Carrot and Stick: An Interview with Manisha Singh

by The Triple Helix

Ms. Singh most recently served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs, a position for which she was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2017. She also served concurrently as Acting Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment. Her prior State Department experience was serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Trade Policy in the Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs. She is a board member of the American Foreign Policy Council and a former term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Ms. Singh has been a senior aide to members of Congress and the Deputy Chief Counsel to the Republican staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where she managed international economic and trade policy. Ms. Singh holds a Master of Laws in International Legal Studies from the American University Washington College of Law, and a Juris Doctor from the University of Florida College of Law. She speaks fluent Hindi and conversational Spanish.

Sam Abodo is the President of The Triple Helix. He is a junior at Carnegie Mellon University studying International Relations.

Caillou Peña is the Washington Correspondent of The Triple Helix. He is a junior at Carnegie Mellon University studying International Relations with an additional major in Science, Technology and Public Policy.

THE TRIPLE HELIX: For our readers, could you explain what sanctions are?

Manisha Singh: Essentially, sanctions are a non-military key economic tool which can be used to shape the world from an American foreign policy perspective. They’re enacted either by Congress or the Executive Branch under the President’s authority working with departments such as State, Commerce, Treasury and Judiciary. By targeting a particular industry or regime, the U.S. government can utilize economic pressure in hopes that the people, and not a bad-faith regime, have control over their government. It is the inability of the sanctioned party to procure necessary goods and services or engage in the financial sector that can incentivize behavior changes. For the private sector, if goods produced in a sanctioned country are necessary for U.S. national security reasons, the government can issue licenses and waivers to allow procurement of those goods. And there are always exceptions for humanitarian assistance like food or medicine, including in Cuba, where the U.S. works with institutions like the United Nations and civil society to minimize the effect on the most vulnerable populations. I do think, however, we need to do a better job of explaining to people around the world that the U.S. wants people to be in charge of their countries. Sanctions are a tool intended to bring about change.

TTH: What about unilateral versus multilateral sanctions? Is one better or more effective than the other?

Manisha Singh: There have been cases of both being utilized. Sometimes it’s the U.S. imposing unilateral sanctions and in other cases a broader range of countries have imposed multilateral sanctions, including the United Nations. Of course multilateral sanctions put more pressure on a country. But even with unilateral U.S. sanctions, there will be great effect because we are the largest economy in the world. If you can’t do business with the U.S., there is a large impact on your economy and your ability to conduct business around the world too. There’s also messaging to be considered. If you’re sanctioned by the United States, that’s a category that most countries don’t want to be in. Other countries may say “well you’re sanctioned by the U.S., we want to be careful.” They are perhaps going to rethink doing business with you. Unilateral or multilateral sanctions are different approaches. The maximum amount of pressure would be imposed multilaterally.

TTH: So we impose sanctions on some bad-faith regimes, but not all. Russia, for instance, launched cyber-attacks against the U.S. and we fought back with sanctions, while we did not do the same for China. In what cases should sanctions be used, and in which should we pursue other actions?

Manisha Singh: It’s important to note that before imposing sanctions, the intelligence community and different parts of the government determine what’s actually happening, as in the case of cyber-attacks. News reports may say a certain government hacked the United States, but it may be hackers operating independently from the Russian or Chinese government. So it can be dangerous to make those assumptions. Once the U.S. government determines what’s happening, they can begin with mild sanctions and then elevate it upward by targeting particular actors to stem the attacks. If it’s determined that the attack was government-approved, then specific individuals and ministries, whether it’s Russia, China, or another government can be sanctioned. Those sanctions may be travel restrictions or they may block financial assets linked to the U.S. Basically, we have to find out if that behavior, in this case cyber-attacks, has been either initiated, condoned, or supported by a government. Then the U.S. government can respond accordingly. Sanctions are one tool. There are other economic pressure points which can be utilized as well. These include tariffs, quotas or other economic restrictions.

TTH: Like you said, the U.S. is usually at the forefront of imposing sanctions. Again with Russia, when we impose sanctions for their biochemical weapons program for example, are they successful in forcing bad actors to comply with international law?

