The Skeptics

Inside Washington's Soft-Power Sanctions War

The Treasury Department provides a helpful list of active sanctions programs: Balkans-related, Belarus, Burundi, Central African Republic, Counter Narcotics Trafficking, Counter Terrorism, Cuba, Cyber-related, Democratic Republic of the Congo-related, Iran, Iraq-related, Lebanon-related, Libya, Magnitsky, Nonproliferation, North Korea, Rough Diamond Trade, Somalia, Sudan and Darfur, South Sudan-Related, Syria, Transnational Criminal Organizations, Ukraine/Russia-related, Venezuela-related, Yemen-related and Zimbabwe. There also are two inactive programs, Burma (Myanmar) and the Ivory Coast.

That’s quite a list. If any government deserves to be called a bully, it is the one in Washington.

Equally striking is how ineffectual the effort generally has been. Sanctions didn’t end ethnic violence in the Balkans. In fact, years ago I met opposition figures in Belgrade who complained that the U.S. embargo denied resources to their movement while the government manipulated controls for its own benefit. Belarus, Burundi, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have not liberalized in response to U.S. economic penalties. Foreign drug traffickers have not given up attempting to satisfy the demand of Americans for illicit mind-altering substances. A Castro still rules Cuba, which remains subject to economic restrictions dating back a half century.

Sanctions helped move Iran toward an agreement for greater nuclear oversight, but further negotiations and inducements also were necessary, and the current president apparently wants to go back to economic war. Embargoes and penalties achieved little in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya. Sanctions haven’t forced Moscow to disgorge Crimea or stopped Pyongyang from developing both nuclear weapons and ICBMs. Economic controls have produced little good in Somalia. They probably helped convince Sudan to allow the secession of its southern territory—in response to a promise to lift sanctions, which the U.S. subsequently violated. But the creation of South Sudan looks like another disastrous intervention by Washington, which has resulted in a new round of economic penalties being imposed on the new state.

Sanctions have not put the tragic nation of Syria back together or halted the advance of the Islamic State. Venezuela continues to crash economically and tumble toward dictatorship despite American penalties. Targeting Yemen has achieved nothing, especially since the main perpetrators of violence are Washington’s nominal allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Sanctions have not saved Zimbabwe from economic collapse and authoritarian gerontocracy.

Trade restrictions may have helped push Burma’s junta toward reform, but the military moved only when it believed modest democratization would serve its interests. Sanctions did not mitigate Ivory Coast’s political conflagration. Going back in time, economic penalties against white supremacist governments in Rhodesia and South Africa likely played a positive role, though they would not have been enough on their own. Few other cases look even that positive—and Rhodesia’s transformation into Zimbabwe no longer appears to have liberated the country’s inhabitants.

At the same time, economic penalties obviously hurt Americans by denying them business and employment opportunities. Even if American workers find alternative jobs, the latter are likely to pay less than export industries. And the harm lingers, as foreign companies replace U.S. businesses. Sometimes that switch has geopolitical consequences: for instance, China and Gulf nations have taken on an outsize role in Sudan, long subject to debilitating financial sanctions from Washington. A generation of Sudanese has avoided America for education.

Where the U.S. magnified the impact of unilateral action with secondary sanctions, hitting other nations’ firms, as the Helms-Burton Act did in Cuba, and banks, which were targeted by rules affecting Sudan. Washington’s use of the financial system to impose its will on the entire world has led to calls for creation of an alternative to the U.S.-dominated SWIFT banking clearance system; in fact, Russia reportedly has prepared just such an option in case American officials attempt to exclude it. Until now, there has been overt little retaliation, but the Europeans have reacted strongly to the congressional vote to target foreign-energy investment in Russia. The European Union matches American economic strength and could strike back if Washington attempts to impose U.S. policy on Europe.

In most sanctions cases governments of the target countries behaved badly, though sometimes no worse than American allies. In most of the nations, at least, innocent people were suffering, making the desire to help understandable. In practice, though, sanctions often look like something primarily intended to make U.S. activists feel better. Little effort goes into making sure the proposed policy would help rather than hurt those on whose behalf America claims to be acting. In Washington, at least, appearance usually is more important than reality.

Criticism of general sanctions has led to the rise of “smart sanctions,” targeted against government leaders, political supporters, business backers and the like. Such penalties impose a measure of individual justice on those most guilty of misconduct, but are not likely to have great political impact. For instance, Russian “oligarchs” might be unhappy at losing access to European travel, but their dissatisfaction is unlikely to turn into political opposition, which would entail substantial personal risk.