LONDON -- Sanctions are poured out like libations to gods neglectful of an unruly world. Tomorrow it could be Burma's turn. Yesterday it was Serbia's and China's. It goes on being Iraq's. It ++ is Cuba's, Libya's and Iran's -- at least for now, depending on last week's decision of the European Union to challenge U.S. trade sanctions and protect European companies from the reach of American law.
American foreign policy these days is one half-part Wilsonian sanctions. As the World War 1 president said, "A nation that is 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."
But sanctions are as blunt an instrument as most weapons of war. As Franklin Lavin, director of the Asia Pacific Policy Center, observes in the current issue of Foreign Policy, "Trade sanctions can function like a neutron bomb, destroying the economy, wracking misery on the general population but leaving the political establishment intact."
That's what seems to have happened in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, although sanctions clearly pushed him to open his doors to the U.N. weapons inspectors and disarmers. And sanctions on Haiti punished only the people until the generals capitulated to an American-led occupation.
There is also a question of cost-effectiveness. A cruise missile costing $1 million can knock out a communications network center and cause $100 million worth of damage. But to impose an oil boycott depriving a country of $1 million worth of petroleum may cost the implementing country $1 million of forgone profits -- as Turkey keeps telling Washington about the Iraq case. Moreover, a drawn-out embargo, again as with Iraq, may cause more innocent deaths and suffering than a short sharp war aimed principally at the military establishment.
Alternative to violence
On the face of it, sanctions seem a more acceptable weapon than violence for compelling political change. But experience shows their limitations.
Sanctions seem to have had a marked impact on white Rhodesia and white South Africa and Sandinista Nicaragua. But would they have worked on their own without the more violent forces also in play in those places? There is evidence, too, that the U.S. refusal until recently to grant China most-favored-nation trading status was a spur to improving human-rights practices there. But now that the Clinton administration has thrown away that card, any linking of trade penalties to human-rights performance seems only to make Beijing dig in its heels.
U.S. sanctions against Cuba, never observed by most of the rest of the world, have not unseated Fidel Castro. Nor have they overturned Libya or Iran, although in all three cases they have caused the governing regimes serious economic difficulties and increased internal opposition.
Would they have slain the regimes if Europe had helped enforce the sanctions? Probably not. Economic engagement, argue the Europeans, is more likely to loosen things up, the same argument that the Clinton administration now uses with China and that American policy makers for years used during the dark days of dictatorship in Latin America.
Would sanctions work any better against Nigeria or Burma? They might, if everyone agreed and a patrolling armada of ships and observers enforced the blockade. This was done with Serbia and its economic toll included an inflation rate of 2,000 percent a month. But the war continued until the Serbs had completed most of the ethnic cleansing on their agenda. Perhaps the threat of renewed sanctions and the present continuance of those involving the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank will keep President Slobodan Milosevic in line. But at the beginning of the war they probably strengthened his position, since they worked to concentrate economic power.
An arms-sales embargo is arguably always positive. It sends a useful political message, undermining the military confidence of the incumbent regime and bolstering the morale of the protesting underdog -- as the suspension of a U.S. deal to sell fighter planes to Indonesia has just done. Likewise, such action as freezing the leadership's foreign bank accounts hurts those individuals that really matter. These latter two types of embargo need more attention.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.
Pub Date: 10/11/96