Manisha Singh: Beyond incentivizing behavior change, sanctions also pressure a country to come to the negotiating table. For instance, when Kim Jong Un met with the U.S. president. You want to be able to have enough of a pressure point that the government is willing to either have a conversation with you, or enough incentive for the people of that country to decide they want organic change at the end of the day. I don’t think the United States should be the country going around the world and choosing governments, that’s not what we do, nor should we do. We do want to empower people to control their own governments. In Venezuela, for example, they had an election in which Juan Guaidó was democratically elected. Not only has the U.S. supported recognition of the new Guaidó government, but over 50 other countries have done so also. So the sanctions imposed on Venezuela facilitated organic change. When countries have accountable governments, the rule of law is more likely to be upheld. It is also more likely these governments will join the global community and adhere to international laws and norms. We made significant efforts to hold the Russian government accountable for malign actions. I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about this. There are currently numerous sanctions levied against Russia and Russian individuals. When I was at State, we also shared our serious concerns about the danger of reliance on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Sailors in biological weapons training. Federico Parra / AFP — Getty Images

TTH: What about Cuba? I know we recently imposed Magnitsky sanctions on the regime, but would you say they’ve impacted or effected regime change in the country?

Manisha Singh: Cuba is a complicated case, but it is one in which economic pressure has changed the country. Every year we watch what’s going on in Cuba with the regime. This recent movement is going to cause the new leadership to evaluate the conditions in Cuba. We’re seeing the Cuban people demand accountability. It is a good example of a place where we want to see them in charge of their own country and hold the government accountable. The economic pressure from the United States is a factor that has enabled Cubans to call for change in their country. Ultimately, we see that sanctions have many different effects in hopes that Cubans will see desired change in this lifetime.

TTH: You said in your first answer one goal of sanctions is national security. How can sanctions be used to promote national security, specifically regarding emerging technologies and China?

Manisha Singh: I think your question about the cyber-attack addresses that specifically because events such as the attacks on the Colonial Pipeline and JBS impacted the health and safety of millions of American citizens. We know bad actors will target our population through cyber-attacks. Through sanctions, we can make it tough enough to incentivize governments to control the actors in their country and certainly not support them altogether. We have some certainty that the Russian government is condoning these attacks. By imposing severe sanctions on the inner circle, we pressure them to curtail the attacks. It’s maximum economic pressure. It is becoming a reality that digital infrastructure, cyber infrastructure, healthcare, bioweapons, and even diseases may be weaponized. We want the option to control through economic and financial penalties. My personal belief is armed conflict should be a last resort for national security. Going through sanctions gives you that non-military option first.

TTH: You mentioned digital infrastructure is the future. We know you do a lot of work with emerging technologies and diplomacy. How do you see the role of digital infrastructure like cryptocurrency in international trade?

Manisha Singh: Before, infrastructure was mostly a physical presence within your country which was easier to protect. Now we have an internet and technology which are borderless. Technology companies like Google and Facebook operate worldwide and attacks can come from anywhere. You don’t have to be sitting in the United States to attack cyber infrastructure. It can be done from anywhere. The U.S. government is always a little bit behind in its knowledge of what is advancing in terms of industry, certainly when it comes to emerging technologies. One of the things I tried doing when I was at State is make sure that we were on top of what was going on. We’re not going to have the knowledge of Silicon Valley, but policy-makers can be well informed regarding technology without over-regulating, which can stifle innovation. Innovations like cryptocurrency are forcing policymakers to find the right balance between ensuring privacy for the people and facilitating progress. Finding that balance will be key to expanding the role of technologies like cryptocurrency, robotics and artificial intelligence.

TTH: In a speech on transatlantic relations, you said we should be working with Europe to counter China economically. How can we trust Europe to help us when it comes to the issue, given big players like Angela Merkel are pro-Chinese engagement?

