Thursday, August 3, 2006

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Drezner on Weisberg on sanctions

I've written a few articles about economic sanctions in my day.

So when someone alerted me to Jacob Weisberg's Slate essay on sanctions yesterday, I decided to take a look.

Weisberg's thesis:

A quick survey (of sanctions cases): We began our economic embargo against North Korea in 1950. We've had one against Cuba since 1962. We first applied economic sanctions to Iran during the hostage crisis in 1979 and are currently trying for international sanctions aimed at getting the government there to suspend uranium enrichment. We attached trade sanctions to Burma beginning in 1990 and froze the assets of Sudan beginning in 1997. President Bush ordered sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2003 and against Syria beginning in 2004. We have also led major international sanctions campaigns against regimes since brought down by force of arms: Milosevic's Yugoslavia, Saddam's Iraq, and Taliban Afghanistan.

America's sanctions policy is largely consistent, and in a certain sense, admirable. By applying economic restraints, we label the most oppressive and dangerous governments in the world pariahs. We wash our hands of evil, declining to help despots finance their depredations, even at a cost to ourselves of some economic growth. We wincingly accept the collateral damage that falls on civilian populations in the nations we target. But as the above list of countries suggests, sanctions have one serious drawback. They don't work. Though there are some debatable exceptions, sanctions rarely play a significant role in dislodging or constraining the behavior of despicable regimes.

Tyrants seem to understand how to capitalize on the law of unintended consequences. In many cases, as in Iraq under the oil-for-food program, sanctions themselves afford opportunities for plunder and corruption that can help clever despots shore up their position. Some dictators also thrive on the political loneliness we inflict and in some cases appear to seek more of it from us....

Constructive engagement, which often sounds like lame cover for business interests, tends to lead to better outcomes than sanctions. Trade prompts economic growth and human interaction, which raises a society's expectations, which in turn prompts political dissatisfaction and opposition. Trade, tourism, cultural exchange, and participation in international institutions all serve to erode the legitimacy of repressive regimes. Though each is a separate case, these forces contributed greatly to undermining dictatorships and fostering democracy in the Philippines, South Korea, Argentina, Chile, and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. The same process is arguably under way in China.

Weisberg makes a valid point -- as a general rule, applying sanctions against rogue states unless and until there is regime change tends not to work.

However, against this important point, let me throw in a few modifiers:

1) Sanctions with more specifically tailored demands can work against authoritarian regimes. The 1979 financial sanctions against Iran did play an important role in the release of the hostages. The U.S. and U.N. sanctions against Libya led that country to surrender suspects in several airline bombings -- and probably played a supporting role in Libya's decision to renounce its WMD program. So, if the sanctioning country can be precise in what it wants, and is willing to settle for less than regime change, sanctions have the potential to work. The flaw in America's sanctions policy is not their use, but the tendency to overestimate the concessions sanctions can generate.

2) The constructive engagement approach rests on an odd assumption -- that the leaders of a rogue state are somehow unaware that they will become trapped in a web of economic interdependence. The truth is that applying constructive engagement against rogue states as a means to induce economic and political change tends not to work either. Put crudely, if a regime wants to stay in power at all costs, all of the economic openness in the world is not going to make much difference, because the government that wants to stay in power will simply apply strict controls over trade with the outside world. If the United States were to unilaterally and unconditionally lift all barriers to exchange with Cuba, the government in Havana would immediately erect a maze of regulations designed to limit Cuban trade with the United States (and to funnel such trade towards politically reliable cronies).

This doesn't mean that the engagement strategy is always for naught -- but there are failures (South Africa) and even the successes have a dubious value (China). If someone pointed a gun to my head and asked me which strategy I'd recommend towards Cuba, for example, I'd probably recommend engagement. However, it's the difference between a strategy that has a 20% chance of success and one that has a 21% chance.

UPDATE: On sanctions policy towards Cuba in particular, see this thoughtful post from Eugene Gholz from a few months back. It pretty much matches my skepticism about both sanctions and engagement strategies towards Cuba.

posted by Dan on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM


I think it is amazing that both you and Weisberg ignore the most important point about why sanctions are bad: They cause great suffering to the civilian population. Weisberg almost says it when he writes:

"Sanctions tend to fail as a diplomatic tool for the same reason aerial bombing usually fails. As Israel is again discovering in Lebanon, the infliction of indiscriminate suffering tends to turn a populace against the proximate cause of its devastation..."

