Commentary Type

The Snake Oil of Diplomacy: When Tensions Rise, the US Peddles Sanctions

Editorial reprinted from The Washington Post


Stating the obvious, President Clinton recently lamented that the United States has become "sanctions happy." Clinton, of course, is the same president who has signed laws for new punitive measures against India, Pakistan, Cuba, Iran and Libya and has used his executive powers to add to the rich legacy of sanctions inherited from past occupants of the White House.

No country in the world has employed sanctions as often as the United States has. The American infatuation with economic sanctions was sparked by President Woodrow Wilson when he was trying to sell the idea of the League of Nations to his countrymen, together with its newly crafted economic weaponry. Wilson famously declared in 1919: "A nation boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy." America didn't buy the League-the Senate refused to ratify U.S. membership in that precursor to the United Nations-but as the decades rolled on, America adopted Wilson's idea of sanctions as a diplomatic tool.

During this century, the United States has imposed economic sanctions more than 110 times. Economic sanctions entail the denial of customary export, import or financial relations with a target country in an effort to change the country's laws or policies. For example, the United States may block World Bank or International Monetary Fund loans in an effort to stem nuclear proliferation (India and Pakistan); or it may restrict trade with a country to change its human rights policies (Argentina, Chile and China). The current inventory of U.S. sanctions covers 26 target countries, accounting for over half of the world's population. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Congress has felt freer to interfere in foreign policy, instructing the president on the minute details of imposing and waiving sanctions. In short, whenever tensions rise, sanctions become the favorite tonic of American diplomacy.

What have we learned from this grand experiment in the diplomatic laboratory? Quite a lot.

First, as a substitute for military force-the Wilsonian notion-sanctions seldom achieve the desired change in the conduct of foreign countries. In plain language: Wilson was wrong. Perhaps one episode in five results in discernible changes abroad that can be traced to sanctions. The most recent qualified success was the election of Andres Pastrana as president of Colombia last month, following several years of U.S. sanctions directed personally against his predecessor, Ernesto Samper. Charging that Samper had accepted $6 million from the Cali drug cartel for his 1994 presidential campaign, the United States disqualified Colombia as a recipient of U.S. aid and took the unusual step of revoking Samper's entry visa, in effect declaring him persona non grata. These steps were, of course, not the only reason for Pastrana's victory, and probably not the major reason, but they were a contributing factor. Against this qualified success must be listed many unqualified failures: Haiti, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Iraq and China, to name the most prominent.

Advocates of sanctions offer South Africa as their favorite example. Economic sanctions were not the deciding factor, but they helped pressure F.W. de Klerk to concede power to Nelson Mandela in 1994. Why doesn't the South African experience translate to Burma, Sudan, India and other miscreants? One reason is that South African sanctions were multilateral, not just a U.S. initiative. Another reason is that, even under apartheid, South Africa was semi-democratic, and the white minority cared what the rest of the world thought.

In fact, this is one of the ironies: Democratic countries, where the elite cares what the rest of the world thinks, are far more susceptible to sanctions than authoritarian countries isolated from world opinion. The contrast between Sudan and South Africa, or between Cuba and Colombia, could not be sharper. An unintended consequence of financial sanctions against Pakistan, a weak but semi-democratic state, open to world opinion, is that the penalties may help topple the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif-as Pakistan slips into deep economic depression-and pave the way for a truly authoritarian and fundamentalist regime.

The second lesson from the diplomatic lab is that it is naive to think of sanctions as a substitute for force when dealing with authoritarian powers. Draconian sanctions made little difference to the policies of Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama, Raoul Cedras in Haiti or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Only the use of force changed the governments of Panama and Haiti, and pushed Iraq out of Kuwait. The threat of force tempered Saddam's resistance to U.N. arms inspections early in 1998. But far more often, when U.S. presidents impose sanctions, they see them as an isolated measure, not as part of an escalating "force curve"-a steady progression from diplomatic protest, to economic sanctions, to military intervention; at each step, the target country knows worse is yet to come. The result of treating sanctions as a disconnected policy measure is that the United States has acquired a well-deserved reputation for bluffing: If an authoritarian adversary can withstand sanctions, it need not fear a surprise attack.

A third lesson is that economic sanctions can inflict pain on innocent people while at the same time increasing the grip of the leaders we despise. When sanctions are applied broadside-as against Haiti, Cuba and Iraq-the hardest hit are the most vulnerable: the poor, the very young, the very old and the sick. Left unharmed, and often strengthened, are the real targets: the political, military and economic elites.

A fourth lesson is that sanctions applied hard and fast are more likely to succeed (all other circumstances being equal) than sanctions applied soft and slow. But this lesson poses a dilemma. Hard sanctions usually require multilateral cooperation, if not from the U.N. Security Council, at least from the industrial democracies. While the United States may be the sole military superpower, it is not the only economic player. Without the cooperation of Canada, Western Europe and Japan, the United States alone cannot deny a target country key imports, critical markets or vital finance. So the prescription for hard sanctions-sanctions with both economic and moral effect-amounts to a caution against going it alone. On the other hand, multilateral cooperation takes time to arrange, and often is unachievable. Quick U.N. sanctions against Iraq in 1990 were a notable exception; more typical was the measured international response to India's recent nuclear weapons tests.

