Since the early 1980’s the U.S. has used sanctions as a moral legitimacy for their causes, which today have become a feature of the economic, political and social landscape.
The use of economic sanctions to coerce nations is not new in foreign policies. Thucydides and Plutarch provide accounts of what is arguably the earliest recorded use of economic sanctions: the “Megarian Degree” of 432 BC, passed by the Athenian assembly embargoing all trades between Megara and the Athenian empire.
The Megarian Decree was an act of revenge by the Athenians for the treacherous behavior of the Megarians some years earlier. The case has been made by some historians that the Megarian Decree ultimately helped to prolong and intensify of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).
Sanctions include restraining economic, cultural, political and diplomatic links with states that deemed to possess objectionable behavior are used as a tool of coercion to pursue foreign policy objectives. At the same time sanctions are meant to pressuring leadership to respect international law and follow internationally acceptable ethical norms, an instrument preferable to and more economical than military interventions or war and more acceptable to the public.
However, sanctions do not offer a universal answer to foreign policies issues and are in fact contra-productive to finding answers to the serious issues our global village, issues which threaten the survival of our so called civilization and which cannot be resolved by excluding countries from our global equilibrium.
Sanctions are relatively low-cost measures, mainly an attempt to crush the economy and decrease the currency value of the target state. But transgressor nations adjust and sanctions encourage illicit trading- and money laundering activities and affect access to food, medicine, and sanitation supplies. Sanctioned countries can be faced with fuel shortages, hyperinflation, declining public health conditions and resulting in increased poverty.
The case can be made sanctions are never a very useful instrument for to realize change and once implemented take years to influence policies. The UN sanctions against Rhodesia 1962 and South Africa in 1965 confirmed this, just like the U.S. sanctions against Cuba (unilateral) and India, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and Venezuela did not achieve their objective.
The sanctions against India, Pakistan and North Korea did not stop the development of nuclear weapons, the Cuban embargo, the sanctions against Iran, Iraq and Venezuela did little to inspire regime change or influence a policy shift and the sanctions against Russia did nothing to stop the invasion in Ukraine.
Economic sanctions are not free of ethical and human costs, which human costs in most cases far outweigh the likely benefits and go far beyond their initial purpose.
Although economic sanctions are targeted at the ruling class, they impact and deteriorate the living experience of the vast majority of the people, the most valuable in society, and are particular harmful for children, women other vulnerable groups. Sanctions negatively impact human rights, increase authoritarianism and exacerbate human rights violations, and, at worst, can kill more people than the wars they are purported to supplant.
The longer period sanctions are enforced the less successful they become and the more reluctant the sanctioning party is to suspend sanctions and admit failure. Sanctions have mostly a symbolic function and the efficacy of sanctions is debatable and can have unintended consequences.
During the period after the fall of communism sanctions increased substantially, but have almost never succeeded in stopping the unethical behavior of transgressor states.
The explosion of sanction since President Bill Clinton confirmed sanctions are part of the U.S. foreign policy instruments to protect American primacy in the world, evidenced by U.S. sanctions against China and proposed sanctions and imposing tariffs against Europe.
Like his predecessor President George W Bush used key regulatory tools to cut off access to the U.S., financial system in order to disrupt malicious financial activities. President Obama used sanctions to achieve a more broader objective: to deter aggressive actions towards the U.S. and its interests.
The threat of the Biden administration as issued on 8 December 2021 against Russia by President Joe Biden was a harbinger of the things to, a warning that if Vladimir Putin escalates the Ukraine conflict into open conflict he will face “severe consequences, economic consequences like none he’s ever seen or ever have been seen before.”
President Biden uses coercive sanction to facilitate regime change in Moscow as expressed in late March 2022 in Warsaw. He stated that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, “cannot remain in power,” although the White House quickly sought to downplay the U.S. leader’s remarks, noting that Biden was not calling for “regime change” in Moscow.
With his remarks President Biden lifted the fog from U.S. motives and objectives, overstated the treat face by the U.S. and underestimated the challenges of the regime. Although Russia is the 11th economy in the world, it’s not Zimbabwe either.
