As the death toll in Syria approached 1,000, President Barack Obama finally announced sanctions against the regime. His move stopped Americans doing business with President Bashar al-Assad, along with certain relatives and officials, and froze their US assets. Cynics scoffed, repeating the conventional wisdom that sanctions don’t work. In fact they can make a big difference and, with Syrian violence worsening, the time is right for more.
Sanctions’ sceptics trot out a familiar litany, from the failure of a trade embargo to topple Fidel Castro in Cuba to the failure of sanctions to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But evidence suggests such measures can be effective. A careful study by the Peterson Institute of 115 uses of economic sanctions by major countries between 1950 and 1990 concluded that, in about a third of cases, they helped those wielding them achieve their goals. The research shows they were most likely to be successful when this objective was modest and clear, the target was in a weakened position, economic links were significant, sanctions were heavy, and the duration was limited – conditions which partly apply in Syria today.
Even such positive statistics miss the more important question, namely what the alternative might be. The probability of success via sanctions may be relatively low – as is probably the case in Syria – but the relevant issue is whether it is higher than any alternative. Military power is sometimes effective, but its costs are also often high too, particularly in regions such as the Middle East.
Famous examples of sanctions’ failures also often do not stand up to scrutiny. Take Cuba. Sanctions did not remove Mr Castro and only somewhat inhibited his international capabilities (because he received Soviet aid). But they did allow the US to signal that alliance with the Soviet Union would be costly. Similarly, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, President Jimmy Carter curtailed grain sales and boycotted the Moscow Olympics, rather than use a threat of force which would not look credible. That these sanctions were costly to the US made Mr Carter’s condemnation seem more credible.
It is true that sanctions are a blunt instrument, in which suffering is often borne by the poor. But such problems have led to the idea of “smart sanctions” targeted at elites, such as those Mr Obama imposed on Syria. These are particularly effective, because pressure can be increased by additions to the lists of officials and family members. In 2007, for instance, the US decision to freeze North Korean assets in a Macao bank is credited with helping to bring Pyongyang back to the bargaining table (though not with stopping their nuclear programme).
Smart sanctions can be relaxed too, as happened when America began to repair its relations with Vietnam in the 1990s. Their signalling role, meanwhile, is often dismissed as symbolic. But if one considers legitimacy and soft power, it is clear that signalling can impose real costs upon a target, just as naming and shaming campaigns are used by non-governmental actors to affect the policies of corporations.
Sanctions often work slowly. Some believe that the main effect of the long sanctions against the apartheid regime before South Africa achieved majority rule in 1994 lay not in their economic effects but in the sense of isolation and doubts about legitimacy that developed in the ruling white minority. But in general, sanctions should be seen as one tool among many, to be used flexibly in a bargaining relationship, rather than an all or nothing condition.
Foreign policy is always a balancing act between values and pragmatic considerations. Earlier this year Mr Obama balanced delicately between Egypt’s regime and the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, before coming down on the side of the latter. Western governments know that the fall of Mr Assad would deprive Iran of an ally in the Levant, but they also fear it would unleash sectarian violence with unforeseen consequences. Fearing the devil they don’t know, more than the one they have, they are reluctant to press harder. Last week, for example, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, said that Mr Assad’s legitimacy had “nearly run out”. It is time to drop the “nearly” and add more targeted sanctions that make our values clear.
Now is the moment for the cynics to drop their all-or-nothing criticism of sanctions, and to see them instead as a limited but useful tool. Because of their value in signalling and soft power; because they are often the only relatively inexpensive policy option; and because smart sanctions can be applied flexibly, they remain an important policy instrument.
The writer is a professor at Harvard and author of The Future of Power