When trying to rein in the misbehaviour of roguish regimes, be it nuclear proliferation, support for terrorism or internal repression, the US increasingly turns to economic sanctions.

A brief survey: we have applied a full economic embargo to North Korea since 1950. We have had one against Cuba since 1962. We first passed economic sanctions against Iran during the hostage crisis in 1979 and are now trying for international sanctions aimed at getting its government to suspend uranium enrichment. We attached trade sanctions to Burma in 1990 and an asset freeze to Sudan in 1997. President George W. Bush ordered sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2003 and against Syria in 2004. The US also led sanctions campaigns against regimes since brought down by force of arms in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

American sanctions policy is largely consistent and in a certain sense morally admirable. By applying restraints, we label the world’s most oppressive and dangerous governments pariahs. We wash our hands of evil, declining to help despots finance their depredations, even at a cost to ourselves of some increment of economic growth. We wincingly accept the collateral damage that falls on civilian victims of the governments we target. But as the above list of countries suggests, sanctions have one even more serious drawback. They don’t really work.

Sanctions tend to fail as a diplomatic tool for the same reason aerial bombing usually fails. As Israel is rediscovering in Lebanon, the infliction of indiscriminate suffering tends to turn a populace against the proximate cause of its devastation, not the underlying causes. People living in hermit states such as North Korea, Burma and Cuba already suffer from advanced global isolation. Fed on a diet of propaganda, they do not know what is happening within or without their borders. By increasing their seclusion, sanctions make it easier for dictators to blame external enemies for a country’s suffering. And because sanctions make a country’s material deprivation worse, they paradoxically make it less likely that the oppressed will throw off their chains.

Tyrants seem to understand how to capitalise on the law of unintended consequences. In many cases, such as Iraq’s oil-for-food programme, sanctions afford opportunities for plunder and corruption that can help a clever despot shore up his position. Many dictators also thrive on seclusion, and in some cases appear to seek more of it. The pariah treatment suits Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong-il and Robert Mugabe just fine. Fidel Castro is another dictator who has flourished in isolation. Every time the US considers lifting its embargo, Mr Castro unleashes a provocation designed to ensure against normalising relations. It was no surprise to learn that the Cuban dictator was in a stable condition after stomach surgery this week. With American help, Castro has been in a stable condition for 47 years.

Constructive engagement, which often sounds like a cover for business interests, tends to be more productive. Trade prompts economic growth and human interaction, which raise expectations, which in turn prompts political dissatisfaction and opposition. Trade, tourism, cultural exchange and participation in international institutions all serve to erode the legitimacy of repressive regimes. Though each is a separate case, these forces contributed greatly to undermining dictatorships and fostering democracy in the Philippines, South Korea,
Argentina, Chile and eastern Europe in the 1980s. The same process
is arguably under way in China.

As another illustration, take Iran, which is currently the focus of a huge how-do-we-get-them-to-change conversation. Despite decades of sanctions, Iran is full of young people who are culturally attuned to the US. One day, social discontent there will lead to the reform or overthrow of the ruling theocracy. But there is little reason to think that more sanctions will bring that day closer. The only guaranteed effect of sanctions is that they will push dissatisfied and potentially rebellious Iranians back into the arms of the nuke-building mullahs.

The counter example always cited is South Africa, where economic and cultural sanctions do seem to have contributed not only to the fall of a terrible regime but to a successful democratic transition. In his new book The J Curve, Ian Bremmer argues that South Africa was unusually amenable to this kind of pressure because it retained a functioning multi-party democracy and because, unlike many other pariah states, it did not actually like being a pariah. Even so, sanctions took a long time to have any impact. It was nearly three decades from the passage of the first UN resolution urging sanctions in 1962 to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.

If they are so rarely effective, why do western governments press for more sanctions? In a world of trouble, it is partly an exercise in frustration. We often have no good options and need to feel we are doing something. Sanctions are a palatable alternative to military action, and often serve to appease domestic constituencies as well. And perhaps we continue to turn to sanctions because we fail to appreciate irony as a force in international relations. Dictators are supposed to react to incentives and the threat of punishment. So when they fail to respond, we call for more of the same medicine.

The writer is editor of Slate.com

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