The fallout continues from the US and European-backed regime change in Ukraine that destabilised and ousted the elected president through street protests, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the resistance by pro-Russian Ukrainians in the eastern part to rule by the pro-West successor regime in Kiev, and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that killed almost 300 people. Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia for daring to resist their efforts to deprive it of its major naval base in Sevastopol in the Crimea by absorbing Ukraine into the US-European sphere of influence. The sanctions were toughened and broadened in retaliation for MH17 even before independent international investigations were conducted to assign guilt and establish culpability. Russia has hit back with its own sanctions and the perverse consequences of the tit-for-tat measures already include damage to broader nuclear arms control agreements. If allowed to escalate, they could undermine efforts to terminate Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme and return us to the tension-filled days of the Cold War.
If we look outwards from Australia, we see a range of examples where sanctions have failed utterly or largely, caused substantial harm, not been imposed because some countries are too big to punish (China, Russia) or too valuable as allies (Pakistan, Central Asian stans), or been perversely imposed in the past on countries (eg Vietnam) that should have earned gratitude for overthrowing some of the worst mass murdering regimes of recent times (such as the Khmer Rouge). Fiji was put under sanctions for its coups and overthrows of democratic governments — with the result that Fiji cultivated new networks and Australia has less influence over it than a decade ago. This year, Australia finally abandoned its futile sanctions on Fiji and switched back to constructive engagement as the preferred strategy to try and change Fijian behaviour to conform to global norms.
Others to have been subjected by different groups of countries to various sanctions without discernible results include: Japan and Norway for their whaling activities; North Korea for its nuclear breakout; Myanmar for its brutal military rule (before the recent change for the better); Vietnam for having rid the world of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia; India and Pakistan for the 1998 nuclear tests; Iraq from 1991-2003; Turkey for its invasion of Cyprus; Israel for its unmatched record of defying UN resolutions; Iran for being an Islamic republic in pursuit of nuclear weapons capability; and Cuba for daring to be a communist country on the US doorstep.
Bad history, perverse politics
Coercive economic sanctions developed as a conceptual and policy bridge between diplomacy and force for ensuring compliance with the demands of the so-called “international community”. Their use increased dramatically in the 20th century, yet their track record in ensuring compliance is pitiful. They have a bad reputation and a worse history. Sanctions all too often are a poor alibi for, not a sound supplement to, a good foreign policy. They are ineffective, counter-productive, harmful to the economic interests of those imposing sanctions, damaging to relations with allies, morally questionable, yet difficult to lift once imposed. They inflict undeniable pain on ordinary citizens while imposing questionable costs on leaders who are often enriched and strengthened on the back of their impoverished and oppressed people.
The target country can choose from a range of sellers in the international market place. It is virtually impossible to secure universal participation in embargoes and difficult to police their application in participating countries. The incentive to make large profits by circumventing sanctions is more powerful than the motive for enforcing them, and a variety of means and routes exist to camouflage sanctions-busting contacts. The Australian Wheat Board engaged in the single biggest evasion of UN sanctions on Saddam Hussein and Canberra repeatedly assured concerned UN officials that everything was above board (and now the same Conservative politicians unashamedly point to the oil-for-food scandal as an example of UN corruption). Sanctions inflict pain on innocent countries in the neighbourhood. The long history of US sanctions on Cuba has many times brought US policy into conflict with those of its allies.
Public and political support for sanctions rests in their image as a humane alternative to war, which is regarded with increasing disfavour. Yet sanctions can cause large-scale death and destruction through “structural violence”: starvation, malnutrition, the spread of deadly diseases, badly degraded public health infrastructure and scarcity of medicines. The degree and scale of death and suffering inflicted by the structural violence of sanctions exceeds the ‘cleaner’ alternative of open warfare and their primary victims are civilians, mainly women and children. In a provocative essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, John Mueller and Karl Mueller argued that sanctions have caused more deaths in the 20th century than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history. In his annual report on the work of the UN for 1998, the then secretary-general, Kofi Annan, warned: “The international community should be under no illusion: humanitarian and human rights policy goals cannot easily be reconciled with those of a sanctions regime.” He was right. Yet in the decade-and-a-half since, the resort to this failed tool of national and international policy continues unabated.
Sanctions are counter-productive through two effects: political and economic. Politically, their goal is to reduce the support for sanctioned leaders by their own people. But sanctions offer an easy scapegoat for ruinous economic policies: economic pain is simply blamed on hostile and ill-intentioned foreigners. Bearing pain in order to cope with sanctions is portrayed as the patriotic duty of every citizen. Dissent is stifled and political opposition muted, silenced or liquidated.
Economically, sanctions create shortages and raise prices in conditions of scarcity. The poor suffer; the middle class, essential to building the foundations of democracy, shrinks; the ruling class extracts fatter rents from monopoly controls over the illicit trade in banned goods. Scarcity also increases the dependence of the population on the distribution of necessities by the regime, so that sanctions give leaders yet another tool with which to exercise control and leverage over their people. We have credible evidence to suggest that family cliques surrounding dictators under international sanctions have monopolised the black market spawned by the imposition of sanctions and the resulting scarcities and shortages of goods in the open market.
The motives for the imposition and maintenance of sanctions are often rooted in domestic politics. Rivals for office seek to reap electoral advantage by depicting opponents as “soft” on the enemy. US sanctions on Cuba remain in place not because they serve any purpose or are achieving their original goals, but because of the power of a domestic electoral lobby (vote bank) which gives them a crucial swing vote role in determining the outcome of Florida’s electoral votes.
Sanctions as self-harm: the logic of politics contradicts the logic of economics
Economic exchanges with Iran, Russia and others subject to sanctions are not acts of charity but reflect market efficiency. Sanctions introduce distortions and impose costs on those imposing the punitive measures. They can damage producer groups, for example farmers, in the countries imposing them. In addition, because of the frequency with which a country resorts to sanctions, the long-term reliability of its suppliers becomes suspect, with the result that foreign purchasers may not switch back to its products even after sanctions are lifted. Iran has progressively shifted its trade patterns from North America and Europe to Asian partners and is now exploring Latin American prospects.