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Indian Crisis Raises Wider Issue: How Effective Are Sanctions?

By David D. Newsom / May 27, 1998



President Clinton's imposition of economic sanctions on India in response to a series of Indian nuclear tests raises again the question of the utility of such measures.

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In this case the president had little choice. US administrations have long supported the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Congress's 1994 Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act required an automatic response to such cases. The principle involved has broad international support, even if few other countries appear prepared to impose similar sanctions.

In a day when the use of force is less and less condoned, sanctions remain one of the few means available to make a statement or pursue an objective. Yet embargoes are imperfect instruments. This is especially true if, as in the US case, sanctions are unilateral. Such actions, without clear international support, are viewed as the intervention of a big power. The US pays in trade losses, diplomatic isolation, and blame for the sufferings of those sanctioned.

Unilateral sanctions are a favorite tool of Congress. Today it is opposing administration efforts to moderate the impact of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act's (ILSA) secondary boycott on European allies and pressing a reluctant administration to apply sanctions to prevent religious persecution abroad.

By one count, the US currently applies sanctions against 71 countries. Many place limits on a president's freedom of action in foreign affairs. ILSA inhibits an adequate US response to changes taking place in Iran. Legislation applied to halt Pakistan's nuclear program makes it more difficult to dissuade Islamabad from responding in kind to India's nuclear test. In the case of Cuba, blocks on trade and communications impede actions that might foster and respond to change in that country.

US sanctions policy is dictated to a considerable extent by US domestic politics - often a gesture to appeal to a local constituency.

Few unilateral sanctions have accomplished their purpose. Syria continued to harbor terrorist organizations. Iran has not ceased its support for anti-Israeli organizations: Hamas and Hezbollah. Libya has not released those believed responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. Iraq is still blocking full access to records of its weapons of mass destruction. Columbia has not taken effective measures to halt the drug trade. China, it is true, has released some dissidents, possibly under the threat of sanctions, but its basic system and practices remain in place. Fidel Castro is still in power.

Many European nations support the objectives of US sanctions: greater respect for human rights, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and bringing greater freedom to Cuba. But even close US allies don't share the Washington view of Iran and Cuba as "rogue" states. Britain, France, Germany, and other European states support the sanctions against Iraq, but they are increasingly troubled by the effect on the Iraqi population and the feeling that the US has "moved the goal posts" in pushing for the overthrow of the regime before sanctions can be lifted.

Economic sanctions take time. They've been effective when a precise and agreed goal has been established, and the international community supports the measures, and has the patience to wait for results. Global embargoes were instrumental in bringing independence to Zimbabwe and eliminating apartheid in South Africa. Without sanctions, Saddam Hussein wouldn't have gone as far as he has to open Iraq to UN weapons inspectors.

Every US administration must balance the possibilities of achieving an objective against considerations of loss. In the days of the cold war, the choice was between supporting anticommunist friends and pressing such friends to mend their ways, whether on human rights, narcotics, or non-proliferation. Today, Washington's choices are between the pursuit of strongly held social and political objectives on the one hand and the potential loss of trade and access and the suffering of a foreign population on the other. These are not decisions to be made capriciously.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.