WITH a reported 3,500 Syrians murdered since the March uprising, the government of Bashar al-Assad shows no sign of relenting its ruthless crackdown on protestors. In response, the Arab League have threatened to expel Syria while pressure is mounting on the EU to widen its sanctions against the regime. Amongst this cacophony of injustice, we must revisit a question that has vexed political commentators for decades – do economic sanctions ever work? Sanctions have been controversially used by Western powers, especially the United States, to exert political and economic pressure on “rogue” nations, such as Cuba, South Africa, Iran, Zimbabwe and North Korea. Many see sanctions not only as ineffective in forcing a regime to change its policy, but as counter-productive. They harm impoverished citizens, the very people they are supposed to be helping, and embolden despotic governments. Arguably, however, economic pressure can play an important role as “smart” sanctions, alongside other measures, can propel dramatic change such as ending apartheid in South Africa. So is the symbolic power of blacklisting a country internationally underestimated? And in an era where military intervention is so unpopular, is there another option? >>
1. The symbolic power is enormous
BY far the biggest value of economic sanctions is their symbolic power. The UN sanctions against Iran in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 sent a clear and potent message that its actions are not accepted by the international community. As Stephen Walt, an esteemed US academic attests, their chief value is as a foreign policy “signal” rather than an economic lever. This signal can be used as a crucial tool to increase diplomatic pressure on Syria and Bahrain – just as it did with Zimbabwe and North Korea in the past. The international sanctions placed on South Africa in the 1980s isolated the government and helped bring apartheid to an overdue end. Similarly, global sanctions placed on Serbia, after Slobodan Milosevic’s cruel campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, hastened Milosevic’s downfall and subsequent extradition to face an international war crimes tribunal.
2. They must be universally and effectively applied
SANCTIONS can be effective, but to work they need to be universally applied. As American diplomat Nicholas Burns points out: “The reason why they are perceived as failing is because many countries are effectively ignoring them or, like China, undercutting them.” Likewise, earlier sanctions against Iran in 1996 “failed” because of a waiver which meant it could still access Western technology through European firms. The lesson from this is not to do away with sanctions, but to apply them more intelligently. The Peterson Institute of Economics highlights that “smart” sanctions involving modest goals have a 50% chance of success. Any prospective sanctions against Syria will need to prescribe to certain principles – a broad coalition of countries involved, promise of sustained measures over a long time, a disproportionate effect on innocents and that these sanctions can be backed up by military force.
3. They must not exist in isolation
SANCTIONS are an important tool in foreign policy, but as Professor Adam Roberts, a research fellow at Oxford University, says: “They work best in combination with other factors.” This can be seen in Rhodesia and South Africa where, alongside social forces at work, they played a part in the change from white minority to black majority rule. However, the end of apartheid is a rare example as sanctions should be judged on their success in achieving specific stated objectives, rather than inflated expectations for regime change. Robert Carswell, the former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, claimed the successful end to the 1979 U.S. Embassy siege in Tehran was down to the stated objectives to “defrost” Iranian assets in exchange for hostages.
4. It’s our only option
THE spectre of lengthy and disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still looms large over the international community. In the current climate where military action is so unpopular, economic sanctions are a credible instrument for governments to use. Diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s ambassador to the UN between 1998 and 2003, says the fundamental reason for the popularity of sanctions is that “there is nothing else between words and military action if you want to bring pressure upon a government.” Sanctions against Yemen, Syria and Bahrain are tougher than a diplomatic “telling off” and demonstrate a willingness of the EU and U.S. to rise above their commercial interests and make economic sacrifices. They also offer flexibility by keeping diplomatic channels open with countries rather than simply isolating them – a useful balancing act.
