THE efforts of the United States to unseat Panama's Manuel Noriega again show the limits of economic sanctions. Sanctions are a tempting tool of foreign policy. They are posed as an alternative to military action. Those who oppose them are vulnerable to the unpopular charge of choosing commercial greed over principle.
The US has imposed sanctions in recent years against Poland, the Soviet Union (after Afghanistan), South Africa, Libya, and Nicaragua. In no instance have sanctions alone achieved the stated objective.
When Poland suspended martial law, Washington relaxed sanctions, even though other oppressive aspects of the regime remained.
The Olympic Games boycott declared by President Jimmy Carter at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan caused confusion and had little effect on Soviet policy. Later, President Reagan suspended the grain embargo while the Russians were still in Kabul. Other measures applied against Moscow in 1979 have been gradually relaxed.
In South Africa, attitudes of the ruling Afrikaners appeared to harden after Congress voted sanctions. Basic political change is still far off. Sanctions have not brought down Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.
In Nicaragua, other pressures, including those from nations in the region and the contras, may have been more effective than US economic steps in bringing the Sandinistas to the table. And now, in Panama, the US appears headed for an embarrassing retreat in its measures to depose General Noriega.
Several reasons, both domestic and international, account for US difficulties in these situations.
Sanctions are often applied in the heat of reaction to events abroad, without full consideration of the implementation or consequences. In the Olympic boycott after the Afghanistan invasion, for example, Washington failed initially to appreciate the degree to which the Olympic effort in the US was a private sector, not an official, matter.
In the nature of the American system, sanctions are long debated and publicly proclaimed, usually with rhetoric that sets overly ambitious goals. All this inevitably awakens other countries' nationalistic sentiments and a determination to defy the larger nation. As Panama has shown, this defiance can be a powerful tool, even when the US seems to hold most of the cards.
In nearly every instance, the US has lacked international support. Where economic measures can be taken by a large part of the world community, as in the case of Rhodesia, they can have a long-term effect. Where even a few supplier countries refuse cooperation, the pressures are ineffective.
Sanctions lead to efforts at self-sufficiency within a target nation. These may not replace all imports but, as South Africa has shown, can be remarkably effective in blunting the effects of external sanctions.
Washington's control over export trade is more limited than that of many nations. The existence of multinational companies with foreign subsidiaries erodes that control even more. Efforts by the US to impose trade limits on American subsidiaries overseas have been rejected by courts and governments abroad.
The application of sanctions may be not only ineffective but may do serious damage to other US interests. The pattern of the withdrawal of American citizens and companies from another nation means that, most often, the interests are taken over by others. This has happened most dramatically in Libya and South Africa. The particular kind of influence that Americans can have is removed from the scene. Even if governments and societies change, years may be required to restore US influence and presence to its former state. The apparent readiness of the US to apply sanctions damages its reputation as a reliable partner for other nations.
The problems in applying sanctions do not suggest that military responses are the only option when US interests are threatened. A clearer recognition of the inherent limits in sanctions might lead to a more cautious approach in situations that involve confrontation. In at least some of the instances when sanctions were applied, diplomatic alternatives were not fully explored.
Situations may exist, such as in Libya and South Africa, in which the application of sanctions is intended primarily to show strong US opposition to another nation's actions and policies. Such sanctions may, on that basis, be justified, but the US should have no illusions about their effectiveness in bringing about internal change or about the risks to other, longer-range US interests.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.