The act of imposing a trade boycott or similar sanctions on a country for its misbehavior has long been used as a substitute for war. Sanctions, while hostile, can be a tool for peace. Yet they come with an article of faith: that the people in a targeted country also want better behavior from their leaders and will accept the hardship of sanctions as both necessary and an opportunity.
This faith in the power of sanctions to tap the inherent goodness of people – even their activism – is now being tested as never before.
On March 2, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to tighten sanctions against North Korea for its latest tests of a nuclear weapon and a long-range missile. One sanction requires all countries to inspect North Korean cargo ships passing through their territorial waters. The country’s mineral trade and financial transactions will also be affected.
The hope is that enough well-meaning people inside the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will demand change, if not the people themselves. Previous sanctions have failed to accomplish that. But perhaps this time, with China’s unusual cooperation and a tightening of the economic screws, the world’s most isolated state might shift its policies out of popular pressure from below.
In contrast, President Obama is trying to lift many of the cold-war-era sanctions on Communist-run Cuba. He will even travel to the island nation in late March to cement a reopening of official relations – but without a full lifting of sanctions by a reluctant Congress.
Mr. Obama claims economic engagement with Cuba is now a better tool for stimulating change than continuing sanctions of more than half a century against the harsh rule of the Castro regime.
Will he be proved right?
Engagement with Communist-run China and Vietnam has done little to change their human rights records. Yet sanctions against Vietnam in the 1980s did help end its occupation of Cambodia. And sanctions against Myanmar (Burma) also helped push its ruling generals to allow an opening for full democracy.
Perhaps the strongest case for the use of sanctions to deter or compel behavior was the international isolation of South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the 1980s to end white minority rule. Each country’s majority blacks clearly wanted change and outside help.
Yet the weakest case for sanctions today are the ones imposed on Russia for its taking of Crimea and military meddling in eastern Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has only risen as a result of the West’s actions. Yet, along with a fall in oil revenue, the Russian economy is stagnant. The regime, worried about rising protests, has tightened its political grip.
One strong case that shows the value of sanctions in current affairs may be those placed on Iran. As the international community ganged up on Tehran over its nuclear program in recent years, the West waited for domestic pressure to mount. In 2012, then-CIA Director David Petraeus said: “What we have to see now is ... what is the level of popular discontent inside Iran – does that influence the strategic decision making of the supreme leader and the regime?”
The answer was mostly yes. The regime was not only forced to negotiate a deal to suppress its nuclear ambitions, but sanctions were credited for the election of many reformists in 2013 and again last month. The Iranian people clearly want change in their regime’s behavior, at home and abroad.
Sanctions on one country can serve a secondary purpose. They send a strong signal to other misbehaving countries to follow international agreements and norms. And new types of sanctions, ones that target the personal finances of select leaders, are more common. They are often necessary when sanctions against an entire population may work against the goal of sanctions.
Sanctions would be more effective if they were seen as less of a stick and more as a carrot. The prospect of lifting sanctions plays to the desire of a country’s people to join the international community and practice its civilized ways.