Discover more from Eunomia
The Impunity of Sanctions Advocates
Sanctions advocates never facing any costs for pushing the same bankrupt policy options over and over again.
Broad sanctions usually fail to achieve the policy goals that their advocates set for them, and they tend to backfire on the governments that impose them. Instead of discouraging a target state from pursuing its ambitions, sanctions either appear to have no effect on the behavior of the targets or they goad the targets into doing more of the thing the sanctions are supposed to discourage. That makes broad sanctions ineffective at best, and in some high-profile cases they have helped to make the situation worse than it was before. As Nicholas Mulder noted in The Economic Weapon, “while the use of sanctions has surged, their odds of success have plummeted.”1 All the while, the civilian population bears the brunt of the punitive measures while the leadership and its cronies tighten their control internally and exploit their position to ensure that they feel little or none of the hardship that the people experience.
When the U.S., its allies and the U.N. sanction certain behavior, they usually wind up provoking more of what they wish to stop. “Maximum pressure” has consistently led to maximum resistance. Economic warfare creates a test of political wills between the sanctions senders and the targets, and the targets build up their own leverage by expanding the activities that have led to their punishment. This has been amply demonstrated in the Iranian and North Korean cases: the Iranian government increases its enrichment to unprecedented levels, and North Korea develops more advanced nuclear weapons and missiles in response to the pressure campaigns that are supposed to be thwarting these things. In those cases where sanctions are tied to seeking the downfall of the target, as they are in Syria and Venezuela, the targets have every incentive to defy the senders because the stakes are existential for them. The U.S. and its allies use broad sanctions on states that are least likely to yield to economic pressure, and then when the sanctions backfire the sanctioning governments cling to their failed policy tool for fear of admitting that the sanctions were misguided in the first place.
Despite this rather dismal record, sanctions remain a favorite tool of Western policymakers and they have increasingly become the default U.S. response to other governments’ actions. The standard explanation for the popularity of sanctions in the halls of government is that they are a relatively cheap option for the U.S. and its allies and they allow policymakers to signal their disapproval of other states’ behavior without having to do very much. I think there is another reason why sanctions are so appealing to our policymakers, and it is that sanctions are ideally suited to a foreign policy establishment that refuses to hold anyone accountable for policy failures. What could be better for a policymaking class defined by impunity than a policy tool that routinely fails but still remains in place for years or decades? They are a perfect fit for policymakers that want to be judged by intentions and not results.
Sanctions have the added advantage that they have so many ready-made, built-in excuses for why they aren’t working as expected. If the evidence shows that a sanctions regime has failed to do what its proponents promised, they will fall back on saying that enforcement was too lax or that the sanctions have not been in place long enough. These excuses are evergreen, because there will always be some sanctions busting (especially by friendly countries) and sanctions can always be given more time to “work.”
When advocates are pressed to show some sign of success, they will point to the sheer destructiveness of economic warfare. They will cite the collapse of the target’s currency or the contraction of their GDP. They will practically delight in reports showing inflationary pressures that are responsible for increased food insecurity and a soaring poverty rate. This is the technocratic ghoulishness that accompanies a sanctions-heavy foreign policy.
The damage caused by sanctions was the preferred excuse that the Trump administration liked to use when challenged to show what “maximum pressure” had delivered. No doubt sanctions advocates can find evidence that broad sanctions cause real damage to the targeted economy, since this is all that sanctions reliably do, but they cannot connect the destruction caused with any discernible change in policy or behavior for the better. If anything, economic warfare tends to provoke worse behavior from the target as a means of retaliating asymmetrically against U.S. and Western economic power.
There is famously no accountability in U.S. foreign policy, and few things illustrate this better than the long record of failed sanctions policies and the continued influence of sanctions advocates on the policymaking process. Sanctions advocates also have the benefit of protection in numbers, because there are so many people that express support and vote for sanctions measures as a matter of course. When a policy is so widely supported at the beginning, as most sanctions policies usually are, it is difficult to hold the architects of the policy responsible while leaving all of the other cheerleaders untouched. The architects of the “maximum pressure” campaigns will experience no fallout over the policies of collective punishment that they authored, not least because so many other people in Washington agreed with them or went along quietly.
In almost any other field, there would be significant professional consequences for a record of repeated failure, but being a sanctions advocate means never having to say you’re sorry. Sanctions advocates never facing any costs for pushing the same bankrupt policy options over and over again. That is one reason why the U.S. continues to pursue these cruel, senseless policies against so many countries around the world.
Mulder, The Economic Weapon: p. 296.