By Professor Hossein Askari

Sanctions are an instrument of death, destruction and global rift

March 1, 2023 - 18:42

Let me cut to the chase, sanctions can end up being more harmful than your average war: they can involve many more countries than two parties to an armed conflict; cause more human suffering and last much longer; inflict more widespread economic loss, impede economic and human recovery; leave more hatred in their wake; and yes, sanctions have hardly ever achieved their intended goal. So what’s so good about sanctions?

First, the optimistic rationale for economic sanctions.

Over the last fifty or so years, an army of academics and politicians from the West have touted economic sanctions as an important instrument of foreign policy that falls between diplomacy and war. Given that diplomacy fails to change the problematic policies of an adversary, economic sanctions are preferred as a substitute. Sanctions are presumed to force a desired change in the objectionable policies of an adversary while avoiding human casualties and limiting physical destruction and adverse economic fallout. How? By putting economic pressure on the elite and or on the general population to force presidents, prime ministers and rulers to change course in order to stay in power and thus save their own skins. A reasonable story, but just that: a story! It is a story that is primarily pushed by political scientists and politicians with economists, their heads in the sand, providing calculations of the partial cost of sanctions.

The U.S. creates enemies for itself. The number of enemies can grow with time as sanctions drag on and on as we have seen in the cases of Cuba, Venezuela and Iran.Let me first admit that I have been wrong in my own assessment of the efficacy of sanctions. As an economist, while I wrote books and articles estimating some of the costs (in trade) to the sender of sanctions (usually the U.S.) and to the target; this was a small fraction of the global economic cost, its longevity and aftermath and I also foolishly underestimated the human cost. More on my myopia below.

Early on in the use of sanctions, it became clear that they would have a stronger legal basis and would be more likely to succeed if they were adopted by the League of Nations (later the United Nations) and thus if they were more multilateral as opposed to unilateral. This being simply because unilateral sanctions could be undermined by a host of nations who could continue their association with the targeted country. While sanctions have rarely achieved their stated goal, the UN sanctions on South Africa that brought about majority black rule are invariably claimed as the shining success story.

Non-binding UN sanctions on South Africa started in 1963 and although some countries enacted trade embargoes on the apartheid regime, the United States and the United Kingdom dragged their feet and did not embrace sanctions because of business interests until the late 1980s. After the United States signed on, the economic cost became prohibitive for the white rulers and they decided it was time to yield to black majority rule. Economic sanctions undoubtedly speeded up the emergence of black majority rule, but it still took much time for sanctions to achieve the desired change. Critical to achieving change was that black rule was also wanted by the overwhelming majority of the citizenry; with a population breakdown of 80% black, 8% white and 12% colored and Asians South Africa was a receptive country for change, a critical point for success in all sanctions but something that it is not always appreciated. Another factor was that South Africa had little economic bargaining power as it needed many critical imports, especially oil, and it was not a significant exporter of a commodity critical for the short-term survival of the world.

After this presumed success story of economic sanctions, the United States ramped up its unilateral sanctions that it had started after WWII, most notably with Cuba in 1958 and with Iran in 1979, both sanction regimes that continue, albeit modified, today.

The United States is now the global leader in sending sanctions (the sender) with more than 40 countries sanctioned (targets). The United States learned one important lesson from sending sanctions. Unless the target country is economically weak, dependent on critical imports supplied by the U.S. with no exports in high global demand, has no powerful allies and is poor, unilateral sanctions have little chance of success. To succeed, airtight multilateral economic sanctions are the way to go on big countries with diversified economies and powerful allies. So what did the U.S. do? It came up with secondary sanctions by using the concept of extraterritoriality. Using this concept, if any third country does not uphold U.S. sanctions against a target, then that country will also be subject to the same U.S. sanctions. Namely, it is as if the rest of the world is subject to U.S. laws and is a part of the U.S. Arguably, the U.S. is the only country with the economic, financial and military power to adopt effective secondary sanctions and all this is further enhanced by the dollar, issued by the U.S., being the premier reserve currency in the world.

We see first-hand the impact of sanctions on Iran, Venezuela and now on Russia—higher oil and natural gas prices around the world affecting the prices of all forms of energy.Be all this as it may, why should we consider sanctions an abomination to be renounced and outlawed in a civilized world? Let me provide you with a summary of the case against sanctions implemented by the United States and in the process confirm my own myopia in all that I wrote before.

Sanctions are “easy” to adopt. The President can sanction any country’s exports, imports, access to the dollar market and more, sanction institutions, companies and individuals around the world, freeze assets and restrict travel. This is easy and painless. However, precisely because sanctions are now seen as an effective option to affect change around the world and easy to adopt, diplomacy has been shortchanged. Traditional diplomacy is not afforded the time and effort it needs to produce results.

A president can do much of the sanctioning by executive order and if he or she needs congressional support, it is invariably available. The president and Congress are seen by the citizenry as acting and doing something while avoiding armed conflict that leads to casualties and public scrutiny. Politicians can pound their chests and get good press.

Yet, while U.S. casualties may be avoided at least in the short run, Americans do not see the misery that might befall the target. Lack of medicines and deteriorating healthcare that will in some cases result in untimely death for many women and children, besides deprivation from malnutrition. Photos of these are not as disturbing as dead bodies of Americans in body bags and physical destruction caused by American bombs.

