History of US Sanctions Shows Most Haven’t Worked
(May 11, 1999) — For more than two millenia, countries have been attempting to influence one another’s behavior by imposing economic sanctions.
In 432 B.C., officials in Athens denied traders from the state of Megara access to Athens’ harbor and its marketplace.
That first recorded use of economic sanctions didn’t work, and instead helped precipitate the Peloponnesian War, a horrific and lengthy conflict that brought an end to the fledgling Greek democracy.
Nearly 2,500 years later the use of economic sanctions has become increasingly common — and controversial.
Like the Athenians, the United States uses sanctions in an effort to dissuade nations from taking undesirable actions -— supporting terrorism, proliferating weapons of mass destruction, violating human rights, trafficking in drugs or despoiling the environment.
But like the Megarians, many of the targets of US sanctions —- countries such as Iraq, Iran and Cuba -— do not change their behavior in the face of sanctions, according to numerous studies.
Today, the United States’ use of economic sanctions —- generally defined as restrictions on foreign commerce for purposes of foreign policy or national security -— is under fire. Lawmakers in Congress have introduced proposals that would make it harder to impose economic sanctions, and President Clinton has taken steps to exempt food and medicine from sanctions. His administration has pledged to support broader reform of sanctions policy.
The pressure to change sanctions policy has come largely from business interests, including The Boeing Co. and Washington state’s agricultural industry, who complain that they are losing export markets all over the world because Congress and the president are too quick to impose sanctions.
But the business community has found an unlikely ally in human rights activists, who argue that economic sanctions often hurt innocent civilians, most notably in Iraq. The activists have struck a chord in Seattle, leading to anti-sanctions protests and vigils. Activists have led groups of physicians and others to Iraq with medicine, equipment and medical texts, which is not allowed without State Department approval.
“Sanctions have become a cheap way of doing foreign policy, except the costs are often really quite terrible,” says John Mueller, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, who argues that sanctions should be narrowly focused on technologies usable by the military, and should not include food and medicine.
“It’s not like blowing up a building, where you can count corpses, but it’s much worse,” said Mueller, referring to estimates that tens of thousands of Iraqi children have died from malnutrition-related diseases because of a lack of food and medicine. “Numerically, the deaths in Iraq are worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”
A 1997 study by the Institute for International Economics found that since 1970, unilateral US sanctions had achieved foreign policy goals only 13 percent of the time. The study also concluded that sanctions are costing the United States $15 billion to $19 billion annually in potential exports.
Sanctions have not led to democratic changes in Cuba, Iraq or Iran, and the unambiguous threat of sanctions did not deter India and Pakistan from testing nuclear weapons last year.
Still, there have been successes. Most recently, Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi agreed to turn over for trial two suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103, which killed 270. The United Nations in return suspended sanctions against Libya, which included crippling bans on international air travel and sales of weapons and oil industry equipment.
“Finally, diplomacy and sanctions have produced the result we wanted,” Clinton said.
Sanctions also played a role in helping to force the apartheid government of South Africa to allow democratic elections, and State Department officials claim economic sanctions helped force Serbia to the negotiating table over the war in Bosnia and limited Iraq’s ability to rebuild its military after the 1991 Gulf War.
A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies cited three other successes: blocking the Russian transfer of sophisticated cryogenic rocket engines to India after trade sanctions were threatened in July 1993; halting South African arms shipments to Syria after a US threat to withhold aid in January 1997, and imposing targeted sanctions against China to cease exports of sensitive military equipment.
Estimates of the breadth of economic sanctions vary widely. The National Association of Manufacturers claims that 42 percent of the world’s population lives in countries sanctioned by the United States. According to the Congressional Research Service, by the end of 1997 there were 191 different sanctions being imposed by the United States.
Sanctions are imposed or threatened against 75 countries, ranging from Angola to Zaire, for behaviors ranging from support for terrorism to failure to adequately protect sea turtles, according to a study by Clinton’s Export Council.
“What you’ve got now is a situation where if the executive branch were to implement everything in sanctions laws, there’s hardly a country on Earth we wouldn’t have trouble with,” said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., a sanctions critic.
The State Department agrees that the use of sanctions has multiplied in the 1990s. That agency says the United States has applied sanctions for foreign policy purposes 115 times since World War I, including 61 times since 1993.
“However you do the arithmetic, there certainly have been quite a number of sanctions initiatives coming out of the Congress recently, and some of them have been relatively high profile,” said Assistant Secretary of State Alan Larson.
Some of the sanctions are quite extensive. The United States maintains broad unilateral sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and the Sudan, although there are now some exemptions for food and medicine. Together with the United Nations, the United States also supports broad multilateral sanctions against Angola, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Yugoslavia.
But there are a raft of countries subjected to more specific sanctions, responding to a particular behavior, and barring a particular import or a certain type of government assistance. For instance, Gambia and Burundi have been denied money from the Overseas Private Investment Corp. because of military coups there.
European governments have been increasingly reluctant to impose sanctions -— preferring the same strategy of engagement that the United States espouses when it comes to China —- and so, increasingly, sanctions are being imposed unilaterally.
The Clinton administration argues that although multilateral sanctions are preferable because they are more effective, unilateral sanctions are often the only alternative.
“If we are unsuccessful in building a multilateral regime, and important national interests or core values are at issue, we must be prepared to act unilaterally,” said Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat. “We cannot permit other countries to veto our use of sanctions by their failure to act.”
Many scholars and members of Congress call economic sanctions a kind of foreign policy on the cheap, because sanctions are generally less expensive and less controversial than military intervention.
“This has been a phenomenon of the last five years, and it has come about because members of Congress, and sometimes the administration, want to show displeasure to various countries who have adopted human rights policies with which we disagree, or have curtailed freedom of religion, or have threatened their neighbors,” said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the leading congressional critic of US sanctions policy. “Putting a sanction on a country always seems to be an inexpensive way to address the problem. . . . Unfortunately, almost none of these sanctions have brought about change . . . and I think they have led to a sizable loss of foreign trade.”
Nonetheless, sanctions for years have been a favorite foreign policy tool of the White House, Congress and, increasingly, state and local governments.
Democrats insisted on sanctions against South Africa during the Reagan administration, and during the Clinton years, Republicans have been pushing for sanctions against countries that persecute Christians.
“Sanctions have become a very quick way for people to say to their constituents, ‘By God, we did something,’ ” says George Lopez, professor of government at Notre Dame University.
Local governments, too, are eager to use sanctions as an expression of their concern about the policies of foreign governments.
As many as 25 cities around the country have adopted sanctions, most aimed at Myanmar (also known as Burma), but a few targeting Nigeria, Tibet, Indonesia and Cuba, according to a study by the Organization for International Investment. Seattle’s City Council, under heavy pressure from the business community, rejected pleas from human rights activists to bar purchases from companies doing business in Myanmar.
State governments have little success imposing sanctions. In a closely watched case, a federal district court last fall struck down a Massachusetts law restricting state transactions with companies doing business in Myanmar.
But sanction advocates claim that the fact that New York state debated sanctions against foreign financial institutions —- as well as a measure passed by the city of Los Angeles -— helped prod Swiss banks into settling Holocaust-era claims.
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