Sanctions and sanctimony

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.


0 thoughts on “Sanctions and sanctimony

  1. Bill Anderson says:

    There is a danger in over simplifying the sanctions debate by merging the political and economic effects into one, and by comparing actions initiated by states (Cuba) and public campaigns that lead to state action (South Africa).

    South Africa developed oil from coal and built one of the world’s most effective armaments industries: sanctions galvanised the economy. Yet these same sanctions had, eventually, a very definite effect on the political will of the embattled ruling class. Read FW de Klerk’s memoirs to see the depth of the psychological relief he feels when he is allowed to venture abroad for the first time. What got to apartheid’s supporters was not primarily the actions of governments, but the weight of public opinion: the moral condemnation. A number of contributing factors brought down apartheid. Sanctions were by no means at the top of the list, but they nevertheless played an important role.

    The current campaign against Israel can be compared to the anti-apartheid movement in its early stages. Many campaigns based in the first instance on the mobilisation of public opinion fizzle out because they never reach a critical mass. Who knows which way this one will go.

    But if it does gather momentum it is not to be scoffed at. The idea that a path of action should only be adopted if it stands a reasonable chance of success might make sound financial advice, but from a political point of view it is plain silly.

    Crusaders adopting a moral pose? It’s called politics.

  2. patporter says:

    Crusaders adopting a moral pose without serious regard for consequences, was the concept as I suggested it. Reread the post.

    Formulating policy with a view to its effects and potential unintended consequences? its called statecraft.

  3. Bill Anderson says:

    And who is to say that the crusaders’ analysis of the outcomes of their consequences, idealistic though it might be, is not serious? It is (often passionate) politics and it sorts itself out in the wash.

    That is why I said that I think sanctions driven by public campaigns are a different creature to those initiated by states, or groups of states.

  4. patporter says:

    “And who is to say that the crusaders’ analysis of the outcomes of their consequences, idealistic though it might be, is not serious? It is (often passionate) politics and it sorts itself out in the wash.”

    There are cases where crusaders do maintain support for sanctions without serious regard for the counterproductive effects of the policy- eg. Cuba.

    There is such a thing as an ideologue who values grand symbolic gestures but thinks less hard about outcomes. You are absolutely right that crusaders will do this and that it is an inevitable political impulse. But the issue is what should inform policy, whether state or non-states are making that policy. I suggest that public policy can suffer (not ‘does’, but ‘can’) when it is driven by emotive ideological movements. Is this such a controversial point to make?

    Daniel Larison probably says it better than I do:

    “The way to tell an ideologue from a realist, and the reason realists are not simply ideologues posing as something else, is that the ideologue will persist in a course of action long after it has failed and long after everyone knows it has failed because he thinks that his “values” demand it. Instead of “let justice be done, though the heavens fall,” the ideologue says, “I am right, and the world can go to hell if it doesn’t agree.” The ideologue is terrified of having to make adjustments and adapt to the world as it really is, because these adjustments reveal to the ideologue just how far removed from that reality he has become. The ideologue keeps redefining the justification for the policy, he keeps rewriting history to suit his own purposes, and he never accepts responsibility for the failure of his ideas, because he believes they have never been faithfully followed. For the realist, cutting one’s losses and reassessing the merits of a policy are always supposed to be possibilities, but for the ideologue the former is equivalent to surrender and the latter is inconceivable.”

  5. Bill Anderson says:

    “Is this such a controversial point to make?”

    No, fair comment.

    But again, I think the realist-ideologue juxtaposition is too simplistic. The anti-apartheid movement took the best part of fifteen years to be taken seriously by any state. (Bloody-minded ideologues?)

    And the realist argument can be used arrogantly (and undemocratically). Against the Israel BDS campaign for instance?

  6. There is definitely much to be said for the observation that the “realism vs. idealism” debate is a fairly outmoded dichotomy that takes us into various unproductive analytical cul-de-sacs. Moreover, it seems rather pointless to bemoan the fact that politically active citizens should want to engage in actions that may even be little more than symbolic, an “emblem” as stated in the post — symbols matter, and they matter fundamentally.

    The larger point being missed is the confusion between principles of “statecraft” (as if that was unimpeachable), and non-state politics in what others characterize as civil society. I therefore have a problem with those who call for sanctions, because sanctions tend to be part of the arsenal of the state, whereas divestment and boycotts are outside of the province of the state.

    Boycotts are not required to “work”, and certainly there is no way of guaranteeing in advance that they will work. What is required is that they be done. I say this being especially mindful of the need for a more actively involved citizenry, rather than have masses of spectators who leave all the big decisions in the hands of the already-too-powerful. Now, surely, we have all had enough of *that* I would say.

    The most important goal is that a message is sent, so that a conspiracy of silence is not maintained, so that any illusion of complete consensus is finally ruptured. One can say this without being “emotional” (as if we should try to hold human-ness at a certain remove from humanity). Once people organize to send a message, that alone is an important measure of success.

  7. patporter says:

    Hi Bill,

    on the South Africa case, I think we are in some agreement. As I say, sanctions and other measures can work, conceivably. Actually, there is a view from my motherland that Aussie sports sanctions were influential in ‘shaming’ apartheid (whether this is true I just don’t know). I guess my question with S. Africa would be, did sanctions on balance weaken or fortify the apartheid regime. Because there are certainly alternative views, that sanctions actually worked to hurt the anti-apartheid movement.

    That is a different case from Cuba, where there has been striking evidence for decades that the economically crippling sanctions have strengthened Castro politically. Given that evidence, I would still think that the sanctions deserve to be judged on their results as well as their intentions.


    some fair points – but one qualifier. Symbolic gestures conducted in a vacuum of cause-and-effect can overlook the problem that the very gesture will create the opposite effect than that intended. A boycott may ‘send a message’, but the message received may well be a very different one than meant. Did the boycott of Danish goods lead Denmark to introduce harsher anti-profanity laws, or did it cause a greater sense of unfair persecution?

    saying that we should be mindful of the effects of actions is not the same thing as saying that no messages get sent. political campaigns of protest can turn attention to an issue, without counterproductive actions.

    In general, I’ll just have to disagree that symbolic stances are intrinsically worthy regardless of impact.

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