy in a fashion that will persist despite his tragic assassination in July 2022. Proactive, rather than reactive, he built up the notion of a “free, open Indo-Pacific,” influencing American thought even, with his regional investment. He strengthened military cooperation among the two allies, consolidated the quasi-alliance with Australia, India, Japan, and United States (Quad), and brought back the Trans-Pacific Partnership which Washington had turned its back on during Donalt Trump’s tenure.  
All these initiatives reinforced an approached that would guarantee Japanese access to its surrounding seas based on the rule of law and free trade agreements. As to internal stability, Abe fought for an increased defense budget and implented the first national security proposal in the history of post-war Japan. All this strategic reorientation issues from two interlinked concerns: the political, military and trade ascension of China and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. 
Despite the failure at overcoming historical differences with South Korea, while Abe served Japan was able to design a grand national strategy framed by a set of alliances with other democracies, with well-defined tools and clear goals, adapting it to the core notion of avoiding a revisionist, hegemonic power in the Indo-Pacific. All signals point to the continuity of that strategy, which makes Line of Advantage an indispensable analysis if we are to understand it.  



Bernardo Pires de Lima

Bernardo Pires de Lima

Associate Fellow - IPRI-NOVA University

Bernardo Pires de Lima  is Political Adviser to the President of the Portuguese Republic. He is also a Research Fellow at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations, IPRI-NOVA, an international politics analyst for the national Portuguese television channel RTP, for radio station Antena 1 and the Portuguese daily Diário de Notícias. He chairs the Luso-American Development Foundation’s (FLAD) Curators Council and has been a Research Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations in Washington DC and at the National Defense Institute in Lisbon, Portugal. He has penned eight books on contemporary international politics, the most recent being Portugal na Era dos Homens Fortes: Democracia e Autoritarismo em Tempos de Covid (Portugal in a time of strongmen: Democracy and authoritarianism in a time of Covid), published by Tinta-da- China in September 2020.