Another dilemma posed by the "hard and fast" lesson is that in circumstances where sanctions alone have the best chance of success-against societies that are semi-democratic and open to world opinion-it goes against the American spirit to pile on. Instead, we prefer to escalate sanctions slowly so as to give leaders of the target countries time to reconsider. This tactic also gives them time to take evasive measures.

So why not just muddle along with our sanctions policy? After all, in the view of many American officials, the United States has a special responsibility to deal with misdeeds in many places, ranging from religious persecution in Russia and China to despots in Cuba and Burma. But since military force is too costly and diplomacy is too feeble, why not apply economic sanctions as the global salve to problems abroad and consciences at home? Why not drink the marvelous tonic of foreign policy on the cheap?

The reason, again to quote President Wilson, if not in the sense he intended, is that sanctions are a "terrible remedy." Start with the domestic costs. Estimates made by Kimberly Elliott, Jeffrey Schott and myself indicate that economic sanctions in place today cost the United States some $20 billion in lost exports annually, depriving American workers of some 200,000 well-paid jobs. It would be one thing if these costs were compensated from the public purse, so that everyone shared the burden; it is quite another when the costs are concentrated episodically on individual American firms and communities.

Then consider the morality. U.S. economic sanctions, along with Fidel Castro's own mismanagement, have helped close the income gap between Haiti and Cuba-by driving Cuban living standards downward toward the desperate Haitian level. Speaking of Haiti, that blighted economy has yet to recover from penalties imposed by the first Clinton administration. The multitudinous poor in Iraq, Iran and Vietnam are that much more miserable thanks to prolonged sanctions. With a little resolve, we could also worsen the lives of Nigerians, Indonesians and Burmese. Pope John Paul II had a point when he said during his visit to Cuba in January that the effects of economic sanctions are "always deplorable, because they hurt the most needy"-in effect, that ordinary Cubans, not Castro and his inner circle, are paying the price. The same would happen in these other ill-governed countries.

Finally, the liberal application of sanctions to every cause and country badly erodes U.S. leadership. When the United States applies sanctions to half the world's people, and when it imposes secondary sanctions on allies and friends, it prompts a reaction against American hegemony. Sanctions against China have neither shaken the leadership nor hindered the country's drive for growth. Sanctions against India will have approximately the same lack of effect. And few secondary sanctions do more than irritate U.S. allies. (Americans, above all, should understand symbolic offenses. The British tea tax imposed no real economic hardship on colonial Boston. It did inspire a revolution against the greatest power of the day.)

Recovery from this love affair will require decisive steps by the White House and the Congress. Clinton appears ready to start the cure, but much more needs to be done. Passage of the sanctions reform bill, introduced last fall by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Phil Crane (R-Ill.), would be a useful next step. This bill seeks "to establish an effective framework for consideration by the legislative and executive branches of unilateral economic sanctions." It proposes several sensible guidelines when economic sanctions are considered, either by the president or Congress.

The procedural reforms include increased executive branch consultation with Congress, public hearings, a cost-benefit analysis, a preference for targeted and multilateral measures whenever possible, presidential waivers for all legislatively imposed sanctions and sanctity of contracts. If passed, Hamilton-Lugar would be a landmark law.

But additional steps are still needed:

  • The United States should rarely impose sanctions when it cannot get the support of its friends. This Hamilton-Lugar benchmark needs to become standard operating procedure. Ideally, the U.N. Security Council should support the sanctions. At a minimum, the NATO allies, or groups of like-minded states in Latin America, Asia or the Middle East should endorse the effort.

  • We should realize that the huge inventory of sanctions now in place could have tremendous value as diplomatic carrots, if the president were able to withdraw them to reward good foreign behavior. For that, the president must have unfettered freedom to lift sanctions step by step. Hamilton-Lugar states that the president "should" have waiver authority when Congress enacts a new sanctions measure. The Justice Department needs to go further than that: It should challenge in court any sanctions legislation that does not contain a national interest waiver that the president can exercise. The Glenn Amendment, mandating sanctions against India and Pakistan for their nuclear explosions, would make an excellent test case. Mandatory legislation of this nature unconstitutionally infringes the president's power in the realm of foreign affairs.

  • When dealing with authoritarian regimes, the president should direct sanctions at rulers, not the populace at large. Iraqis are not our enemies. Nor are Cubans. We can single out individuals and agencies that give offense or outrage. We can devise civil and criminal penalties, buttressed by bounties, so that their persons and property are at risk whenever they venture outside their own territory.

  • Finally, when the president imposes comprehensive sanctions on an authoritarian regime, he should view those sanctions as a prelude to the exercise of military force, not as a substitute for force. Unless we are prepared to remove bad governments with military force, we have no business heaping prolonged punishment on innocent people.

