Economic Sanctions in Fact and Fiction


“A nation boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy, and there will be no need for force.” Woodrow Wilson.

Economic sanctions. Nobody loves economic sanctions so much as the history-challenged heads of industrialized nations — left, right and center — who tout such strategies as clean, efficient interventions for everything from human rights violations to rogue nuclear hostiles.

Then again, nobody hates sanctions so much as the millions of innocent destitutes worldwide, caught in geopolitical limbo if not hell the instant their homelands are targeted with the singular phrase: bad actor.

If there’s good news to be had about the internal effects of economic sanctions, it’s the mounting awareness that the collateral suffering inflicted upon already impoverished civilian children and adults is as unavoidable as it is cruel.

Current talk of sanctions and embargoes has likewise shown neither is new to the world of international affairs; rather they’re “hard power” statecraft options employed throughout Western history.

Understanding how the US in particular came by this practice of withholding assets, goods and services to advance its aims has roots in the third century, when a Grecian emperor issued orders barring foreign merchants from Athens’ markets. The goal was to weaken the resolve of an unruly territory, but the order instead drove the starving state to align itself with Greece’s sworn enemy (Sparta) in order to survive.

This siege-based strategy has survived and flourished in both European and American foreign and military policy, creating over time the assumption that the side effects of sanctioning are always worth the outcome, i.e., anything short of armed conflict.

And to be fair, as Harvard economics scholar Kenneth Rogoff notes, there is a case to be made that sanctions have at times played a significant role in creating a global greater good; two prime examples being the hastening of the end of South African Apartheid, and helping steer a nuclear-minded Iran to the negotiation table.

But mostly missing in discussions over the effectiveness of a given sanction are the additional burdens placed upon the poor every time their country’s assets are frozen, every time the oil rations run out, every time hunger is one scant meal away.

Until recently the tolls exacted on a sanctioned country’s neediest citizens have gone unnoticed save for non-government relief agencies and overseas medical professionals, yet are strikingly consistent across targeted nations: reduced per capita calorie intake; increases in infant mortality and untreated diseases (largely from poor sanitation and contaminated water); sharp spikes in homelessness and; significantly more completed suicides.

These data belie the notion that sanctions are anything other than a very dirty business. Without a single bomb being dropped, even the most tattered of societies are further disrupted as infrastructure crumbles, basic needs go unmet and civil violence is an ever-present reality.

This reality has become all the more vivid in the instance of North Korea. Yet despite the growing understanding of the reality of sanctions, polls on the high-stakes insanity between Washington and Pyongyang indicate strong support for even further restrictions on the North — a move that should raise new fears that like Greece of old, the US could overplay its hand.

There is some solace to be found in reports indicating Trump’s advisers are counseling restraint in further trash-talking the North, as well as the use of traditional diplomatic back channels to explore talks without appearing to blink first.

But even in the case of a most welcome nuclear stepdown, the poor will continue to suffer the true consequences of sanctions against North Korea.

And Syria. And Somalia. And Crimea. And …

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2017

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