Why Sanctions Don’t Work

Whenever a foreign country doesn’t go along with the policy goals of the "international community" (i.e. America and it’s allies), one tool that it invariably uses to try and put these nations back in line is the sanction. As most of you are already aware, sanctions involve prohibiting trade in certain goods or services between firms or individuals in one country and another. They can range from restrictions on business dealings with the political leaders of a nation, to total blockades and embargoes, complete with independent sanctions on trade with any country that violates the embargo (effectively forcing them to choose between trading with the sanctioned country and the one imposing sanctions), as in the case of Cuba, Iran, Yemen, and Syria.

As can be expected with American foreign policy, sanctions are virtually always ineffective at achieving their goals. More often than not, the governments of sanctioned countries are only made stronger by America waging an economic war on them, causing further destabilization and political stagnation. Such is seen in Syria, Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. Even when they are effective in achieving regime change, the results are almost always negative for that nation, as was seen in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, Afghanistan during the 1980s, and countless other examples.

There are numerous reasons why sanctions are not a tool for positive change in the world. The first and most important reason is that they conflate the government of a nation with the people. Individuals have a fundamental right to voluntarily exchange goods and services with other individuals, regardless of where they are in the world. Given that the average citizen, regardless of the political system they live under, has virtually zero personal influence on the laws and policies which get passed by their government, any negative externalities which come from this are essentially always outweighed. Thus, sanctions on any form of civilian trade represent the collective punishment of a nation. They indiscriminately disrupt economic activity in a nation, without distinction between public and private interests, to the detriment of innocent civilians. As the public and private sectors in essentially all nations are inherently intertwined, sanctioning only certain government officials or state-owned enterprises has similar implications. Meanwhile, corrupt governments do not care whether their citizens are suffering, as they wouldn’t be corrupt if they did. As such, resources will inevitably be reallocated so that the quality of life of leaders does not change, while citizens bear the cost of economic warfare. Exempting food, medicine, and other necessities from economic sanctions is only a symbolic gesture. More often than not, the costs of getting legal approval to sell to sanctioned countries is so high that the businesses who produce these products simply end up selling them elsewhere.

Continuing on this, sanctions represent a first strike against the people and moral system of a nation. When a country is at war with another, one of the most important things it tries to do is put a blockade on the enemy nation. That way, the capacity of that nation to wage war is reduced. Sanctions are effectively this, but on a smaller scale. They use the military and police forces of a nation to forcibly disrupt the economic activity of another, much in the same way that bombing roads or bridges would, thus being an act of war by any unbiased definition. Furthermore, much as bombing roads or bridges in a nation would, sanctioning civilian trade only creates a desire for revenge against the transgressing nation, while causing the opposition to the government in that country to be seen as a foreign puppet. Thus, the primary goal of sanctions, which is to reduce support for regimes through economic stagnation, is based on false assumptions from the start. Additionally, sanctions create a moral hazard for opposition movements in sanctioned countries. When they know that foreign governments will always back them up to get whatever they want, either directly or indirectly, while being seen as foreign puppets within their own nation, it creates a disincentive for them to negotiate with their opponents. This then allows them to be as radical and corrupt as they please. This moral hazard invariably leads to negative outcomes even when regime change efforts are effective, as was mentioned previously. It also rightfully reinforces the perception of opposition movements as foreign puppets.

In reality, sanctions only serve to impoverish and destabilize any country which does not conform with America’s world empire of puppet states and military bases. The blockade of Iraq during the 1990s killed approximately 500,000 people (mostly children and the elderly) in a country with a population of about 20 million at the time.

The US-supported blockade of Yemen has killed around 300,000 people so far, in a country with about 27 million people. US sanctions on Syria have led to the death of around 200,000 and migration of around 7 million. Refusal of the US to release reserve funds of Afghan banks has crippled the Afghanistan credit market, severely reducing economic activity in the country. At the same time, they also escalate military tensions, making war more likely. Such occurred with Russia after the Ukraine crisis, and China after Donald Trump’s trade war.

It is clear that sanctions should never be used to attempt regime change or otherwise influence the political system of another nation. Rather, such economic restrictions should be reserved for when a war actually needs to be fought. The United States (and any other ethical nation) should pass a constitutional amendment which prohibits economic sanctions on any good or service other than weapons without a declaration of war as proscribed by the Constitution. Unlike consumer goods, weapons cannot generally be used for any purpose other than violence and political influence. Governments can easily restrict weapons imports in such a way that they are the primary beneficiaries of them, rather than civilians, thus justifying bans on sales of weapons to authoritarian and belligerent nations. Such a policy will serve to greatly increase peace and prosperity worldwide.

Starté Butone was born in the United States and is interested in foreign affairs. He regularly listens to the Scott Horton show and reads Antiwar.com.