Why Sanctions Too Often Fail

09 March 2022 12:00:00 - Last updated: 09 March 2022 16:47:30

nwilling to invoke military might, President Joe Biden has orchestrated an astonishing array of sanctions on Russia and its power brokers with lightning speed. On Thursday, with the ruble worth only a cent, he claimed that they were working. “The severe economic sanctions on Putin and all those folks around him, choking off access to technology as well as cutting off access to the global financial system—it’s had a profound impact already,” he said, before a cabinet meeting. The tough reality, however, is that sanctions often fail to sufficiently or efficiently squeeze regimes, whether the goal is to end a war, stop genocide, limit the bomb, or undermine oppression. They have a long and mixed history, dating back to ancient Greece, when Pericles sanctioned other city-states. The obstacles are many. In 1806, Napoleon imposed sanctions to curtail European trade with Britain, but even his own brother, who assumed the Spanish throne, couldn’t enforce them. Sanctions were not wielded as an independent instrument of foreign policy until the twentieth century. Since the Second World War, they’ve become the most popular tool short of military intervention. Globalization has magnified the interdependence of nations, and sanctions provide a low-risk, high-profile response to aggression.

Yet sanctions generate meaningful change only about forty per cent of the time. Years of sanctions failed in North Korea, Venezuela, and Iraq. Cuba has faced layers of U.S. trade and arms embargoes since 1960. The Communist regime is still in power. The Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, faced multiple sanctions for his brutal repression after the Arab Spring uprising, in 2011, turned into a civil war. Hundreds of thousands have died, yet Assad is still firmly entrenched in Damascus. Sanctions are often sagas. Success in South Africa took three decades. The Iran model, which the U.S. has invoked for Russia, has had gyrating effects. Sanctions also produce heartbreak. The agony is the differential in timing. A gun, shell, or bomb can kill in seconds. Sanctions take a comparative eon in the scheme of war or a humanitarian crisis. “They rarely work,” Benn Steil, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “But, when they do work, they tend to take a very long time.”

The main flaws are usually the exemptions, known as carve-outs, that provide financial lifelines. Humanitarian goods—food, medical equipment, education materials—are generally exempt. But enforcement of sanctions on everything else is up to individual nations, which can amend or bend the rules for their own economic needs. In 1966, the U.N. for the first time issued sanctions that sought regime change after Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, declared independence from Britain to preserve white-minority rule. The Security Council imposed an economic embargo on Rhodesia, but only on ninety per cent of the country’s exports. For years, the U.S. Congress approved an additional carve-out that allowed the import of Rhodesian chromium, a key component in American jet engines, cars, and stainless steel. (Rhodesia was then one of three major world suppliers; the Soviet Union was another.) It took more than a decade—of civil war and sanctions—for the Rhodesian regime to cede power to a democratically elected government. Along the way, some twenty thousand died.

Russia benefits from a similar carve-out—for now. Western sanctions allow it to keep selling energy, the largest source of Moscow’s revenues. Last year, Russia earned a hundred and nineteen billion dollars from oil-and-gas sales—when the price averaged only sixty-nine dollars a barrel. This month, prices soared to a hundred and fifteen dollars a barrel. Even if the West, under mounting pressure, does opt to sanction Russian energy resources, it could backfire—creating an oil crisis in the West and driving up prices globally, while Russia simply switches to other buyers. (Many countries, notably China, have not cut off trade with Russia.)

South Africa, during the era of racial apartheid, was widely considered a rare sanctions success story, Steil told me. In 1962, a resolution by the U.N. General Assembly called on member states to sever all diplomatic, military, and economic ties. Yet carve-outs in subsequent international sanctions again diluted their effect. International sanctions excluded “strategic materials,” as well as coal, diamonds, and some forms of gold, which South Africa produced in abundance. As a result, sanctions had minimal impact on the daily life of ruling whites. Over time, South Africa became more self-sufficient. Facing an embargo on energy imports, it developed a world-class system to make oil from coal. Once dependent on arms imports, it ramped up production and became a net exporter. And, for all the pressure and cut-offs, South Africa was still able to develop its first nuclear device in 1982, and by 1989 it had six bombs. The white government finally released Nelson Mandela in 1990. Amid tectonic global political shifts, apartheid ended—three decades after the first sanctions.

Iraq was one of the worst sanctions failures, demonstrating that dictators willing to starve their people and isolate their countries can simply ignore them. In 1990, President Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked invasion of Kuwait spawned the same kind of international fury visible today over Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. Within four days of Iraq’s attack, the U.N. imposed sanctions that banned world trade with Baghdad. Saddam refused to withdraw. Six months later, a U.S.-led military assault expelled Iraqi forces, but the Iraqi leader refused to comply with the terms of the ceasefire. Sanctions dragged on. The toll was horrific. By 1997, a third of Iraqi children were malnourished, according to unicef. In 1999, the Red Cross reported that the economy of Iraq—which once had one of the highest standards of living in the oil-rich Middle East—was “in tatters.” The suffering had little impact on Saddam; he balked at coöperating with U.N. inspectors charged with monitoring his weapons of mass destruction. In 2003, the U.S. launched a second invasion—and Saddam was eventually caught and executed. Dictators often ignore sanctions, no matter the cost to themselves or their states. Putin, so far, seems not to care, either.

Sanctions and embargoes on North Korea, first imposed after the Korean War in the nineteen-fifties, have been a total failure. Over three generations, the Kim dynasty has only become more belligerent, better armed, and more obstinate. In 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to Pyongyang to offer a deal—some sanctions relief and humanitarian aid in exchange for limits on its ambitious ballistic-missile program. North Korea was emerging from a historic four-year famine that reportedly killed millions, but the talks failed. Four subsequent U.S. Presidents imposed ever-tougher sanctions on North Korea. The world’s most isolated regime is now estimated to have dozens of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to fire them across Asia and the Pacific.

The Biden Administration said that the new sanctions on Russia were based on the “Iran model.” But four decades of embargoes and sanctions on Tehran have repeatedly failed to change the regime’s calculus. The U.S. first imposed sanctions after fifty-two American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran, in 1979; it took fourteen months to free them. More sanctions were imposed in the mid-nineteen-eighties for state sponsorship of terrorism. Sanctions were intensified in the nineteen-nineties and again in 2005, amid suspicions about Iran’s ambition to make a nuclear bomb. In 2013, Tehran, under a new President, finally agreed to negotiate. “I racked up about a million frequent-flier miles to get this much concerted action on Iran,” Stuart Levey, the Treasury official who orchestrated sanctions on Iran, told me.

Sanctions, however, are also subject to the whims of domestic politics. Three years into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump abandoned it and imposed more than a thousand new sanctions on Tehran. His goal was to get Iran to negotiate a broader deal. He failed abysmally. In retaliation, Iran breached limits on its nuclear program.

Sanctions rarely change a regime’s ideology or behavior. Russia will, no doubt, face severe economic pain for its invasion of Ukraine. Putin “grossly underestimated” the political will of the West to enact such a complex set of sanctions, including on Putin, Steil told me. In a joint statement on Friday, the G-7 warned that it will continue to impose “severe” sanctions. The group of the world’s most powerful economies demanded that Russia end its invasion. But history shows that the economic weapon is a limited one. And sanctions alone are unlikely to get the ruthless thug in Moscow to stop.