Manisha Singh: That’s a very relevant question right now. The best example may be Huawei. When the U.S. government decided not to use Chinese technology in our infrastructure for the basic reasons that our information will no longer be secure, other countries had been less convinced on this issue. Once we talked to our European allies though, they understood you don’t get something for nothing. Huawei technology may seem like a good deal, but what are they giving up? For instance, the British intelligence services did a similar analysis as the U.S. government and concluded essentially the same thing. It’s one thing to use Huawei equipment commercially, but in government systems it presents a great danger. Sensitive information will be compromised. Beyond technology, China’s military and naval influence is growing. There are examples of their activities in Sri Lanka, Greece, Portugal, South China Sea, and more. This impacts Europe just as much as it impacts the U.S. Countering Chinese influence isn’t just something they need to do for us, it’s something that they should be looking at from their own interest. How will Chinese dominance affect their sovereignty? China offers a large consumer market, so if Europeans want to conduct business with them that’s fine. However, when using Huawei equipment in their government systems, they must understand their sovereignty will be compromised and the Chinese will certainly learn what their governments are doing.

Chinese Leader Xi Jinping, French President Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel after talks on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, a controversial partnership between the European Union and China.

TTH: I know you worked on something called the Open Skies Agreement with Qatar, an agreement which came under review. How do we work with governments that are unstable vs stable like Qatar when we know they aren’t following the partnership?

Manisha Singh: First, I wouldn’t divide it up into stable vs unstable because “unstable” is a small category of governments — places like North Korea and Iran where we just can’t engage diplomatically or conduct business at all. For the majority of other countries there’s a spectrum. Nobody is forced to sign an agreement, so we expect the other party to come to the table ready to negotiate in a way that’s mutually beneficial. Sometimes, there are clauses to withdraw from an agreement. When a country commits to an agreement, we expect them to abide by that commitment. One example is with China and the World Trade Organization. There was a lot of talk about a trade war with China. However, I suggest that it’s not really a trade war, we are just expecting the Chinese to honor the obligations agreed upon when they join the WTO. The WTO terms are clear on intellectual property so when countries like China steal intellectual property from American companies, they should expect us to pursue remedies.

TTH: So we’ve been talking a lot about formal ways of countering other countries, but you’ve pushed women empowerment like the POWER initiative. How does the government and private companies work together to promote women in STEM, and why is that important on the world stage?

Manisha Singh: Thanks for asking about POWER, which was one of my favorite initiatives at the State Department! My portfolio has been economic issues, not gender issues, but I see women in the economy as an economic issue. We want to make sure that everybody is able to participate in the benefits of economic growth. If you think about it, women compose 50% or more of the population in countries all over the world, not just the United States. If they’re not a part of the economy, then some of your best ideas may never be found. Women create companies which create jobs. Utilizing every segment of the population in a workforce is overall better for the country’s economy. It’s been shown in developing countries that when you fully engage and employ women, it leads to a faster rate of economic growth. Also, when women control finances in a family, they invest in children and education. The development rates overall increase. So I firmly believe in women’s economic empowerment as an economic issue that strengthens not just individual economies, but the global economy. An important component of POWER was including American women business owners in the program. I’m very proud to have developed that initiative.

TTH: You mentioned to us before you were sometimes the only woman in meetings at State, and you’d be at the head of the table. Given that you’re working with governments not so friendly on women’s rights at State, what would you say women going into roles like yours should expect and keep in mind?

Manisha Singh: Go beyond your gender! Don’t let it be the factor that defines what you do every day. If you are selected to be an Office Director, Assistant Secretary, or Secretary of State (of course we’ve had three women Secretaries), just show up and do the best job you can because at the end of the day we are all different, whether it’s gender or ethnicity or identity. You want to be selected based on your work product. Your hard work and how you present yourself should speak for you. I’m someone who looks at presentation, work ethic, responsiveness and quality of work. That’s what everybody remembers. Ultimately, you should be judged by the content of your character.

*This interview was recorded on July 30th, 2021 at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington D.C. (The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Foreign Policy Council, The Triple Helix, or the U.S. government).

**The Triple Helix sincerely thanks Manisha Singh for taking time out of her busy schedule for this interview. We wish her all the luck in her future ventures.

***Cover Image Source: Illustration by Lau Ka-kuen of the South China Morning Post



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The Triple Helix

The Triple Helix

The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.