I just find it absolutely ridiculous for any country to claim the moral high ground by starving an already suffering population. The case of Iraq in the 90s was a particularly vivid case, when hundreds of thousands of extra children were left to die because of lack of access to proper medical and health supplies. How honorable it is for the Great and Mighty USA to have been responsible for that! Even though Saddam was bad, how moral was it to INCREASE the suffering of the people of Iraq? Even if you claim that Saddam was ultimately responsible (though, we now know he was disarmed and was in compliance with UN resolutions), you can not deny that it was immoral to have increased the people's suffering. Pathetic.

The reason that engagement is the only honest way to deal with these issues is because it is not fair to subject innocent populations to additional suffering and hardship based on an abstract political principle, and because it is the duty of the local population to deal with their own political leaders (no matter how unjust).

It is one thing to stop playing rock concerts at Sun City, and it is a whole different issues to boycott the elected Palestinian government and thereby deprive hundreds of thousands of already poor and occupied people of their sole means of making a living for their families, or to stop selling chlorine, medical supplies/medicine and basic technologies to an already suffering Iraqi people.

While I am personally an internationalist and do support active support for just causes, I do not support imposing your will on the weak and the poor (whether you are a dictator of a specific government, or acting like a world dictator).

posted by: Joe M. on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Of course, the other important thing about sanctions is that their true effects are unseen. There's a fundamental selection bias in looking at the apparent lack of success of sanctions, since the likely experience of sanctions factors into states' decision processes even before they decide to commit the violations that provoke them. SO sanctions are quite likely much more effective that is evident by looking at the success rate of applied sanctions.

posted by: TMD on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Well, in the case of totalitarian governments the government certainly does put up strict controls. One case to look at is North Korea. South Korea has trade with it, but North Korea limits and regulates it in such a way that only the military leadership of the DPRK gets any benefit from it. South Korean companies even employ North Koreans as slave labor, with all (low) wages going to the North Korean government.

posted by: John Thacker on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Joe M.

I got bad news for you bro. Hundreds of Thousands of Iraqi children did not die from sanctions. Saddam had the bodies of children who died, from any reason, kept on ice so he could parade it in front of the media, knowing that would eat it up and it would become meme. Guess what, you fell for it hook, line and sinker bro.

It is like the grand Communist meme, "That all the world's ills are because of Capitalism and America." Man, Stalin must be rolling in his grave to see his meme, now taken as fact by some people, after his beloved USSR is now in the dustbin of history.

Or like the current pictures from Qana, if that many children were killed, why is only 2 children shown in the pictures. Why are their bodies whole? Remember how swollen the Hussein kids looked?

Also, why is there what looks to be a brand new Pacifier on that kid? His whole body looks like it was buried in dirt, yet that pacifier is not dirty. Maybe the props guy screwed up?

posted by: James Stephenson on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

oops, this line "why is only 2 children" should read "why are only 2 children".

Sorry I hit the post button by accident.

posted by: James Stephenson on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

TMD, you just stood logic on its head there.

Your argument is that the visible effects of sanctions are weak because people are so persuaded by the power of sanctions that they won't take actions that will subject them to sanctions, which have few effects.

The only way that makes sense is if sanctions have sufficient effects to be a deterrent, though you accept that sanctions generally appear unsuccessful. Since sanctions have little effect, a rational actor will not be deterred (and your model seems to assume rationality).

posted by: John Jenkins on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Weisberg is a doctrinaire lefty; it's hard to believe that he is sincere enough to be worth taking seriously. When war is threatened against a government the left supports (which includes most anti-U.S. regimes), the Weisbergs of the world claim that war is unnecessary because economic sanctions will bring the country to its knees. When sanctions are imposed against a government the left supports, the Weisbergs claim that sanctions are counterproductive. If we trade with a right wing regime, in contrast, we are accused of being complicit with evil, supporters of apartheid etc., and the Weisbergs of the world preen over their moral superiority. In fact, preening moral superiority is really the only consistent position that Weisberg holds.

posted by: y81 on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

I think using engagement makes a huge difference, even if the economic effects are small (because the regime in question errects its own trade barriers). When we sanction, we become the bad guys, both internationally and domestically, who are depriving the civilian population of economic opportunity.

