Sanctions Are Feckless

The proposed punishments of Russia, Iran, and North Korea will not work
July 31, 2017 Updated: July 31, 2017

Among the panoply of diplomatic punishments, “sanctions” are a feeble reed. Perhaps one step above the tut-tutting “stiff note of protest” as issued by one government to another.  

They are more “feel good” exercises than likely correctives by the sanctioning body against the sanctioned. Bluntly, they just do not work—and frequently have rebound consequences damaging others beyond those intended to be sanctioned.

Nevertheless, the United States will impose another round of sanctions against Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Like second marriages, it is a triumph of hope over experience.

We contend Iran continues to violate injunctions against ballistic missile testing. We emphasize North Korea has violated previous sanction measures against their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. We have sanctioned Russia because of its seizure of Crimea and attacks on eastern Ukraine. We also believe Moscow interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election by “hacking” e-mails related to Democratic Party organizations and its candidate Hillary Clinton and providing them to the media, ostensibly to assist the Republican candidate.

Test-firing of a medium-range surface to surface missile, named Sejil-2, at an undisclosed location in Iran. (STR/FARS NEWS/AFP/Getty Images)
Test-firing of a medium-range surface to surface missile, named Sejil-2, at an undisclosed location in Iran. (STR/FARS NEWS/AFP/Getty Images)

In previous sanctions regimes, we have attempted to limit economic and financial activity by these states and placed restraints on the travels of senior officials (Russian) regarding visiting the United States. We also expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized two compounds they used for operational and recreational activity in December 2016.

But to pause for a moment and reflect. Just what effect have these actions had?

            Tehran has stopped missile testing. (Not)

            North Korea has ceased its nuclear/ballistic missile program (Not)

            Moscow has withdrawn from Crimea, ceased aggression against Ukraine, and admitted interference in the U.S. election (Not).

Initially, Russian President Putin assumed the high ground, taking no reciprocal action against U.S. diplomats/facilities, following President Obama’s expulsion of Russian diplomats and seizure of Russian facilities. Presumably he hoped/expected, perhaps from sotte voce comment from senior incoming administration officials that the decision would be reversed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. (Sputnik on/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. (Sputnik on/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)

Now, however, Russian Putin has acted pre-emptively. Anticipating sanctions measures, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it would seize a Moscow warehouse and vacation home used by U.S. embassy personnel as of Aug. 1. Reportedly also U.S. “diplomatic and technical employees” in Embassy Moscow and consulates in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok must be reduced to 455, apparently equal to Russian diplomatic staff in the United States, by Sept 1.

At least U.S. Moscow personnel could enjoy Christmas festivities at the now-seized facilities (one of the rationales Putin proffered—perhaps tongue in cheek—for not taking immediate tit-for-tat action against Washington’s expulsions/seizures in December 2016.)

Nevertheless, nobody, but nobody, should expect this round of sanctions will change the behavior of Iran, North Korea, or Russia.

A study by Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and colleagues examined 200 cases of economic sanctions imposed since World War I. Mr Hufbauer told a columnist for the New York Times that when sanctions “have modest objectives and are aimed at countries that are not terribly powerful but have tasted a little flavor of democracy and have close economic connections to the sanctioning coalition, they succeed in changing countries behavior about half the time.” Examples were helping to persuade coup leadership in Guinea-Bissau and the Central African Republic to hold elections.

Obvious failures, as well as Iran, North Korea, and Russia, include Assad’s Syria and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Despite sanctions, Turkish forces remained in Cyprus; India and Pakistan continued nuclear weapons programs; and various South American countries ignored importuning to take vigorous action against drug production. Ultimately, sanctions were de facto lifted. Perhaps the most blatant failure remains Washington’s efforts at regime change in Cuba despite 50 years of effort (finally leading the Obama administration to give up the attempts).

Essentially, states with strong leadership find “work arounds” to counter sanctions, e.g., third countries (for a price) that will handle embargoed goods, and/or use the sanctions to stimulate nationalist anger against those implementing sanctions. Sanctioned individuals have hidden their bank accounts and are quite happy to travel/vacation elsewhere.

Moreover, under the heading of unintended consequences, the EU is squeaking about prospective collateral damage to its efforts for energy source diversification. Germany reportedly is worried that its domestic firms partnering with Gazprom to deliver gas to Eastern Europe could be limited in their operations by prospective sanctions.

Indeed, the Russian reciprocal sanctions may well end with U.S. personnel significantly less effective in dealing with Moscow. Our newly appointed ambassador, John Huntsman, may not have to drive his own car, but find very meager support staff.

Another effort at “Russian reset” has failed.

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.