Sanctions: A Substitute for Serious Foreign Policy
Robert E. Hunter
Robert E. Hunter served as US Ambassador to NATO and as chief White House official for Europe and the Middle East. He was Senior International Consultant to Lockheed-Martin from 1998 - 2013. He has written speeches for three US presidents and three vice presidents and provides coaching in strategic planning, political and executive communications and media handling.
In recent times, the United States has increasingly resorted to economic and other sanctions to try getting countries, with governments often referred to as “rogue regimes,” to change their behavior. Today, Iran, Russia, and North Korea have been notable targets. But are sanctions genuinely a useful tool of policy—that is, do they work? And, if that proposition is at best debatable, why does the United States deploy them so often?
Some of us who have been both outside observers and US government practitioners of sanctions have long been skeptical that they are—at least very often—a ready tool to serve US foreign-policy interests, except as a means of threading the needle between doing nothing and going to war. They are certainly useful in US domestic politics as a feel-good device on Capitol Hill, among various interest groups, and for editorial writers.
For sanctions to work, generally six conditions need to be in play.
The Six Conditions
Another example is the U.S. promise of sanctions relief against Iran after the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But the chances for improved relations with Iran dissipated when the United States dragged its feet on promised sanctions relief and then either retained or even augmented sanctions targeting other Iranian behavior. This included misrepresenting UN Security Council Resolution 2231 as requiring Iran to stop work on ballistic missiles when in fact the resolution merely expressed a wish that Teheran would follow that course.
President Obama can be credited for resisting domestic political pressures in concluding the landmark JCPOA. But members of Obama’s own administration, particularly the Treasury Department, opposed potentially positive developments with Iran flowing from the JCPOA because they did not want to see any relaxation of sanctions beyond the absolute minimum and were able to thwart the president’s will. Of course, President Trump’s rhetoric against Iran and the JCPOA, in part at the behest of US regional partners Saudi Arabia and Israel, has closed the door, at least for now, on the chance of changed relations with Iran. Furthermore, the US “nickel and diming” of sanctions relief provided for under the JCPOA sends a message to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un that any prospective agreement with the United States on his nuclear program would need to be much more tightly crafted.
A Weak Reed
To be sure, sometimes the US will decide to make a political or moral statement by imposing sanctions on another country, especially when human rights are concerned, even if the US calculates that sanctions will not change behavior. Or the issue in question in the sanctioned country may not rise to the level of national security, and thus domestic opposition might grow to the leadership's behavior that brought about sanctions in the first place.
In general, however, experience shows that sanctions are a weak reed. Too often, they become a substitute for serious diplomacy practiced by serious diplomats as part of a serious diplomatic structure. Alas, this is an area where the United States is increasingly deficient, especially as national leadership significantly reduces the ranks of able diplomats and the resources to help them be effective.
Of course, it is often useful to back diplomacy with a threat of force. Then sanctions can credibly be represented as a last chance before the use of force. This is provided that the interests of the sanctioning country are sufficiently important, that the threat of force is kept proportionate, and that there are other elements such as a UN Security Council Resolution and the lack of an offsetting threat from another powerful country. Thus, effective diplomacy over the Bosnia War only became possible when NATO was able to employ force. Then the war came to an end in 18 days, with the Dayton Accords afterwards tidying up what had already been achieved with force.
No doubt, the United States will continue to employ sanctions against other countries, if only out of habit and the perceived value of feeling good. But they are no substitute for intelligent, coherent, well-crafted diplomacy and other non-coercive instruments. Yet the prospects are poor for reviving these capacities, which have been permitted to erode throughout most of the post-Cold War period. Unless they are revived and given the pride of place that they traditionally held for most of US history, Washington will rely to an even greater degree on cruder instruments: both sanctions, which rarely achieve their stated goals, and military force, which generally is successful, at least initially, but can impose high costs down the road, as has been the case in the Middle East since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The search for alternatives to war should not lead to sanctions, which almost always are a dead end. Rather, the United States should invest more in serious diplomacy and the tools to make it effective.
Access. Engagement. Resolution.
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