Sanctions – a follow-up

May 15, 2019

Several people have written seeking clarification and explanation of some of my arguments in my previous article on sanctions, published here on Friday 10 May. The academic literature on the success and effectiveness of sanctions is in something of a mess, for a number of reasons.

First, the literature in the English language is dominated almost exclusively by authors from sanctions-imposing countries in the West. They approach the subject from the point of view of the rights, interests and objectives of those applying sanctions, not the experience of those living under sanctions. A victim-centric perspective is a much-needed corrective.

Second, there is no agreement on how to define, measure and prove success, failure and effectiveness and therefore the indicators employed vary from one study to another. Sanctions have multiple impacts, and outcomes can be traced back to multiple causes. For example, what respective roles did sanctions and air strikes play in inducing compliance by Slobodan Milošević at Dayton in 1995?

Third, some indicators are remarkably lax, implying that the capacity to demonstrate some effects of the imposition of sanctions should be enough to refute criticisms that they are a failure. Thus, sanctions imposed by rival Cold War countries on Olympic Games held in countries of the other bloc had some affect. Who gets to decide whether the Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984) Olympics were overall successes or failures? On the one hand, some countries did boycott the two. Winners, medal tallies and even some records would have been different had they all taken part. On the other hand, the Games were held on both occasions and the official records on individual medal winners, country total medals and performance measurements will forever stand.

Fourth, there is little effort to weight the variables with respect to the major cases and minor examples.

Fifth, on any rigorous assessment, it is easier to demonstrate failures of sanctions than to argue conclusively for their effectiveness. For example the South African apartheid regime collapsed. But it did so after living under sanctions for decades. It is impossible to prove that the collapse was caused by the sanctions, as opposed to, say, worsening economic straits caused by a deteriorating investment climate which saw foreign and domestic investors resort to capital flight. Similarly, it seems more plausible to posit that the change in policies in Myanmar came about due to internal regime change rather than external sanctions.

By contrast, examples abound of countries that were subjected to various sanctions for long periods of time without discernible results. In the interwar period (1919–39), the two big cases were sanctions imposed on Italy and Japan for their invasions of Abyssinia and Manchuria; both were total failures.

Since 1945, one of the few clear cases of sanctions success is against Muammar Gaddafi of Libya who buckled to international demands in 2003. Or is it?

Gaddafi walked away from the nuclear weapons path in December 2003. The Bush administration was quick to claim this as a tangible success of its Iraq war policy. Many Arabs concluded that as a result of the difficult insurgency in Iraq after the war, it is Washington that became more receptive to longstanding Libyan overtures and signals for an end to the confrontation. Thus both versions agree on the war being the deal maker, but for opposite reasons. And then Gaddafi was ousted, captured and killed, with long-term damaging consequences for the effectiveness of sanctions in coercing other dictators into compliance.

Sanctions on Saddam Hussein in Iraq failed, as proven by the very fact of war against him in 2003. Yet their deadly impact on civilian Iraqis caused grave and irreparable damage to the myth of sanctions as a humane alternative to war. Those on Southern Rhodesia failed, for black liberation was achieved primarily as a result of an armed liberation struggle. Thereafter, sanctions on Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe failed to dislodge him from power; he fell ultimately for other reasons.

Sanctions imposed by the former Soviet Union on Josef Tito’s Yugoslavia failed. Sanctions maintained on Cuba arguably helped to keep Fidel Castro in power for decades, becoming the longest serving non-royal head of state in the 20th-21st centuries. Sanctions on Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia and elimination of the evil Khmer Rouge regime were not just perverse; they did not achieve much. In the South Pacific, sanctions imposed on Fiji for the overthrow of its civilian government were ultimately eased without any discernible concessions to outsiders.

Sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan for their nuclear weapons tests in 1998 have long since been abandoned. Instead the non-proliferation regime has itself been ‘reinterpreted’ to accommodate India as a de facto nuclear-armed state with the signing of the India–US civil nuclear cooperation agreement and many others since, including with Australia.

Sanctions played some role in getting Iran to downsize its proliferation-sensitive facilities, material and activities in 2015, but not necessarily a decisive one. On 4 May 2003 Iran had offered Washington a ‘grand bargain’ via Tim Guldimann, Switzerland’s ambassador to Iran: full cooperation on disarmament and its nuclear programme, end of support to Palestinian groups, acknowledgment of Israel in return for recognition of its legitimate security interests, right to enrichment, full access to peaceful nuclear technology and lifting of sanctions.

Emboldened by the quick victory in Iraq to target regime change in Tehran, Washington chided the Swiss ambassador instead of testing the Iranian offer. At that point in time, Iran was not spinning centrifuges and not enriching uranium. The overture spurned, Iran’s nuclear weapon capability broadened and deepened while it was under US, UN and EU sanctions. The number of centrifuges increased from 164 in 2003 to 19,000 in 2013, when an interim deal induced a pause pending the completed deal in July 2015. Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium grew from 100kg to over 8,000kg in the same period and in 2010 Tehran began enriching uranium to just below 20 per cent.

The net result, according to nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker, was that: ‘From 2008 to 2013, the country had apparently narrowed the gap required to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one nuclear device from several years to between one and two months – in spite of UN Security Council sanctions, the assassination of some of its nuclear scientists, and cyber-attacks on its centrifuge facilities’.

It seems beyond perverse to claim the policy of sanctions over the following decade was a great success in getting the same deal, but with Iran’s nuclear capability left intact at a considerably more advanced level and a functioning nuclear programme. The cavalier US rejection of Iran’s serious offer strengthened the position of hardliners in Tehran who argued that power was the only language Americans understood. According to senior former US officials and analysts, limiting the policy toolkit solely to the pressure of sanctions may have delayed the search for a mutually acceptable deal.

Déjà vu all over again?

Those interested can read a complete discussion in Ramesh Thakur, The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2017), chapter 5, ‘International Sanctions’.

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