The Case for Sanctions Fails at Every Turn


As pundits debate how much the Trump administration's penalties have contributed to Venezuela's economic crisis and as European governments move forward with a plan to trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions reimposed on the Islamic Republic, it's time for some calm and straight talk about sanctions.

People who oppose putatively humanitarian military interventions are frequently charged with supporting genocidal tyrants. In the same way, people who oppose sanctions on disfavored regimes are often criticized as apologists for those regimes. Each charge is a non sequitur.

Suppose the American government sought to impose a general trade embargo on Bozarkia, a (fictional) country with a disturbing human rights record. No doubt some people would oppose the move because they happened to like the regime. But there would be good reasons to oppose sanctions on Bozarkia even if we found little or nothing to like about its government.

Sanctions are bad news for the same reasons trade barriers of all kinds are bad news. After all, they're designed to impede particular commercial relationships. If robust property rights are human rights that hold consistently across borders, and if these rights matter—because they promote prosperity, safeguard autonomy, reduce conflict, and so forth—then sanctions are obviously problematic, because they interfere with people's rights to use their property as they see fit.

An embargo on Americans' trade with Bozarkia would impede Americans' own property rights. It would involve the threat of force against the property and bodies of people who trade with that country. It would also, obviously, prevent Bozarkians from making unconstrained choices about the use of their property. For anyone who sees strong property rights as foundational to people's abilities to pursue their own projects, the obvious property-rights violations effected by sanctions should be sufficient to rule them out.

Property rights and the market exchanges they make possible enhance prosperity on an ongoing basis. Sanctions would intentionally interfere with Bozarkians' prosperity, but they would also interfere with Americans' prosperity, denying them the benefits that would otherwise come from trade.

Sanctions also limit people's associational freedoms. Sanctions on Bozarkia would keep Americans and Bozarkians from interacting with each other commercially. Again, if we value freedom of association, we have every reason to look skeptically at sanctions.

The U.S. government often structures sanctions specifically to interfere with the behavior of non-Americans. This is a kind of international bullying that seems designed to impose the will of a would-be global hegemon on unwilling subjects. It is not only an instance of egregious imperial overreach; it also encourages ill will, reduces the likelihood of international cooperation, and raises the possibility of aggressive pushback.

Indeed, sanctions are clearly instances of great-power meddling. (Countries that aren't great powers can hardly impose sanctions outside their own borders.) They're an especially ugly way for governments with military and economic influence to throw their weight around. To impose sanctions is to treat yourself as entitled to manage the lives of others.

Sanctions are deeply objectionable, too, because they represent purposeful attacks on others. Again, that's their point. They wouldn't work if they didn't undermine Bozarkians' welfare—not just by affecting the sizes of their bank accounts but also by impeding their access to the actual, life-enriching goods and services they could buy if trade were unimpeded. And choosing to injure real aspects of well-being is always cruel and unreasonable. It involves treating the welfare of Bozarkians as less important than, and therefore trumped by, our own putative policy goals.

Doing so might make sense if the goods we sought to realize really were more important than the goods sanctions deliberately attack. But they're not.

Bozarkians seek to realize all sorts of goods by engaging in trade—physical well-being via nutrition, aesthetic experience via entertainment, and so forth. And American policy makers seek to realize all sorts of goods by restraining trade. We can argue about what these are—the real goals may have to do with imperial dominance, though the nominal objectives may have to do with promoting the Bozarkian people's well being by freeing them from tyranny. In any case, different kinds of goods can't be quantitatively compared on a common scale. This means that the good things proponents of sanctions say they want to achieve don't objectively outweigh the good things sanctions exist to harm. Therefore, deliberately attacking Bozarkians' welfare in order to achieve these other goods just isn't reasonable.

Sanctions also enhance the risk of violence and full-blown warfare. Imposing sanctions is, in effect, an act of war, and sanctioned countries can be expected to respond violently against embargoes and other forcible attempts to interfere with peaceful trade. Whether or not they formally declare war, they will likely judge that war has been declared on them and act accordingly. Anyone who values peace should seek to cement trading relationships rather than undermine them.

Sanctions are frequently unfair because they are cast much more widely than their stated rationales would permit. Across-the-board sanctions on trade with Bozarkia affect not just Bozarkia's authoritarian leaders but also ordinary Bozarkians—in theory, the victims of their leaders' bad behavior whom sanctions are designed to benefit. Sanctions of this kind would impose costs on people who are not, in this case, responsible for the harms the sanctions purportedly seek to remedy. Indeed, a general embargo would seem likely to harm the most vulnerable people most severely, since those people lack the financial resources to cushion the blow sanctions deliver.

Unsurprisingly, then, sanctions often help inadvertently to legitimize sanctioned governments. Many Bozarkians may resent various choices made by their rulers. However, sanctions make them suffer. The imposition of sanctions—even in putative response to their government's misdeeds—would quite reasonably seem like bullying. Many Bozarkians might tribalistically identify with their government, which is, after all, made up of fellow Bozarkians. Seeing their country and even their government as being victimized by the United States, they would likely push back. More than that, they could be expected to rally around their leaders as their representative in the context of the crisis created by the sanctions.

Sanctions intended to undermine a bad government would thus likely end up strengthening it.

Sanctions also prevent the use of two crucial tools that can be used against authoritarian regimes. The brutality and unfairness of such a policy make it impossible for Americans to trade on an image of benevolence. The invitation to ally with us comes to seem more like the proverbial "offer you can't refuse" than like an attractive appeal to embrace attractive values and partners.

Meanwhile, sanctions directly interfere with cultural exchange in various ways, making it less likely that ideas, texts, music, films, and other drivers of cultural change will be available to people living under authoritarian regimes—with the result that there will be fewer spurs to social and political transformation.

Thus, sanctions seem rarely to undermine authoritarian regimes substantially. Even if the interference with property rights and the attacks on people's welfare that are essential to any sanctions regime were justified—which I believe they're not—sanctions fail to achieve what is often taken to be their ultimate goal.

Sanctions proponents sometimes cruelly suggest that they are intended to make people suffer enough to overthrow their government and install one sympathetic to U.S. interests. But sanctions will often prompt people to support embattled governments more, and people subjected to sanctions seem strikingly unlikely to rally to the side of the power responsible for increasing their suffering. Even if they do overthrow their government, what are the odds that they'll respond positively to an interfering power that caused poverty, loss, and death by means intended to manipulate them?

Everything I've said so far assumes that sanctions are well-intentioned. But the rationales characteristically offered for sanctions can hide bad motives. Humanitarian rhetoric can provide excuses for economic policies designed to benefit domestic political interests or to foster imperial goals. As long as the policy tool of sanctions is on the table, fallible governments can hardly be expected to consistently employ that tool in anything like a virtuous way.

Imposing sanctions means interfering with people's freedom to trade and their freedom of association. It means undermining not only the prosperity of the people who live in the target country but also our own prosperity. It means deliberately, and therefore unreasonably, attacking various aspects of people's welfare. It means harming them as a way of controlling them. It means increasing the chance of violent conflict and eliminating factors that make conflict less likely. It actually props up bad governments and limits efforts to undermine them. It's a classic instance of international bullying. And it is all too likely to be used as a means not of humanitarian assistance but rather of imperial mischief.

Sanctions are cruel, ineffective, and unreasonable. We should unequivocally reject them as tools of international policy.