'A Terrible Remedy'

Ongoing foreign policy sanctions, defined as the "deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of customary trade or financial relations," have been imposed either multilaterally or by the United States on the following nations:

Target CountryInitial YearType of SanctionsPrecipitating EventKey Changes to Sanctions

Angola1993Limited trade restrictions (arms and oil embargo); Air and travel sanctionsFailure to implement peace agreementAir and travel ban (1997); Ban on UNITA diamond exports (1998)
Azerbaijan1992Restrictions on financial assistance (including Overseas Private Investment Corp.)Embargo of Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh
Burma1988Restrictions on aid (including U.S. Export-Import Bank, OPIC), travel restrictions, Ban on trade preferences, Investment banRepression of political oppositionMassachusetts state sanctions (1996), Ban on new U.S. investments (1997)
Cambodia1992Limited trade restrictions (log boycott; oil embargo)Failure to implement peace agreement; repression of oppositionAid reductions (1997)
Cameroon1992Restrictions on aidRepression of opposition 
China1989Restrictions on financial assistance, Exim, OPIC;
Limited export restrictions
Tiananmen Square massacreLimited export restrictions (1991)
Cuba1960Comprehensive trade and financial sanctions;
Secondary sanctions to inhibit foreign investment
Castro-led takeover; military interventions in Africa (1980s); Repression of oppositionCuban Democracy Act restricts trade of U.S. subsidiaries abroad (1992)
Helms-Burton bill codifies embargo; adds secondary sanctions against third-country investors in Cuba (1996)
Gambia1994Restrictions on aidMilitary coup 
Haiti1997Restrictions on aidPolitical instability 
India1998Ban on financial assistance,including Exim, OPIC;
Limited trade restrictions;
Ban on bank loans to government;
Postponement of non-humanitarian official, multilateral lending
Nuclear weapons tests 
Indonesia1991Military aid restrictions; Ban on arms salesPolitical repression, especially in East Timor 
Iran1984Comprehensive trade and financial sanctions; Secondary sanctions to inhibit foreign investmentSupport for terrorism, opposition to peace process in Middle East; efforts to acquire weapons of mass destructionLimited export restrictions (1984)
Import boycott added (1987)
Total export embargo (1995)
Iran-Libya Sanctions Act adds secondary sanctions against foreign firms investing in oil sector (1996)
Iraq1990Comprehensive trade and financial sanctions,except limited oil sales under U.N. oil-for-food programInvasion of Kuwait; post-wardiscovery of extensive program to acquire weapons of mass destruction 
Liberia1992Arms embargoCivil war 
Libya1978Comprehensive trade and financial sanctions; Air travel banGadhafi regime support for terrorism; bombing of Pan Am Flight #103Limited U.S. export restrictions (1978)
U.S. boycotts Libyan oil (1982)
U.S. imposes comprehensive sanctions (1986)
U.N. imposes limited trade sanctions; air travel ban (1992-93)
Iran-Libya Sanctions Act adds secondary sanctions against foreign firms investing in oil sector (1996)
Niger1996Restrictions on aidMilitary coup 
Nigeria1993Restrictions on aid;U.S. bans all financial assistance, Exim, OPIC;Restrictions on arms sales;Travel restrictionsAbrogation of election results; execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, other dissidents 
North Korea1950Comprehensive trade and financial sanctionsKorean War; possible acquisition of nuclear weaponsU.N. threatens trade and financial sanctions to forestall nuclear weapons acquisition (1993-94)
Pakistan1979Ban on financial assistance,OPIC, Ex-Im, export credit guarantees;
Ban on bank loans to Pakistan's government;
Postponement of non-humanitarian loans
Nuclear weapons program; nuclear weapons testsU.S. imposes limited sanctions (1979)
U.S. waives sanctions during Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1980s)
U.S. expands sanctions; G-8 imposes limited sanctions (1998)
Somalia1992Arms embargoCivil war 
Sudan1988Comprehensive trade and financial sanctionsCivil war and human rights abuses; support for terrorismAid sanctions (1988-89)
Comprehensive sanctions (1997)
Syria1986Ban on U.S. assistance,including Ex-Im, OPIC; Limited trade restrictionsSupport for terrorism 
Vietnam1954Denied most-favored-nation statusVietnam War and aftermath; personnel missing in actionTotal trade embargo lifted; other restrictions remain (1994)
Yugoslavia1991Comprehensive trade and financial sanctionsCivil war in Bosnia; implementation of Dayton agreement ending Bosnian war; intervention in KosovoU.N. trade sanctions lifted, restrictions on multilateral lending, other limited sanctions remain (1995)
Additional sanctions imposed against Serbia over Kosovo (1998)
Zaire1990Restrictions on aidMobutu corruption and suppression of opposition; continued repression under Kabila regimeSanctions continued after Kabila takeover (1998)
Zambia1996Restrictions on aidRepression of opposition, human rights violations

SOURCE: Institute for International Economics

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