When we engage, the target regime become the oppressor, and their limiting of economic opportunity only give the populace one more reason to hate them.

posted by: Spencer Ogden on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

There is a fundamental distinction between the collateral damage caused by aerial bombardment and the economic 'damage' caused by sanctions. In the former case, violence is being visited upon people and infrastructure.

No one has the right to force others to trade with them. By definition, if the transaction is coerced, it isn't really 'trade' so much as it is theft.

posted by: The Monster on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

I agree with Dan that sanctions seem to work when the goal is not "government change", but "behavior change". They seem most effective when a country has a functioning government. I doubt they would have much effect on Somalia.

It is quite profound to note that a corrupt government will do anything to remain in power, so sanctions are not likely to have an effect in that regard. What sanctions might have an effect of doing would be to limit the money available for clandestine operations while keeping the populace sedated. If the trains run on time, a populace is less likely to protest.

But with most governments having access to strong oppression equipment, protests and successful revolutions are unlikely in any modernized country with a semi-modern military.

I do have to take issue with some of Joe M.'s statements as I believe they are misleading. Even the WMD inspections before the war found huge stockpiles of medicines that were not supplied to the populace. Saddam was starving and mistreating his people regardless of the sanctions. "Oil For Food", even with it's scams on the side, was still providing food and medicine for the children. They weren't killed by sanctions - they were murdered by the dictator.

As my point aove indicate, a "goal" of sanctions is to make the populace unhappy with their government with the hope of causing / forcing a change of government. Realistically, I don't think this is effective. I don't think it has ever worked. Short of arming revolutionaries or an armed invasion, I don't see what would work. Well, except assassination, which is not allowed for some reason.

posted by: _Jon on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Isn't another reason why sanctions don't work for regime change is that it gives autocrats an easy scapegoat? I'm not saying that there will not be scapegoating without the sanctions, but it lends legitimacy that the economic failure is due to the sanctions, not the regime.

For example, it is very easy for Casto to blame poor conditions in Cuba on the Yanqui sanctions rather than the failure of communism. Especially since pre-Castro, there was vigorous trade between the two nations.

posted by: Mo on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

I think you're missing the elephant in the room - China. No matter how hard the Commies try, their people are clamoring for more openness.

posted by: Rahul on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Weisberg is correct, sanctions are worse than useless. Totalitarian regimes thrive on control and shun outside influence. Placing sanctions on, say, North Korea or Cuba is akin to throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch.

Sanctions hurt the people, not the government. To promote regime change you have to build the people up, not tear them down.

Look at Cuba v. China. Which policy has been more successful? If the sanctions on Cuba don't constitute a failure, what would?

And if Cuba would have just put up a maze of regulations anyhow if we lifted the sanctions to stave off foreign influence, then what's the point?

In any case I have severe doubts as to the government's ability to carry this out. Money and the free market is like water, and will flow in through cracks in the system. Everybody wants to make a buck.

Those pirated DVDs that are being smuggled into North Korea from China are doing 10 times more to hasten regime change in that country than any policy the US is currently undertaking.

posted by: Colin on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

James Stephenson, _Jon, and others who disagree with my point,

Even if you exclude Iraq, the point is that it is immoral to INCREASE the suffering of the poor and weak, who are already under extreme stress. The case does not have to be Iraq, it can be any country that the USA has sanctioned. N. Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Cuba, Libya... I don't care if the devil himself is running these countries, but the point is that it is simply immoral to make the lives of the people who are suffering worse. Just as it is immoral for a dictator to decide at random what is or is not good for the population, it is immoral for the USA (the world dictator) to decide what is or is not good for the people.

The situation of sanctions is particularly immoral because, as we know, it is the most poor and weak who suffer from them. Sanctions do not hurt the elite class, but the hurt the people who already have a hard time surviving. In general, it was not their choice to live in a dictatorship. Who gives the USA or the colonial powers the right to punish these people even more? If you are mad because a particular government hurts its own people, how noble of you to make their lives worse by trying to starve them too! That really gives you the moral high ground, hurting the people you claim to be acting for.

