Washington’s Never-Ending Love Affair with Sanctions

by | Jun 1, 2023

Washington’s Never-Ending Love Affair with Sanctions

by | Jun 1, 2023

sanctions

One of the more puzzling features of the U.S. approach to world affairs is how officials persist in their enthusiasm for economic sanctions as a worthwhile policy tool despite massive evidence regarding their futility. More than three decades ago, Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliot debunked the notion that sanctions were effective in their seminal book, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered.  Subsequent historical scholarship and contemporary studies by other experts have largely confirmed that conclusion.

Sanctions have a nearly unique quality of being simultaneously both cruel and ineffectual. They negatively impact innocent, ordinary people in the target country while having little ability to alter the behavior of the ruling elites. As Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliot showed, sanctions rarely compel regimes to comply with Washington’s demands—especially on matters that the foreign leaders consider high-priority.

Longstanding U.S. campaigns against both Cuba and North Korea confirm that point. Washington imposed economic sanctions on Cuba more than six decades ago in response to Fidel Castro’s communist revolution. The stated purpose was to force Havana to respect the property rights of U.S. firms and Cuban exiles, and to force the Castro regime to democratize or fall from power. The last time I looked, the Castro family was still in charge, and the regime was as communist as ever.

U.S. leaders have had no better luck with their coercive measures North Korea or Iran. Despite a decades-long effort to compel Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program, the Kim family remains firmly entrenched in power, North Korea has conducted several underground atomic tests, and they continue to build both an arsenal of nuclear weapons and a capable ballistic missile fleet.

Washington’s sanctions program against Iran is now in its fifth decade, with very few beneficial results. The punitive approach has caused considerable suffering among ordinary Iranians, but Tehran continues to oppose and obstruct U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. Indeed, Iran’s growing diplomatic, economic, and strategic ties with Russia and China (partly in response to U.S. and Western sanctions) will strengthen its ability to do so.

Despite such a long, dismal track record, U.S. leaders continue with their enthusiasm for sanctions. Among the most recent targets are Syria, Venezuela, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Eunomia’s Daniel Larison aptly points out the political and moral bankruptcy of the sanctions against Venezuela. “Broad sanctions encourage Venezuelans to flee their country in search of survival. The refugee crisis that Venezuela’s neighbors have to manage and the border crisis that the U.S. is facing are fueled in no small part by the destructive sanctions imposed on Venezuela.” He adds: “In both Venezuela and Syria, the U.S. keeps waging economic wars that everyone in the vicinity knows to be useless and purely destructive.”

The consequences of the U.S.-led strategy of imposing sanctions on Russia are even worse. U.S.-NATO measures have damaged Russia’s economy, but they have been decidedly less effective than Washington’s public boasts suggest. After a brief, sharp decline, the Ruble has become one of the stronger currencies internationally, making a mockery of President Joe Biden’s prediction that it would soon become “the rubble.” Russia also remains a key export power in terms of both energy and food. Indeed, the Kremlin has been markedly successful in shifting its exports from European markets to those in other regions. Most notably, it has replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s largest source of oil and natural gas.

Moscow’s overall economic ties with Iran, China, India, South Africa, and other countries are stronger than they were before NATO adopted its coercive strategy. Sino-Russian economic collaboration has broadened into closer security ties that provide hints of an emerging bilateral alliance between the Asian giants. That is a development that likely will give U.S. military planners sleepless nights. Moreover, there are no signs that sanctions are causing Russian President Vladimir Putin to change his hardline policy toward Ukraine. Yet that was the ostensible rationale for the U.S-NATO sanctions strategy.

Having learned nothing from the counterproductive consequences of Washington’s economic warfare against Russia, the Biden administration has imposed a growing array of sanctions on the PRC. Not only is that course jeopardizing relations with America’s third biggest trading partner, it is exacerbating already worrisome bilateral tensions in the western Pacific over Taiwan and other issues.

Given such a long record of futility and unpleasant side effects, it might seem puzzling why economic sanctions seemingly have remained the “go to” option for U.S. policymakers. The root of the problem for advocates of a global interventionist foreign policy is that there are surprisingly few options. Unless U.S. vital interests are threatened, resorting to warfare entails severe risks and potentially disastrous consequences. Wars of choice in remote regions involving meager (or nonexistent) American interests have turned out badly for multiple U.S. administrations. Just mentioning the cases of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan emphasizes that point. Risking war against Russia because of Ukraine may prove to be an even greater nightmare.

Cautious U.S. policymakers are wary of embracing the military option. The opposite choice is to emphasize diplomacy as the primary U.S. response to disagreeable foreign developments. However, diplomacy has a widespread image of being toothless—and political leaders are phobic about being seen by their domestic audiences as weak.

Sanctions provide the aura of being the worthwhile “middle option.” However, it is usually a seductive illusion, since sanctions rarely turn out to be more effective than purely diplomatic efforts. Worse, they inflict harm on innocent civilians, create refugee crises, and make already difficult disputes even more intractable. U.S. leaders need to ignore the siren call of sanctions, or they will create even more calamities in world affairs.

About Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. Dr. Carpenter also served in various policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. He is the author of thirteen books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs and the threat that the U.S. national security state poses to peace and civil liberties at home and around the world. Dr. Carpenter’s latest book is "Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy" (2022)

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