When trying to rein in the misbehavior of roguish regimes, be it nuclear proliferation, support for terrorism, or internal repression, the United States increasingly turns to a policy of economic sanctions.
A quick survey: We began our economic embargo against North Korea in 1950. We’ve had one against Cuba since 1962. We first applied economic sanctions to Iranduring the hostage crisis in 1979 and are currently trying for international sanctions aimed at getting the government there to suspend uranium enrichment. We attached trade sanctions to Burmabeginning in 1990 and froze the assets of Sudanbeginning in 1997. President Bush ordered sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2003 and against Syria beginning in 2004. We have also led major international sanctions campaigns against regimes since brought down by force of arms: Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, Saddam’s Iraq, and Taliban Afghanistan.
America’s sanctions policy is largely consistent, and in a certain sense, admirable. By applying economic restraints, we label the most oppressive and dangerous governments in the world pariahs. We wash our hands of evil, declining to help despots finance their depredations, even at a cost to ourselves of some economic growth. We wincingly accept the collateral damage that falls on civilian populations in the nations we target. But as the above list of countries suggests, sanctions have one serious drawback. They don’t work. Though there are some debatable exceptions, sanctions rarely play a significant role in dislodging or constraining the behavior of despicable regimes.
Sanctions tend to fail as a diplomatic tool for the same reason aerial bombing usually fails. As Israel is again discovering in Lebanon, the infliction of indiscriminate suffering tends to turn a populace against the proximate cause of its devastation, not the underlying causes. People who live in hermit states like North Korea, Burma, and Cuba already suffer from global isolation. Fed on a diet of propaganda, they don’t know what’s happening inside their borders or outside of them. By increasing their seclusion, sanctions make it easier for dictators to blame external enemies for a country’s suffering. And because sanctions make a country’s material deprivation significantly worse, they paradoxically make it less likely that the oppressed will throw off their chains.
Tyrants seem to understand how to capitalize on the law of unintended consequences. In many cases, as in Iraq under the oil-for-food program, sanctions themselves afford opportunities for plunder and corruption that can help clever despots shore up their position. Some dictators also thrive on the political loneliness we inflict and in some cases appear to seek more of it from us. The pariah treatment suits Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-il, Robert Mugabe, and SLORC just fine. Fidel Castro is another dictator who has flourished in isolation. Every time the United States considers lifting its embargo, Castro unleashes a provocation designed to ensure that we don’t normalize relations. It was a disappointment, but no surprise, to learn that the Cuban dictator was in “stable” condition after surgery this week. With our help, Castro has been in stable condition for 47 years.
Constructive engagement, which often sounds like lame cover for business interests, tends to lead to better outcomes than sanctions. Trade prompts economic growth and human interaction, which raises a society’s expectations, which in turn prompts political dissatisfaction and opposition. Trade, tourism, cultural exchange, and participation in international institutions all serve to erode the legitimacy of repressive regimes. Though each is a separate case, these forces contributed greatly to undermining dictatorships and fostering democracy in the Philippines, South Korea, Argentina, Chile, and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. The same process is arguably under way in China. Contact also makes us less clueless about the countries we want to change. It is hard to imagine we would have misunderstood the religious and ethnic conflicts in Iraq the way we have if our embassy had been open and American companies had been doing business there for the past 15 years
As another illustration, take Iran, which is currently the focus of a huge how-do-we-get-them-to-change conversation. Despite decades of sanctions, Iran is full of young people who are culturally attuned to the United States. One day, social discontent there will lead to the reform or overthrow of the ruling theocracy. But there is little reason to think that more sanctions will bring that day any closer. The more likely effect of a comprehensive sanctions regime is that it will push dissatisfied and potentially rebellious Iranians back into the arms of the nuke-building mullahs.
The counterexample always cited is South Africa, where economic and cultural sanctions do seem to have contributed not only to the fall of a terrible regime but to a successful democratic transition. In his new book The J Curve, Ian Bremmer argues that South Africa was unusually amenable to this kind of pressure because it retained a functioning multiparty democracy and because, unlike many other pariah states, it didn’t actually like being a pariah. Even so, sanctions took a very long time to have any impact. It was nearly three decades from the passage of the first U.N. resolution urging sanctions in 1962 to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.
If they are so rarely effective, why are Western governments pressing for sanctions more and more often? In a world of trouble, it is partly an exercise in frustration. We often have no good options and need to feel that we’re doing something. Sanctions are a palatable alternative to military action and often serve to appease domestic constituencies as well. But we need to learn that tyrants respond more to a deep survival instinct than to economic incentives. To understand their behavior, you can’t just read Adam Smith. You need Charles Darwin.