I am sayig, don't delude yourself and think you are any different than the tin pot dictatorships you hate. both are doing the same thing, they make ideological and random decisions that inflict suffering on their people, and so do the colonial powers. and the people don't forget the crimes of either.

posted by: Joe M. on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

China has been a roaring success and in more ways than one. Not only have hundreds of millions of Chinese have been given a taste of what a normal country could be like, but we've also managed to improve our security situation with China as well. It's like Sun Tzu said: "...hold your friends close and your enemies closer." China is now dependent on trade with the US, and thus can't really harm our interests without harming her own.

posted by: Peter Jackson on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

James Stephenson,
Above you make a shamefully callous remark about "new pacifiers". You might take the trouble to read this Humans Rights Watch report: "Fatal Strikes: Israelís Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon" before commenting further.

posted by: King Colbert on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Sanctions, for a nation as large and powerful as the United States, can cover a lot of ground.

Some of the most contentious sanctions imposed on one country or another involve the suspension not of trade but of contact with our government. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, for example, the American military was determined to maintain a relationship with its Indonesian counterpart, involving training and education along with some equipment, being thoroughly convinced that although elements of the Indonesian armed forces were corrupt and unkindful of human rights they could be improved through contact with more professional soldiers. Civilian diplomats, along with NGOs and a few politicians aggrieved over East Timor, insisted that the American military's reasoning was wrong. In short the military was insisting that sanctions wouldn't work, and its critics insisted that engagement wouldn't work.

During the Clinton administration we tried both, and a good case could be made that both the military and its critics were proven right. The Indonesian military wanted close relations with the Americans, but wasn't willing to pay the price our government was demanding to keep them. This is exactly the point Dan is making about sanctions more generally.

This doesn't mean that sanctions can't ever be useful. Sometimes it is just a question of timing. In the early 1980s it made perfectly good sense to embargo trade with Cuba, forcing the Soviet Union to pay a stiff price to keep its client afloat. The time to try droppnig sanctions was right after the Soviet collapse, when the disruption caused by the loss of its patron might have left the Cuban government less able to control the course of events. Arguably it is appropriate to threaten sanctions against a country like India to discourage it from developing nuclear weapons; once it has had them for thirty years or so, the situation is arguably different -- at least that is the argument the Bush administration is making.

What we need most to guard against is the use of sanctions to make ourselves feel good, to persuade ourselves that we have addressed a problem with steps that involve little immediate risk or sacrifice for us. The Jackson-Vanik prohibition of a grant of most favored nation status to the Soviet Union unless it allowed greater Jewish immigration was the classic example of this kind of sanction -- it irritated the Soviet government into making drastic cuts in the number of Jews allowed to leave the country, but gave any number of Congressmen occasion to congratulate themselves for standing up for human rights.

Post-Gulf War sanctions against Iraq were another such example. Having lost its nerve and declared the war over, the first Bush administration stood by nonplused as the many people who hated Saddam Hussein rose against him and were slaughtered. Economic sanctions were among several hasty improvisations intended to save face after that disgraceful episode. It could have been predicted that they wouldn't work, or at least would not have succeeded in recovering the opportunity that the elder Bush let slide through his fingers in the spring of 1991. But once applied they required reasons to be removed, reasons the Iraqi government was never willing to provide.

posted by: Zathras on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Zathras, you continually prove that you don't know anything about the middle east. In case you are interested in the facts, the sanctions were applied against Iraq well before the 91' war started. by definition, they were not "post-gulf war sanctions" and they were not "among several hasty improvisations intended to save face after that disgraceful episode." How could those things be true if they happened 6 months before? Where do you get this stuff? You can't just make up history like that.

