Cuba, South Africa, Iraq, North Korea, Iran. A few of the nations that have been subjected to sanctions of one form or another over the past few decades. Does it work?
Daniel Larison, one of my favourite bloggers, has this to say:
One thing that at least some realists on the right have argued for a while is that sanctions are ineffective and counterproductive, especially if the goal is to undermine another government, and tend to punish those, namely the civilian population, whom we presumably least want to harm. The unsentimental, “amoral” realist has a better chance of implementing a more just policy than the so-called idealists, because he is interested in both the right means and ends, and he is not satisfied with moral cant and making oneself feel better by engaging in a lot of bluster and misguided actions that backfire. Indeed, even though many realists are critical of current Israeli policy and U.S. enabling thereof, you would need to search quite extensively to find a realist who supports sanctioning Israel or organizing boycotts against it or doing anything of the kind. Such boycotts and sanctions would be exactly the sort of petty moralizing and sentimental do-goodery that blinds people to real solutions and ensures that the target of the sanctions becomes even more steadfast in its resolve to resist.
In spirit I agree with much of this. Which is one of the reasons I’m uneasy when trade unions or the Church of England in this country demand that Israel be subjected to sanctions, whether from the state or in the form of ‘divestment’, boycotts and the like. From the other side of the spectrum, its also why I am not convinced that sanctions against Castro’s regime have been worthwhile.
There is clearly the whole problem of selection and severity. Are we to sanction consistently all nation-states that violate human rights? When are we going to embargo China and Saudi Arabia? But defenders of sanctions might respond that measures against Israel would ‘work’ more effectively and are therefore more feasible, because Israel is an allied democracy. What’s more, just because you can’t intervene or act in every case, doesn’t mean you don’t in cases where you realistically can. (Applying an analogy from humanitarian intervention, you can act to end genocide in the Balkans even if you can’t in the Sudan).
But would it, in fact, work? Will the effect of sanctions applied against states that feel beleaguered and threatened be to liberalise their policies? Or will it further sharpen their sense of embattled victimhood? Will it give them a common enemy to unite against? Taking the case of Cuba, does an economic sanctions programme not give the regime the ultimate excuse, enabling it to blame all problems and failures on the Goliath that oppresses them?
This may not be wholly accurate. There may be convincing evidence that limited measures can help to change behaviour in a positive and desired direction. What’s more, sanctions intended not to change fundamental behaviour but to deny a state access to weapons material for example might be more realistic. It might even be plausible that sanctions can bring the force of opprobrium on a state and influence it to alter its policies.
But as well as the empirical question of whether sanctions ‘work’, Larison rightly calls out those who demand sanctions without seriously contemplating their effectiveness. At the hands of some crusaders, sanctions become a moral pose or posture, an emblem of a world view rather than a serious effort to change another state’s behaviour.
Ideology that trumps pragmatic calculation, the overestimation of our power to transform the internal politics of other states, obsession with finding the ‘correct’ ideological stance and indifference to the actual effects of policy. We have had quite enough of that kind of thinking.