Seventeen years ago Richard Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article titled “Sanctioning Madness”. The crux of his argument was:
With a few exceptions, the growing use of economic sanctions to promote foreign policy objectives is deplorable. This is not simply because sanctions are expensive, although they are. Nor is it strictly a matter of whether sanctions "work"; the answer to that question invariably depends on how demanding a task is set for a particular sanction. Rather, the problem with economic sanctions is that they frequently contribute little to American foreign policy goals while being costly and even counterproductive.
Haass was not saying to give up sanctions entirely. But they should not be the go-to tool, reached for habitually and unthinkingly, to address any foreign policy problem under the sun.
The American sanctions habit has not lessened at all during the intervening years, especially on Capitol Hill. Now Congress is getting out its sanctions pen yet again to see what it can do to Russia in response to the Crimean crisis. This may be an even clearer indication of the sanctions addiction than the recent unsuccessful effort to impose more sanctions on Iran, given that the latter move was more of a calculated attempt to sabotage an ongoing negotiation.
The multiple drawbacks and limitations of economic sanctions are too infrequently considered before sanctions are enacted. These include issues of who exactly in the target country will be hurt, and who might actually benefit. They also include consideration of counterproductive political reactions, including resistance to be seen buckling under pressure.
The costs, including economic costs, to ourselves of sanctions we impose are insufficiently acknowledged. In some situations trade patterns are such that the costs to ourselves may be minimal, but in those circumstances, and for that very reason, the desired impact on the target country is likely to be minimal as well. This may be the case with Russia today, with which the European Union has much more trade than the United States. Unilateral U.S. sanctions are thus likely to be ineffective with regard to Russia, while being needlessly disruptive to cooperation and common purpose with regard to the Europeans. Of course, any policy conducted with an attitude of “---- the E.U.”is not likely to be swayed by that concept.
The most important shortcoming to how sanctions tend to be used is a failure to link them carefully to the behavior we would like to see on the part of the target government. This means being very clear about exactly what it is to which we want the other side to say yes. It also means being clear in our own minds how the sanctions fit into an overall set of incentives and disincentives that will make saying yes seem more attractive than the alternative.
Ask someone pushing for sanctions against Russia today what they are intended to accomplish, and the answer is likely to be an end to Russian military occupation of Crimea. But that concept needs clarification, given that a reversal of moves made over the past week would still leave a Russian military presence on the peninsula by virtue of previous treaties and base leases. Needed also is a more complete package of understandings with the Ukrainians on matters of interest and concern to Russia, ranging from Ukraine not joining NATO to the status of the Russian language within Ukraine. It is unlikely that Russian military withdrawals will take place in the absence of some such understandings. It is thus unlikely U.S. sanctions would do any good unless carefully integrated into such a larger package.
The sanctions habit has persisted because imposing sanctions is a primitive, easy way to “do something” about difficult problems on which there is an urge to do something. It is a gesture. Congress needs to decide whether gestures are more important than making progress in getting out of the current crisis.
Image: Flickr/Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0.