How effective are economic sanctions? Justified as preferable to outright conflict, are they the more "civilised" way to exert pressure? They have the virtue for the country applying the pressure of costing less than military operations, though to the country suffering prolonged sanctions the cost can be no less devastating. But what is the true success rate? And what are the negatives? To answer these questions, there is history to draw on.
The classic example of success was the sporting and cultural boycott of South Africa, followed by a UN arms embargo and finally economic sanctions, which over period of two decades led to the end of apartheid in 1991. That was an achievement of historic importance, and is unlikely to be matched anywhere. At the other end of the scale, sanctions can take less dramatic form, and be wielded in the guise of sharp tariff rises. A recent, minor example was that of the punitive steel import tariffs applied to Turkey by the United States in August 2018, designed to secure the release from custody of an American citizen, which have now been quietly ended. They succeeded in releasing the detainee, but at political cost to an already troubled bilateral relationship.
Attention needs to be given to failures, and to the damaging effects, often long-term, that economic sanctions can have. The classic example here is the near-total trade and financial embargo on Iraq imposed by the UN Security Council six days after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It was lifted in part in 2003, after he was removed from power by the US-led invasion, though some provisions remained in force while compensation was extracted from Iraq. During that time the civilian population suffered severely from shortages and hardship. The regime itself felt little pressure, deflecting the effects onto the population, and making propaganda out of their distress. The long-term effect, in addition to blighted lives and lost opportunities, was the degradation of Iraq's rich human capital. The country lost skills and above all educational capacity. The effects of this are strongly felt a generation later.
Cuba is another example of long-term pressure, in this case from US sanctions that lasted decades, starting a year after Fidel Castro's Revolution of 1959. Cuba made a virtue out of isolation and not only survived but could project revolutionary power in Africa, with the support of the Soviet Union. Its medical profession became an outstanding example of quality achieved with minimum resources. It was not until 2014, under President Obama, that the United States recognised the failure of the blockade, and (against strong internal opposition) switched to a policy of open contact and encouragement of both political and economic evolution. That has now been reversed under President Trump, by a new policy of pressure designed to cripple Cuba's tourism and investment, at the same time as international pressure is applied to Cuba's ideological ally, Venezuela. The 54-year blockade of Cuba had failed, and its alternative has now not been given the chance to succeed.
In 2017 the United States lifted almost all the sanctions it had imposed on Sudan over the previous two decades, for the most part citing severe human rights abuses in Darfur. The change reflected both the increasing irrelevance of the rationale, which in fact had more to do with Al-Qaeda leaders taking refuge in Sudan, and Washington's new hope of drawing Sudan into a common regional front. But in lifting sanctions Washington ignored the need to work actively with Khartoum to restore a functioning economy. The new freedom rapidly drained the reserves of hard currency, precipitating a crisis which has led directly into the present popular challenge to the military-security regime. The result illustrates another observable truth about sanctions: the distortions they create in a previously healthy economy can have devastating effects long after the sanctions themselves have been lifted. The lingering toxicity of sanctions in economic life, not to mention in political attitudes, needs to be measured realistically in any assessment of whether sanctions have truly "worked" for the general good, over the lifetime of the product.
The big question today is whether the unprecedentedly tough US sanctions on Iran have any chance of achieving their declared intention, which is to change Tehran's entire regional security strategy. Some versions also declare the intention of fomenting popular revolt against the clerical rule installed in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, and securing "regime change", whatever that is supposed to entail. The consensus of informed opinion seems to be that those objectives are wildly unrealistic, and that the effect will be to consolidate the grip of the more reactionary and hostile elements of power in Iran. Yet the United States is doubling down, and adding threats of war. It took fifty-four years for the pointlessness, the illogicality, of the Cuba blockade to be recognised by a leader as courageous as President Obama. With the constellation of other powers interested in Iran's survival - Russia, China, Europe, Turkey and Iraq among them - it seems that the US policy has no way to grow other than into outright conflict. But that too lacks any logic. It is exactly the kind of absurd situation that can lead to an unwinnable war, and to all the damage to mutual trust that any war would bring, not to mention the human cost in lives lost and blighted.
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