The expansion of the sanction against Russia has further destabilized the world economy. This is taking place in an already fragile international environment with increased nationalism, trade conflicts, weakened globalization, natural disasters, and the recent coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, the history of sanctions during the last 60 years have shown to be a resounding failure to realize change, due to growing interdependency between markets & countries. According to the study of Robert A. Pape (1997) of the University of California only up to <5 % of the 40 analyzed sanctions have proven themselves to be successful.
UN sanctions against authoritarian regimes have proven themselves even less successful and are not free of ethical costs as the Iraq and Iran sanctions have shown. However sanctions have proven themselves more successful when they are used between friendly states.
Next to influencing behavior and policies of people, companies and countries the conclusion is warranted they are used as a foreign policy instrument to advance U.S. hegemonic interests and facilitate and support the U.S. strategy of regime change.
Since the overthrown of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran in 1953 the strategy of regime change has been used frequently by the U.S., driven by a combination of idealism, naiveté and arrogance whereby American governments have assumed the right to influence elections and topple governments often with disastrous results.
But according to David S. Cohen and Zoe A.Y. Zoe in their article “Sanctions can’t spark regime change” the logic of coercive sanction does not hold when the objective of the sanctions is regime change because the cost of relinquishing power will always exceed the benefit of sanction relief.
This type of U.S. overreach, particularly secondary sanctions that target entities from third-party countries that do not comply with the sanctions at issue, have reduced U.S. influence and have caused China and Europe to be actively looking to limit their exposure to the dollar and the U.S. financial system.
The “feel good” sanctions against Russia, instead of a more prudent and less confrontational approach by President Obama, only worsened rather than improved the serious situation and confirmed the perceived hostility by Russia. The sanctions have only increased the problems and have undermined the objective of integrating Russia into the global economy and have brought Russia closer to war.
This is not unlike the aftermath of the first world war, when sanctions were created as a mechanism to prevent future conflict. During the war, the allies imposed a blockade on their enemies, Germany and Austria-Hungary. This affection of the Anglo-American partnership for economic sanctions, led by the US president, Woodrow Wilson, was born out of the desire to avoid a repetition of the first world war. In the end, Nazi Germany and imperial Japan embarked on campaigns of conquest to secure vital resources like oil, grain, and metals, which brought in another world war.
Targeting the financial institutions, channels and preventing Russia from making debt repayments with dollars held in U.S. banks, a measure designed to deplete Russia’s international currency reserves, have shown other countries the danger of holding gold and dollar reserves in U.S. financial institutions, just as integrating financial institutions into a American led system, with unlimited access to strategic information can be viewed as a hazard.
As a consequence alternatives to the USD-based financial ecosystem are no longer inconceivable, with trade transactions next to Euro’s taking place in Russian roubles and Chinese renminbi. Alternatives to Swift such as China CIPS and new digital currencies will also impact global capitalism and the world order.
After eight years of sanctions the Russian economy has been touched and weakened, and are likely to be felt by the population from low income families to oligarchs due to the likely rise in inflation, but the same rise in inflation is felt elsewhere.
The oil embargo has lowered export volumes and has forced Russian sellers to offer higher discounts on the purchase price, This has cost Russia billions in oil revenues which is affecting the budget. But presently Russia has weathered the sanctions, while at the same time the strategic cooperation since 2001 between China and Russia has deepened.
The sanction against Russian interests show a world divided between on the one side the industrialized and on the other side the neutral and non-aligned countries. The majority of the countries, including the BRIC countries do not follow the sanctions for which we Europeans are paying the economic price with high energy prices and rising inflation.
In fact the sanctions against Iran, Russia and also China have as a long-term effect that U.S. led sanctions are losing their sting, giving the alternatives to the U.S. led financial eco system and in time sanctions will in many instances become even more ineffective than today.
Today, sanctions have become an alternative way of fighting wars. But with the overuse of sanctions, lack of sanction relief, fallen deterrent and with the diminishing effectiveness of economic sanctions, this begs the question, how will government or political elites which engage in objectionable behavior be encouraged to follow international norms and how can states be pressured to influence a policy shift.
No doubt in the absence of diplomacy, compromise and engagement this will lead to the increase of military interventions, in an increasingly more unbalanced world.