Friday, August 20, 2010

Making economic sanctions work

Making economic sanctions work
By Gordon Kaplan
Friday, August 20, 2010 at midnight

Economic sanctions against Iran and North Korea, much in the news of
late, are but recent examples in the long history of our use of
sanctions against "target" countries and regimes whose policies we seek
to alter. Sanctions are regularly claimed to be the most potent weapon
in our foreign policy arsenal short of landing the Marines. Yet, while
some sanctions programs have achieved their aims, others have failed.
Argued here are the several factors most likely to contribute to the
success of economic sanctions as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

Multilateral support

A sanctions program aimed at achieving high-value policy objectives can
best succeed if applied by a multilateral coalition of the target's
existing and potential trading partners. The U.S. acting alone is rarely
capable of isolating a target with unilateral sanctions, for what the
target can't get from the U.S. to keep its economy going it can get from
non-sanctioning countries ready to step in and replace the U.S. in
target-country markets. The sanctions programs employed against South
Africa and Cuba are cases in point.

In South Africa, multilateral sanctions directed at ending its apartheid
regime brought about the virtual economic and financial isolation of the
country. With trade blocked, and as new loans and investments from
abroad came to a halt and existing loans were called, the de Klerk
government realized that the apartheid regime was finished and opened
negotiations with the African National Congress for a new democratic
constitution and the holding of free elections.

In Cuba, however, the trade embargo aimed at toppling the Castro regime
has always been a U.S. affair. As a result, Cuba has been able to
continue trade relations with a range of countries, including many
considered our usual allies. After 47 years, our unilateral embargo for
the stated purpose of "bringing democracy to the Cuban people" has
clearly failed.

Realistic objectives

Policymakers may be tempted to proclaim inflated objectives for a
sanctions program to gain political support, but realism in foreign
policy requires that ends be brought into balance with the means to
achieve them. Economic sanctions alone are rarely sufficient to achieve
regime change in a target country, for example, since however great the
costs of sanctions to the ruling regime, they are unlikely to outweigh
the costs to it of surrendering power. Sanctions alone didn't work to
topple the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, nor did sanctions alone end
the apartheid regime in South Africa, for there the pressure of
sanctions was matched by the organized political pressure that
disenfranchised South Africans brought to bear on the regime.


Economic sanctions against a target country inevitably produce a
"blowback" of costs on the domestic economy of the sanctioning country –
the loss of normal trade opportunities leading to lost sales and jobs –
which can make it increasingly difficult to maintain sanctions over
time. The task for policymakers is to design sanctions that impose
maximum costs on the target without disproportionate costs to the
sanctioning country – a task made easier if the cost burden of imposing
sanctions is shared by a multilateral coalition.

Collateral damage

Economic sanctions are often a blunt instrument that causes hardship to
the target's general population but leaves unscathed the regime's ruling
elite. In recent times the U.S. has placed greater emphasis on using
so-called "smart" sanctions that minimize collateral damage to the
innocent by focusing on specific companies and industries used by the
elite to enrich itself and maintain its hold on power.

In Iran, for example, the U.S. has frozen the assets of 16 banks, sought
to block Iran's national shipping line from making port calls or
obtaining insurance for cargo to and from Iran, and targeted for
sanctions a number of petrochemical companies located outside of Iran
but thought to be front companies for Iran's oil ministry. These and
other measures haven't ended Iran's nuclear program or its support for
terrorist groups, but they are claimed to have forced the Iranian
government to make greater efforts at time-consuming and expensive

This discussion suggests some guiding principles for the effective use
of economic sanctions in U.S. foreign policy:

•Sanctions aimed at achieving major policy objectives have the strongest
chance of success if applied by a multilateral coalition; it helps that
the multilateral approach also shares the cost burden.

•A sanctions program must be realistic in terms of matching ends with
means. The ends should be specific and reasonably achievable, and the
sanctions designed to maximize costs to the target while minimizing
those to the sanctioning country or countries.

•Smart sanctions have their use in tightening the screws on a
recalcitrant or defiant regime without inflicting collateral damage on
the population at large. Energetically deployed, smart sanctions can at
least slow down and make more expensive the regime's efforts to continue
policies we consider hostile to our interests.

•And even when sanctions don't achieve stated objectives, they
nonetheless signal resolve, and may in fact be essential to prepare the
political ground at home and abroad for military action against the target.

Kaplan is an international corporate attorney in San Diego. He was
formerly a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.

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