One of the unfortunate aspects of our foreign policy, especially that supported by mainstream neoconservatives, often overlooked, is the role of economic sanctions on countries we oppose. Let us examine their theory and utility.
When I say “sanctions,” I am referring to trade restrictions on a country for political reasons. We can think of Cuba, North Korea, and Iraq in the 1990s as examples of countries we impose (or have imposed) sanctions on.
How are these supposed to work? The nearest I can tell, the powers that be decide on a country or regime which has interests or ideals we oppose. For instance, Cuba and North Korea are Communist, oppressive regimes. The idea behind sanctions is to punish the country, applying pressure to hopefully result in positive, peaceful change so their government is more in accordance with our wishes.
In theory, this involves no military action and is relatively inexpensive in terms of actual cost. (We’ll ignore the hidden costs from not trading right now.) In some ways, it sounds like an attractive way to combat our enemies without bloodshed.
Let us examine sanctions in practice, by citing just a few examples. First, let us consider Cuba.
Back in the 1950s, we were all chummy with Cuba. For instance, the musical “Guys and Dolls” has a scene where the gambler Guy Masterson takes his Salvation Army girlfriend (the chauvinist that I am, I cannot recall her name, and am too lazy to look it up) to Cuba for an exotic date. All this changed when Fidel Castro, a Communist, took over Cuba as a dictator in January 1959. At this point, we cut off trade and travel with Cuba.
What has this gotten us? Sanctions certainly contributed to the frosty relationship which arguably climaxed in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thankfully, nuclear war was avoided. But we were close.
Recently, Fidel Castro stepped down, on his own, forty years after the sanctions started. The country still gets by without any legal U.S. trade. But are Americans better off? Are Cubans? Is either government?
All too often, sanctions, meant to punish the government, end up emboldening it at the expense of the civilian population. Think about it: if there’s a repressive government, and very limited resources due to trade restrictions, who is going to get the available resources? The hapless masses? I don’t think so. Instead, sanctions all too often punish the innocent civilians while emboldening the government. We see this in North Korea (from the Korean War until today) and Iraq in the 1990s. Why else would North Korea both build a nuclear weapon and have problems with feeding its people?
How many died as a result of the UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq? Estimates range from 100,000 up to 1 million. Sanctions were designed to compel the citizens to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Instead, they emboldened him and impoverished the nation. We see similar results in North Korea.
What should we do? Should we just trade with corrupt regimes and rogue nations? This is a tough question. The answer depends what we want: do we want to embolden governments or the people they are to serve?
Let’s think about Vietnam and China. We trade with both nations, and have done so for decades. And both nations, while struggling with poverty in many areas, are growing in both liberty and wealth. The government shrinks in power, or is at least checked by the growing influence of the middle class in each country. The citizens of those nations have a better quality of life as a result of our freer trade policy (as compared to sanctions). Trade relations mean that a serious, violent conflict is much less likely with either of these countries (or any other country we are trading with) than with a country we are imposing (or planning to impose) sanctions on.
Free association with nations, even with those we may disagree with on fundamental, foundational principles, can break down walls and barriers the harshest sanctions and toughest talk can never accomplish. If we really are serious about reform and freedom in Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, to name but a few examples, we should avoid sanctions and their destructive effects.
Much more could be said about sanctions: for instance, sanctions in Iraq in the 1990s were accompanied by bombings and the enforcement of a “no-fly zone,” neither of which was terribly cheap or non-violent. Many support sanctions as some sort of remedy for tribal genocidal warfare in such African regions as Darfur. And none of these trading agreements with other countries are really “free trade:” there are always restrictions, fees, tarriffs, limitations, regulations, etc. (most of them come from bureaucratic mandate or fiat a la NAFTA, WTO, etc.) which tend to hamper and dampen the positive effects of free trade. But even a trade association weighted down with nonsensical bureaucratic sandbags and riddled with the frustrating essence of modern leviathan politics is better than none at all.