So, you hear a lot about sanctions when countries are at odds with one another. You’ve probably heard some about it recently too. A sanction is one country, attempting to penalize another country, places trade restrictions on that country. This also includes imposing tariffs and “freezing” another country’s assets. These sanctions amount to a nation holding hostage another nation’s ability to trade.
The idea is that these economic penalties will prevent aggression or promote peace. However, sanctions are usually imposed by larger/wealthier nations upon smaller/poorer nations, and always constitutes a threat to the security of the entire nation. Economic sanctions are indeed acts of economic warfare, and the damage cannot be directed only at the desired targets (leadership or military zones). Studies by political scientist Robert A. Pape determine that less than 10% of international situations were even possibly resolved by means of economic sanctions.
These measures are almost always impotent and/or harmful:
- Sanctions don’t fix problems; at best they prolong solving them
You ever notice how sanctions come in to play only after endless debate that can’t seem to lead to a compromise? It’s like when kids are fighting and one says to the other, “Fine! You can’t play with my toys!” Nothing is resolved. The tension remains.In 1962, Castro seized all U.S. business in Cuba. As is well known, the U.S. cut off all trade (including those famous cigars). The idea was that this would help end the Communist regime. 50 years later, Castro still had power and Cuba was still Communist. Half a decade of a problem stalled. In 2016, diplomatic relations were finally restored, while some restrictions still remain.
- Sanctions reduce diplomacy, not encourage it
Sanctions only “work” at blocking trade if there is a unilateral force, which is guaranteed to provoke more hostility, making it more difficult for nations to come together and use reason. Without sanctions, nations can work to find common ground. With sanctions, diplomatic conversation is limited to…the sanctions.
- Sanctions often backfire, and punish the citizens of the country imposing the ban
Back to the Cuba example. Did the U.S. imposed sanctions, Cuba merely traded more with Mexico, Canada, and the Soviets. For them, problem solved. For us, no Cuban products. Who lost that round? America. For half a century. Every trade ban the U.S. imposes on another country bans trade for Americans as well. Meanwhile, allies and potential allies of the target country will grow stronger through trade.
Even when sanctions permit food and medicine to be sold or given to a country, banks and other businesses are still scared to provoke the wrath of institutions like the IRS by participating in giving aid.
- Sanctions punish the innocent while the powerful face nothing
Sanctions are in no way proportional to a population. As the Brookings Institute explains, “By creating scarcity, [tyrants] enable governments to better control distribution of goods.
“Does anyone honestly believe that placing an embargo on Iraq did any harm to Saddam Hussein? In this case, it was a unilateral move. During the Gulf War, the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq, blocking trade and prohibiting the country from selling its oil. This decade-long measure destroyed the Iraqi economy. Saddam didn’t withdraw from Kuwait until the U.S. invaded.
But who was hit? Did Saddam wallow in poverty for his crimes? He lived on in the luxury of his little empire. Meanwhile, malnutrition and lack of medical treatment took the lives of countless Iraqi citizens. Saddam already controlled his citizens through fear and bought loyalty. He was not personally threatened by the embargo. Who was? The elderly, the handicapped, women, and children especially.
- Sanctions provoke war
Every American remembers December 7, 1941 as the “day that will live in infamy.” Our history of WWII usually starts there. Five months prior to that day, the U.S. banned all exports to Japan and froze all of her U.S. assets. Apparently we thought that would stop them from invading the rest of Asia. Rather, these measures pushed us further into war. The Pearl Harbor attack wasn’t justified, but it didn’t come from nowhere either. The Japanese responded to an act of economic warfare at the height of a global crisis.
Trade sanctions are reckless and passive-aggressive weapons for those who are tired of diplomacy but don’t want to be the ones to “start the war.” They make trade the enemy when the real enemy is selfish governing enriching on the sovereignty of citizens. Blocking trade only gives more power to the politically powerful, and hurts those who have little power. The Cato institute has provided a great analysis of how U.S sanctions failed in Burma.
Economic sanctions are not an appropriate “alternative” to war. They are warlike in nature. Calling sanctions peaceful because physical weapons aren’t used is like saying sensory deprivation isn’t torture because you’re not inflicting anything on the person’s body. And like torture, sanctions have been proven to be mostly ineffective. Torture is torture. Harm is harm. As with interrogation, incentives provide better opportunities than threats and punishments.
If you want to undermine a tyrant without being responsible for hurting his people, trade restrictions simply won’t do. Most of the world has choked off any trade with North Korea. Has the problem of fascism disappeared? Nope. Countries that want to go nuclear will go nuclear no matter how much supplies you cut off from their people (and in the case of Pakistan, our military sanctions probably pushed them to go nuclear). Tyrants will brainwash and threaten the people to justify more rationing for more government spending. Just like our own politicians.
So if you know a politician who favors using sanctions as a “peacetime weapon,” let them know that you know better, and so should they.