But honestly, I ask you a serious question. How do you justify the behavior of an outside power taking a political decision to purposly increassing the suffering of the poor and weak? This, is the same mentality of all dictators. All dictators believe that they are doing things in the best interests of the people, and they are usually randomly ideological. This is the behavior you just described above. How do you justify it morally? even if it works after 10 or 15 years, what right does the USA (for example) have to cause that much suffering in the name or ending suffering?

posted by: Joe M. on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

one important drawback of sanction is it pulls the country further back, for a much higher cost of repair when the time come.

i would argue, even for dictator who can hold on, engagement would prepare its population to be in a much better position when the time come. on the contrary, in the case of sanction, even if a revolution succeeds, the country might fall into the "gap" (to use barnett's lingo) one more time again

posted by: sun bin on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Great post! The important bit of new wisdom here is that sanctions can work if they are targeted to something the Ďregimeí will give up. I have tended to be in the why bother camp. But, looking at sanctions as a transaction, they have to be under the walk-away threshold that good negotiators always strive to know. If you can calculate this, then try them, else donít. The biggest problem I see for Danielís idea is that if you miscalculate and they donít work in a reasonable time frame, how do you gracefully exit and avoid a long pissing contest.

The other problem is to come up with noise filters for the ideologues (such as Joe M) and get the discussion on plotting a course of small steps with China, et al, that steer slowly toward an achievable goal. Failing this, the resulting problem is that our poll conscious government doesnít do well when hard bargaining stances are needed.

posted by: jdwill on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

I fail to see why constructive engagement and sanctions are considered opposites. Rather, I would think that constructive engagement entrenches a relationship that can then be threatened by sanctions. All the better if the sanctions demand is driven by the grassroots, like the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s. That movement in itself spotlighted and kept spotlighting the oppressive regime in South Africa.

Whereas nobody is really spotlighting the oppresive regime in North Korea except pundits and D.C. wonks.

In some situations - North Korea -- constructive engagement is probably impossible. But in others -- Iran -- it is not only possible, but it actually is the best vector for the exertion of pressure for democracy and peace in Iran. The situation is perfect -- there are enough anti-Khomenei exiles in the U.S. to make constructive engagement continually controversial -- and if it roots, it would make preserving that engagement an incentive for the government.

posted by: roger on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

Another problem with sanctions: they generally require large numbers of countries to participate for them to be effective. Country A declares sanctions against B, country B just trades more with countries C and D. Even if A happens to be capable of economically hurting another country by itself,the accusations of bullying often undermine any moral message to the sanctions.

Also, the point made earlier about the Cuban sanctions draining the Soviet Union sounds good, but is it realistic? Given the nature of democratic politics and bureaucracies, was the failure to withdraw the sanctions incompetence, or an inevitable failure of institutional memory? Or was it both? These aren't rhetorical questions, I'd really like to find out someday.

posted by: Michael on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

But honestly, I ask you a serious question. How do you justify the behavior of an outside power taking a political decision to purposly increassing the suffering of the poor and weak?

This is, in fact, my main objection to sanctions- the people who will be most affected by them are the ones who have the least to do with the reason the sanctions are imposed- at least, in a non-democratic country.

Still, there needs to be some intermediate diplomatic step in between 'business as usual' and 'send in the marines'. As unsatisfactory as they ware, sanctions are the best intermediate step we've come up with.

If you have an alternative, I'd like to hear it.

This, is the same mentality of all dictators.

I could be wrong, but my impression is that dictators rarely bother with sanctions.

All dictators believe that they are doing things in the best interests of the people, and they are usually randomly ideological.

Not at all. Dictators are usually very pragmatic, and their ideology tends to be 'That which keeps me in power is good'.

This is the behavior you just described above. How do you justify it morally? even if it works after 10 or 15 years, what right does the USA (for example) have to cause that much suffering in the name or ending suffering?

The idea is that moderate suffering over a decade or two will be less bad than the extreme suffering that would result from a war.

You are welcome to disagree, but please understand that this is not a situation where you get to choose between 'good' and 'bad' options.

When your choice is between 'terrible' and 'horrible', which do you choose?

posted by: rosignol on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

If you take the AP reading from today that "after a 16-month, $900-million-plus investigation, the U.S. weapons hunters known as the Iraq Survey Group declared that Iraq had dismantled its chemical, biological and nuclear arms programs in 1991 under U.N. oversight. That finding in 2004 reaffirmed the work of U.N. inspectors who in 2002-03 found no trace of banned arsenals in Iraq" then the original purpose - and the official one as backed by the UN - of sanctions against Iraq were achieved quite rapidly. Technically they were a success in achieving that narrow goal.

posted by: buermann on 08.03.06 at 11:25 PM [permalink]

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