5. People must be patient
THOSE who dismiss economic sanctions for failing to make a decisive and instantaneous impact must be aware they are not intended as a quick fix. It took nearly three decades from the first UN resolution urging sanctions in 1962 to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. Their purpose is to send a signal and not, as is commonly perceived, to exert economic leverage. This means that often it can be difficult to explicitly quantify the effectiveness of economic sanctions. The current war in Libya demonstrates that even NATO-led military force can struggle to oust a tyrannical regime. Therefore, we must be realistic in our expectations of economic sanctions. Rather than simply dismissing them as an ineffective weapon of the rich, we must accept they are viable, but imperfect, tools of foreign policy.
1. They hardly ever achieve their prescribed aim
WHETHER it be against North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Burma, Sudan, Syria or Zimbabwe, sanctions rarely achieve their political objective – to undermine a regime or initiate its removal. The Peterson Institute’s estimate puts the success rate at about 30%. In a world of cold power politics, the reality is that regimes are brought down not by trade embargoes but by force of arms. For a government like Bashar Al-Assad’s that is willing to murder its own people, sanctions will not make a difference. In Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, Saddam’s Iraq and Taliban controlled Afghanistan, it was military action that forced them from power. This starkly illustrates the limits of sanctions on regimes that show scant concern for the welfare of their people. Ivan Eland, from think tank the Center on Peace and Liberty, says: “The U.S. overuse ineffective, and potentially counterproductive, economic coercion for symbolic purposes.”
2. They hurt ordinary people
THE most damning consequence of economic sanctions is that they hurt innocent people the most by cutting them off from food, medicine and other necessities. Sanctions imposed on Iraq between 1991 and 2001 led to widespread devastation, precipitating the deaths of up to one million Iraqis. While a 1999 study suggests that post-Cold War sanctions may have contributed to more deaths than all “weapons of mass destruction” used throughout history. Dictators tend to redirect the pain of sanctions onto the backs of those least able to weather them. Manuel Noriega did this when harsh financial sanctions were imposed against Panama in the 1980s. Louis Kreisberg, a social conflict analyst, says that they can “widen the conflict, add to its destructiveness and sometimes prolong it.” Any sanctions on Syria are likely to follow this pattern.
3. Sanctions are counter-productive
ECONOMIC sanctions are worse than ineffective, they are actively counter-productive. The Economist Blog argues that they create a “rally round the flag” effect, whereby “the infliction of indiscriminate suffering tends to turn a populace against the proximate cause of its devastation, not the underlying causes”. For decades Fidel Castro has been able to blame poverty on the coercive economic measures imposed by the US. Similarly, Robert Mugabe’s rhetoric about “neo-colonial” sanctions has been remarkably powerful in Zimbabwe. While dictator Kim Jong-il has thrived on North Korea’s political isolation and used it as a propaganda tool. By increasing their seclusion, sanctions make it easier for dictators to blame external enemies for a country’s suffering. In the case of Iran, sanctions are likely to push dissatisfied, young and culturally-attuned Iranians back into the fold of the ruling Islamic theocracy.
4. Constructive engagement is a more useful tool
THE simple truth is that constructive engagement is more likely to reap rewards than the demonizing effect of sanctions. The success story of the last few decades has been China’s integration into the global economy. Although the bloodbath in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was reprehensible, the West’s reaction was to use trade and cultural exchange to inspire a regime shift rather than impose isolating sanctions. Trade, tourism, cultural exchange, and participation in international institutions contributed greatly to undermining dictatorships and fostering democracy in the Philippines, South Korea, Argentina, Chile and in Eastern Europe in the 1980s – and is likely to do the same in other autocratic regimes.
5. Economic sanctions are selective
ECONOMIC sanctions are the default mechanism for publicity-conscious Western governments who want to be seen to be “doing something”. Scholar Daniel Fisk argues: “Economic sanctions are a policy instrument with little chance of achieving much beyond making policy-makers feel good about having done something for a particular domestic community.” Sanctions are often imposed on countries the US and EU dislike. For example, the US supports despots in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. However, it chooses to impose sanctions on Belarus because it maintains close ties with Russia. And even when sanctions do work, as is the case of apartheid South Africa, the resulting political upheaval has more to do with internal social forces than sanctions.
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Image: Syrian Press Office