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Column: When Sanctions Work and When They Don’t

Sanctions are so hot right now. Assistant Treasury Secretary Danny Glaser recently bragged to Newsweek that Treasury is “at the center of our national security.” Financial sanctions were the West’s first response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued bellicosity toward the rest of Ukraine, and the Obama administration is debating how widely to cast the sanctions net. So are sanctions an outdated foreign policy instrument, a safe option between diplomatic maneuvers and military action, or a new hope for American global leadership? The answer, of course, is none of the above. To understand why, we need to debunk a few myths.

∎ Sanctions never work.

Fifteen years ago, prominent foreign policy veterans such as Dick Cheney and Richard Haass were decrying “sanctioning madness.” But attitudes have changed. Honed during the global war on terror, sanctions now enjoy plenty of bipartisan support. Sanctions work in the sense that they can cause severe economic pain to the targeted country. But “work” should also mean that the sanctioned government acquiesces or compromises on specific policy goals. Economic pain alone doesn’t always lead to such compromises — particularly if territorial concessions or regime change is being demanded.

Still, recent outcomes have been promising. Last fall, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani publicly acknowledged that the effects of international sanctions on the country’s economy were so severe that quick negotiations were needed to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. Some critics of the Obama administration’s policy argue that current sanctions should stay in place, because they would be powerful enough to bring regime change to Iran.

Of course, no one should believe that sanctions alone will bring Jeffersonian democracy to Iran or compel Russia to relinquish Crimea. But sanctions can lead to concessions from the targeted government in one out of every three or four cases. That is a far cry from never working.

∎ Sanctions hurt the people more than the government.

This perception is one of the most powerful legacies of the U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. The comprehensive trade embargo had devastating effects on Iraqi society, hurting ordinary citizens far more than Saddam. The price of a month’s worth of food for a family increased 250-fold over the first five years of the sanctions regime, and infant mortality rates skyrocketed. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright provided the defining sound bite for this argument in a May 1996 interview with 60 Minutes, saying that even if the sanctions had killed half a million Iraqi children, “the price is worth it.”

But cases like Iraq are the exception. The overwhelming majority of economic sanctions do not last more than a decade; according to data from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, most sanctions end in less than a year. In almost all cases, something less than a comprehensive trade embargo is enforced. Most important, since the Iraq case, both the United Nations and the United States have developed “smart sanctions” to lessen the humanitarian impact. These measures — travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes — do not necessarily work any better, but they mitigate the effects on the population.

∎ The key is to make sanctions as painful as possible.

It is straightforward to assume “more pain, more gain” when it comes to sanctions. Logically, if the idea of sanctioning Russia is to get Vladimir Putin to recalculate the costs and benefits of breaking Ukraine apart, then surely maximizing the costs would be a good thing, right?

Again, Iraq is instructive for those contemplating maximal sanctions against Iran or Russia. First, Saddam adroitly shifted the blame for sanctions from himself to Western governments. The humanitarian effects of costly sanctions can lead to serious political blowback. Second, the stated purpose of the Iraq sanctions (elimination of the country’s weapons of mass destruction program) was somewhat at odds with the unstated purpose (toppling Saddam). The costliest sanctions in the world will not matter unless the demands are clear.

∎ As an energy exporter, Russia is especially vulnerable.

Economies that specialize in only one or two export commodities can be susceptible to sanctions. An embargo of cocoa exports helped force out Laurent Gbagbo — charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity — in the Ivory Coast in 2011. Meanwhile, Iran is so dependent on oil revenue that even a partial embargo of its exports has hurt its economy. In 2012, oil revenue made up more than half of Russia’s budget and 70 percent of its exports, so Putin may seem equally vulnerable.

But there are at least two reasons sanctioning Russia’s energy sector is not the same as sanctioning Iran.

First, European governments are far more dependent on Russian energy than Iranian energy; this is one of the sources of disagreement between the United States and Europe on sanctioning Putin.

Second, beyond energy, Russia has a bigger footprint in the global economy than Iran, which means that sanctions would impose greater costs outside Moscow. Britain and Canada benefit from Russian financial deposits; India and China benefit from Russian arms exports. While energy sanctions would severely hurt the Russian economy, other countries might not want to absorb even a fraction of that pain.

∎ Sanctions work only if the United States is involved.

Because the United States is at the epicenter of global financial markets, Washington has been at the forefront of financial sanctions. It would be easy to infer that U.S. participation is necessary for sanctions to work.

It would also be wrong. Russia has used its market access to force concessions from nearby states. Russian economic pressure on Ukraine forced Viktor Yanukovych’s regime to spurn a similar agreement with the E.U., which in turn triggered the protests that led to his ouster. And China has been no sanctions slouch, either: It was an informal embargo of rare-earth elements that led Japan to return a Chinese fishing boat captain seized in disputed waters in September 2010. And China canceled trade talks with Norway following Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.