The U.S. employs broad economic sanctions with increasing frequency despite their poor record of success and the growing body of evidence that they cause significant harm to the populations of the countries where they are imposed.
The direct costs of sanctions to the U.S. are often negligible, but their effect on the well-being and health of the nations that suffer under them can be quite severe and ultimately deadly for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. Some of the most recent uses of broad U.S. sanctions in Iran, Venezuela, and Syria show how policies of economic warfare have predictably worsened economic conditions and intensified humanitarian crises without achieving any stated policy goals.
Bottom line: broad sanctions add more needless suffering to the world, and our government must break its addiction to their use.
The peoples of these targeted countries are being subjected to collective punishment for the actions of their authoritarian governments, and perversely the economic war tightens the grip of these governments and further entrenches the leadership in power. The limited efficacy of sanctions has been understood for a long time, but policymakers need to have a deeper appreciation for the perverse and destructive effects that economic warfare has.
U.S. policymakers need to recognize that our government’s sanctions involve launching indiscriminate attacks on the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of ordinary people, and they need to understand that those attacks are both unjust and useless in advancing U.S. interests. Americans should get out of the habit of seeing sanctions as proof that our government is “getting tough” with a targeted state, and instead realize that broad sanctions are a crude weapon whose victims are innocent people.
We need to realize that economic warfare truly is a kind of warfare, and it can and does kill.
An article published earlier this year in Global Studies Quarterly, “Does Misery Love Company? Analyzing the Global Suffering Inflicted by US Economic Sanctions,” compiles the evidence of the damage that broad sanctions cause. The article’s authors, Bryan Early and Dursun Peksen, have found that broad sanctions consistently deepen the misery of the population of targeted states.
They investigated “how US sanctions policies can inflict misery upon the states they target” and they concluded that “US sanctions, particularly those inflicting major costs on targeted economies and those imposed for human rights reasons, immiserate their targets’ populations.”
The harmful effects of sanctions not only include the disruptions they cause in the targeted economy, but also extend to the increased repression that typically follows the worsening economic conditions.
The authors’ insight is to measure the overall misery created by sanctions, and they conceive of that misery “as denoting the overarching economic, social, and political conditions in a country that contribute to the pervasiveness of physical, mental, or emotional distress of its citizens.” There is a general understanding among sanctions critics that broad sanctions make things worse inside a target country, and Early and Peksen are measuring how much worse things get.
Sanctioned societies typically suffer from greater economic hardship, increased food insecurity, worsening public health, reduced political freedom, and more human rights abuses by the authorities, and they suffer these things at least in part because of sanctions. The states targeted by the harshest broad sanctions are authoritarian governments, and sanctions advocates will often sell sanctions as a means of striking against these governments. This is usually accompanied by a lot of cheap talk about “standing with” the people. Unfortunately, we know that the blows from sanctions fall hardest on the people as they are made poorer and sicker, and then their leaders use the sanctions as a pretext for cracking down on dissent.
As Early and Peksen explain, “While sender governments are not directly culpable for the policies that target leaders adopt in response to sanctions, foreign economic pressure is often the precipitant for policies that undermine the basic rights of their targets’ citizenry.” Sanctions thus not only increase the cost of living for ordinary people in targeted states, but they also contribute to a loss of freedom. Contrary to what their advocates would have us believe, broad sanctions can often have significant political benefits for dictators.
Sanctions have become the default U.S. response to many international problems. Pushing for new and additional sanctions is an easy way for members of Congress and presidents to score political points without having to take big risks. On the other side, there is political cost for anyone that wants to stand in opposition to sanctions, because it is all too easy for advocates of economic warfare to attack their opponents as sympathetic to the targeted government.
While the burden of proof ought to be on the advocates of intrusive and destructive economic warfare, we know in practice that it is critics of sanctions that face an uphill battle in resisting and overturning broad sanctions.
There is a great temptation for the U.S. to use its considerable economic and financial power to try to compel other states to change their policies and to accept U.S. demands, but this path is a dead end. We have seen how “maximum pressure” produces equally intense intransigence on the part of the targeted states, and in both the North Korean and Iranian cases it has brought the U.S. dangerously close to war on more than one occasion.
Because of the damage caused by sanctions, Early and Peksen recommend that “US policymakers should exercise restraint in imposing human rights and high-cost sanctions, as they have significant potential to do greater harm than possible good because of the misery they inflict.”
If a policy tool doesn’t perform its assigned task, its use should be reconsidered. When that tool also frequently backfires and causes massive suffering in the process, it should simply be abandoned. A craftsman wouldn’t use a tool that he knows to be defective and dangerous, and neither should a statesman employ a policy tool that has a long history of leaving nothing but misery in its wake.
If Americans want to show solidarity with the long-suffering peoples of sanctioned countries, the first and best thing we can do is to get our government to stop standing on their necks. Sanctions relief may not resolve outstanding issues with targeted countries, but the same is true of keeping sanctions in place. The difference is that after sanctions relief the U.S. would no longer be needlessly punishing tens of millions of people for the deeds of their rulers.