Saturday, August 05, 2006

Sanctions v. constructive engagement

What do North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Syria and Iran have in common? All are subject to economic sanctions by the United States and/or the international community. What they also have in common is that the governments at which these sanctions are aimed to undermine are doing just fine thank you.

Jacob Weisberg, in Slate, argues that our sanctions policy is a failure and we should reconsider. He writes,

America's sanctions policy is largely consistent, and in a certain sense,
admirable. By applying economic restraints, we label the most oppressive and
dangerous governments in the world pariahs. We wash our hands of evil, declining
to help despots finance their depredations, even at a cost to ourselves of some
economic growth. We wincingly accept the collateral damage that falls on
civilian populations in the nations we target. But as the above list of
countries suggests, sanctions have one serious drawback. They don't work. Though
there are some debatable exceptions, sanctions rarely play a significant role in
dislodging or constraining the behavior of despicable regimes.

tend to fail as a diplomatic tool for the same reason aerial bombing usually
fails. As Israel is again discovering in Lebanon, the infliction of
indiscriminate suffering tends to turn a populace against the proximate cause of
its devastation, not the underlying causes. People who live in hermit states
like North Korea, Burma, and Cuba already suffer from global isolation. Fed on a
diet of propaganda, they don't know what's happening inside their borders or
outside of them. By increasing their seclusion, sanctions make it easier for
dictators to blame external enemies for a country's suffering. And because
sanctions make a country's material deprivation significantly worse, they
paradoxically make it less likely that the oppressed will throw off their

Tyrants seem to understand how to capitalize on the law of
unintended consequences. In many cases, as in Iraq under the oil-for-food
program, sanctions themselves afford opportunities for plunder and corruption
that can help clever despots shore up their position. Some dictators also thrive
on the political loneliness we inflict and in some cases appear to seek more of
it from us.

Constructive engagement, which often sounds like lame cover
for business interests, tends to lead to better outcomes than sanctions. Trade
prompts economic growth and human interaction, which raises a society's
expectations, which in turn prompts political dissatisfaction and opposition.
Trade, tourism, cultural exchange, and participation in international
institutions all serve to erode the legitimacy of repressive regimes. Though
each is a separate case, these forces contributed greatly to undermining
dictatorships and fostering democracy in the Philippines, South Korea,
Argentina, Chile, and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. The same process is arguably
under way in China. Contact also makes us less clueless about the countries we
want to change. It is hard to imagine we would have misunderstood the religious
and ethnic conflicts in Iraq the way we have if our embassy had been open and
American companies had been doing business there for the past 15 years.

Is it time to start thinking about Iran, North Korea and Syria before there are military confrontations?

Read the entire article here.

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