Unilateral economic sanctions have proven time and again to be one of the least effective tools of foreign policy - almost never changing the behavior of the offending country, and almost always isolating the country imposing them more than the target country itself. With the increasing globalization of commerce, communications, production, and technology, such unilateral approaches will likely prove even less effective in the future.
Nevertheless, the United States continues to use unilateral sanctions more frequently than any other country. Between 1993 and 1996, the US imposed unilateral trade or aid sanctions no fewer than 60 times against 35 countries, covering more than 40 percent of the world's population. Almost all of these actions have frustrated US goals rather than advancing them, yet Washington never seemed to get the message - until now.
Congress is considering legislation this fall that, if enacted, would greatly reduce the frequency and ineffectiveness of unilateral sanctions.
In exceptional cases, unilateral sanctions have achieved their intended objectives - but these were largely cases in which the threatened or imposed sanctions were narrowly focused. The threat of US trade sanctions in 1993 helped persuade Russia to halt the transfer of sophisticated cryogenic rocket engines to India, and a similar threat in 1997 to withhold economic aid persuaded South Africa to curtail arms shipments to Syria.
Comprehensive unilateral sanctions, on the other hand, almost never achieve their objectives. Other states and suppliers are free to fill any export, investment, or service gaps created by US sanctions, and are usually more than happy to do so. Witness Iraq, whose leader has hardly buckled under broad US sanctions; and Iran, where European companies are exploring for new oil reserves in lieu of US firms that are prohibited by US law from such activities.
While lost export sales, export-related jobs, and overseas investment opportunities may seem modest compared with the US economy as a whole - most estimates range from $15 billion to $20 billion in lost exports each year, and from 250,000 to 300,000 in lost jobs - they are often catastrophic to individual businesses, local economies, and particular industrial sectors. Lost investment opportunities, which are inherently difficult to quantify, also soar into the billions of dollars - undercutting long-term US economic growth.
Beyond the economic costs associated with unilateral sanctions lies the enormous suffering they often inflict on the general populace, while rarely imposing significant suffering on the political elite of a target country. US sanctions against Haiti during the early 1990s, for example, effectively wiped out whatever strides that impoverished country had made toward raising its people's standard of living, but had limited effect on its military rulers.
The time has come for Washington to reform US sanctions policy. Rather than relying so heavily on sanctions - often as a policy of first resort - US diplomacy should be based to the broadest extent possible on comprehensive and continuous engagement.
When sanctions do become necessary, foreign-policy objectives should be clearly defined in advance. All too often, the US imposes sanctions without carefully considering the foreign-policy objectives to be achieved or the total costs that will be incurred. A careful and thorough analysis should always be performed prior to any serious consideration of sanctions. And, above all, when sanctions are imposed, they should be only one part of an entire spectrum of diplomatic tools, including carrot-and-stick measures.
Finally, the president should have sufficient policy flexibility from the outset so that he or she can respond promptly - unhindered by excessively restrictive US sanctions legislation - to positive or negative changes in the target country's behavior. To facilitate this flexibility, each objective should have its own instrument within sanctions legislation that can be lifted or imposed as necessary. These targeted actions - such as suspending personal US banking privileges to top officials, or prohibiting them and their families from traveling to the US - should be chosen as narrowly as possible, applying pressure on the leaders responsible for the offensive behavior rather than the general population. Sanctions, even when comprehensive, should not cut off essential foods and medical supplies.
Fortunately, there is a growing realization in the executive branch and Congress that US sanctions policy is in dire need of reform. The Sanctions Reform Act of 1999, recently introduced in both houses of Congress, would go a long way toward making these necessary changes. Hopefully, this will be the year that such legislation finds its way to the president's desk.
*Brett Wagner, a former researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, contributed to the center's recently released report 'Altering US Sanctions Policy.'
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society