The fallout in the target is invariably on the poor, with those in power left unscathed. They have all the medicines, the best available healthcare and nutrition. The powerful even invariably benefit financially through smuggling and corruption as shortages become more prevalent. Instead it is the poor and the average person who suffer and they will invariably hold the United States responsible, especially if they don’t object to their government’s policies that the U.S. finds objectionable. The U.S. creates enemies for itself. The number of enemies can grow with time as sanctions drag on and on as we have seen in the cases of Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. Even if the government is unpopular, significant pain and mortalities that drag on for years will invariably turn some of the citizenry against the United States.

It is high time for the world to come together to put an end to the ravages of economic sanctions.Sanctions are a blunt instrument. It is very difficult to find a smart sanction that directly targets the source of the objectionable policies to pressure for change. Instead, the U.S. hopes that by causing widespread misery, it can get those in power to do as it wants. Still a key is how the general public feels about their government. Is the government popular and are its policies popular? Unfortunately, the U.S. rarely gives much weight to these factors. Washington imposes sanctions and hopes for the best.

A major shortcoming of U.S. sanction policies is that decisionmakers don’t consider the widespread fallout to other countries and how they evolve over time. When the U.S. adopts secondary sanctions, then countries around the world that have economic, financial and human connections to the target are also affected—their exports may be harmed, their options for imports may be more limited and financial transfers may be impeded. Yes, they are not the target, but they are affected.

The impact on other countries depends on the economic characteristics of the target. Is it a major exporter of an essential commodity? Is that commodity widely available from other countries? Is it in short supply? What is the impact of sanctions on prices of goods exported by the target? We see first-hand the impact of sanctions on Iran, Venezuela and now on Russia—higher oil and natural gas prices around the world affecting the prices of all forms of energy. This in turn affects supply chains and the price of other commodities that use energy as input, resulting in higher global prices and inflation.

The economic fallout is even more fundamental. The foundational theorem of international economics is Comparative Advantage—countries specialize in the production and export of goods in which they have a comparative production cost advantage. Sanctions undermine these “natural” advantages in production. In so doing and depending on the target attributes, there is industrial dislocation, countries may have to restructure, retool and change what they produce, incurring restructuring costs, which in turn affect global prices, inflation and employment.

Sanctions have stealthily become legal! Sanctions have become a force for portioning and deglobalizing the world.The impact of sanctions goes far beyond trade. Sanctions affect cross border investment. Moreover, banks and financial markets may be sanctioned from lending to the target, which in turn impacts the target’s economic growth and global economic output and employment. Financial matters could be made even more difficult for the target by the sanctioning of its banks and even its central bank to cut the country’s access to the dollar market and international banking, which in turn would force the country to use gold or cash in suitcases for its international transactions, something that is costly and cumbersome.

All in all and depending on the country being sanctioned, the economic and financial fallout for the world could be devastating. Such widespread economic and financial dislocations can in turn lead to political upheavals and new alliances—the enemy of my enemy becomes a friend. How about Russia and China becoming closer or Russia and Iran cementing relations? Yet such global political earthquakes in political alliances and their long-term fallout are not on the forefront of politicians’ minds as they slap sanctions willy-nilly on their adversary.

Depending on the characteristics of the target, exports and imports, a domestic lobby can emerge to prevent the lifting of sanctions because domestic producers have geared up to produce what was previously imported from the target. A case in point is dried nuts (pistachios) and fruit (raisins) from Iran. Also third countries may lobby to maintain sanctions in order to keep the target’s exports from the market as they may lower the price of their exports (for example piped gas and LNG from Iran or oil from Venezuela).

The fallout from sanctions can also linger on for years even after the U.S. has “lifted” them. Again, the case in point is Iran. If and when sanctions are lifted, it is highly unlikely that foreign investment in Iran, private and corporate, will resume any time soon. A high-level international banker confirmed this to me. After what he had seen, he was unsure if the United States would slap sanctions back on a country after a few years or even after months. But just look at what Trump did. He withdrew from the nuclear agreement, re-imposed the sanctions that had been lifted and even added to them. The banker said that he would not advise a client to invest in Iran. Wars seem to have a finality, sanctions don’t. They leave a trail that lingers and lingers, affecting all dimensions of the target’s future relations in the post-sanction era. As a result, uncertainty and risk of doing business is increased, which in turn add to the cost of business transactions.

There is an irony in America’s cavalier approach to sanctions. During WWI, leaders in Europe and the United States thought that without a declaration of war, economic sanctions contravened international law. The U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson, would not join in efforts to impose sanctions. Later in the 1960s and 1970s, during the Arab boycott of Israel, the United States claimed that Arabs were flouting international law, even though the U.S. had sanctioned Cuba! Yet over the last fifty years, the U.S. has sanctioned more countries, organizations, entities, companies and individuals than the rest of the world combined. In many cases, U.S. primary sanctions have been reinforced with secondary sanctions. Sanctions have stealthily become legal! Sanctions have become a force for portioning and deglobalizing the world.

In sum and lest you get the wrong impression, I am not advocating wars! Wars can be devastating, with deprivation and human casualties, economic hardship, loss of economic output and potential, supply chain problems and higher prices, but sanctions are not the solution. Sanctions can be saddled with the same list of drawbacks as wars and more, but they are opaque and avoid similar scrutiny. Sanctions are adopted with less thought than a declaration of war; they rarely achieve their intended goal; they invariably drag on for a longer period of time than the average war; their economic impact can be even more severe than the average war and affect more countries that are not even party to the conflict; their adverse fallout may linger for years after they are lifted; they may rupture political and economic alliances in unforeseen ways; and they may restructure the global economy while reducing global economic efficiency.

We live in a world shackled by a tightening web of sanctions and increasing global rift and uncertainty. It is high time for the world to come together to put an end to the ravages of economic sanctions.

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