Sanctions Have Gotten a Bum Rap
Pundits Despise Them, but They Can Be Effective in Myanmar and Elsewhere
By David Baldwin*
Los Angeles Times
August 18, 2004
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's pro-democracy movement, has spent at least nine of the last 13 years under house arrest. When the Bush administration recently renewed economic sanctions against Myanmar, aimed at pressuring that nation's military regime to pursue democratic reforms and at winning Suu Kyi's release, it triggered the usual negative response from pundits everywhere.
Ever since the League of Nations' economic sanctions against Italy failed to stop the invasion of Abyssinia in 1936, the consensus among pundits has been that applying such pressure doesn't work. It is rarely noted that the league's 1936 action might well have worked if oil had been included on the embargo list and if the United States had supported the sanctions.
Despite the belief that sanctions don't work, every U.S. president since 1936 has used them. Why? Because they can be useful foreign policy tools. Along with military force, propaganda and diplomacy, they constitute the basic instruments of statecraft. In order to evaluate the worth of sanctions, then, one must understand the basic rules of statecraft.
The first basic rule is that nothing works perfectly. A study by the Institute for International Economics of 116 cases found the success rate of sanctions to be about 33%. Some see this as evidence that such measures do not work and should be abandoned. Not necessarily. A baseball player who gets a hit only 33% of the time is a star, not a bum. It may well be that in statecraft as in baseball, .333 is a pretty good "batting average."
The second rule is that nothing will work alone. None of the tools of statecraft works well by itself; each is best used in conjunction with the others. Military force alone is insufficient to win wars — as the situation in Iraq amply demonstrates. That economic sanctions alone are unlikely to bring democracy to Myanmar does not mean that they cannot make a useful contribution toward that end.
Third, costs matter as much as benefits. Military force may well be more effective in achieving some foreign policy goals, but it is likely to be more costly than economic sanctions.
Still, one of the arguments made in favor of invading Iraq was to rid the U.S. of the costs of maintaining sanctions against Hussein's regime — for example, the oil embargo. With more than $150 billion appropriated thus far for the military effort in Iraq and billions more expected, the idea of invading Iraq in order to save money seems ludicrous. And that does not include such nonmonetary costs as the loss of lives and international respect.
Policymakers understand that the low costs of economic sanctions sometimes make them preferable to more effective tools, such as military force. No one has seriously suggested, for example, that military force be used to bring democracy to Myanmar.
The fourth rule of statecraft is that alternatives matter. It is not enough to tell policymakers that sanctions won't work in Myanmar or elsewhere; one must tell them what would work better. As the octogenarian said when asked whether he was enjoying old age, "Compared with the alternative, I am enjoying it very much." Likewise, in evaluating economic sanctions, one must ask, "Compared with what?"
Do economic sanctions work? One interesting thing about this question is that it is almost never asked about military force, propaganda or diplomacy — the main alternatives to economic sanctions. Yet the answer is the same for each type of statecraft. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.
The fact is, there is no all-purpose instrument that works better in all situations. It is good to remind ourselves that the alleged accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s was often cited as evidence that economic sanctions weren't working. In retrospect, it appears that they may have been working better than anyone suspected.
In the end, the question "Do sanctions work?" grossly oversimplifies the issue by implying a yes or no answer. It would be better to ask, "How successful are sanctions likely to be, with respect to which goals, at what costs, and compared with which alternative tools of statecraft?"
No matter how useful or useless sanctions eventually turn out to be in Myanmar, one thing is sure: Putting economic pressure on governments we hope to influence or change will remain a potentially useful addition to the diplomatic tool kit. Presidents understand this even if pundits do not.
About the Author: David Baldwin, a political science professor at Columbia University, is the author of "Economic Statecraft" (Princeton University, 1985).