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Do economic sanctions work?

United Nations
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The UN Security Council unanimously adopts a sanctions resolution against North Korea at its headquarters in New York, aiming to curb funding sources for Pyongyang's nuclear and missile ambitions.
Kyodo News via Getty Images
The UN Security Council unanimously adopts a sanctions resolution against North Korea at its headquarters in New York, aiming to curb funding sources for Pyongyang's nuclear and missile ambitions.
As tensions between North Korea and the US escalate, can economic sanctions stop nuclear war?
I n light of the recent nuclear and missile tests and the successful development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting US mainland, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a fresh package of economic sanctions against North Korea on August 5. The new measures are broader than existing ones, designed to prohibit the country from exporting coal, iron, iron ore, seafood, lead, and lead ore, all thought to be critical for its economy.
This follows moves by the US Congress to impose new sanctions against North Korea, Russia and Iran. Apart from pressuring China to stop economic activity with North Korea and tightening its arms embargo, Congress cited Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US elections, domestic human right abuses, military aggression in Ukraine and support of the Syrian regime, as well as Iran’s missile development and support for terrorist groups. On the surface, this puts pressure on these countries, but can we expect the sanctions to achieve their stated goals?
Economic sanctions have long been used, in particular by the US, UN and EU, as a foreign policy tool to extract political concessions when formal diplomacy failed to achieve desired results but countries were reluctant to use military force. The logic appears sensible: sanctions threaten to wreck the economy of the target state, making it very costly for it to continue its actions, so that yielding and complying with internationally accepted norms and behaviour become the most beneficial option. 
Real-life examples tell us, however, that despite their wide usage, sanctions rarely achieve their objectives. This suggests the actual decision-making dynamics between nations are more complicated than often portrayed.

 No lever long enough 

One of these complexities is the fact that countries may attach different degrees of importance to the issue under dispute, a phenomenon academics describe as the “asymmetric perception of issue salience”. This tends to reduce the sanctioning countries’ resolve to enforce the restrictions while increasing the targeted countries’ determination to resist them. For example, if the issue under dispute is viewed by the targeted state as a threat to territorial integrity, national security or regime stability, it will be more willing to incur higher costs to protect its interests.
Following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, for example, the US imposed a moratorium on arms sales to China. The Chinese Communist Party responded by accusing the US government of unwarranted interference in its domestic affairs and warned that their relationship would sour. Within a month, President George H. W. Bush made allowances for the sale of Boeing jets to China, and all subsequent congressional efforts to downgrade China’s trade privileges were blocked by the White House. According to observers, this showed that upholding international human rights was merely symbolic for the US, whereas the Chinese regime felt it had to suppress dissent in order to survive.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspects the test-fire of an intercontinental ballistic missile at an undisclosed location
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspects the test-fire of an intercontinental ballistic missile at an undisclosed location. STR/AFP/Getty Images
Dursun Peksen, a political scientist at the University of Memphis who pioneered research in this area, explained to The World Weekly that sanctioning countries must recognise that, “regardless of their intended goals, targeted elites perceive sanctions as a direct threat to political survival.” Since submitting to sanctions would undermine their political credibility and thus reduce their ability to retain power, “they are more inclined to defy sanctions rather than give in to them.”
With that in mind, it is easier to understand why Kim Jong-un’s commitment to develop nuclear weapons capable of attacking the country that poses the most significant threat to his authoritarian, dynastic regime trumps other considerations, even in the face of potential economic collapse.

 Sanctions-busting and unintended consequences 

Another problem is that targeted countries can circumvent sanctions unless they are in a desperate situation. Take the case of Iran, which has been sanctioned by the US since 1979. Iran’s leadership only agreed to restrict its uranium enrichment programme and allow strict supervision of its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency after economic sanctions were significantly tightened. For a long time, the country’s elites have been able to engage in widespread illicit trade in black markets, which supported the economy and actually strengthened their wealth and power as the blockade only served to drive up prices for their exports.
According to a report by the nonpartisan Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “paradoxically, economic woes have allowed the [Iranian] government to take greater control over the economy, and to use patronage, favours, and other methods to shield regime allies from the pain of sanctions.”
One of the rare success cases of sanctions - divestment from South Africa in response to the apartheid regime - actually relied on structural economic woes and a fierce anti-apartheid political movement supported by the majority of civilians. By the time the multilateral sanctions were imposed in the late 1980s, South Africa was already in dire economic straits, running a huge current account deficit and suffering from a shortage in workers as black South Africans were prohibited from working in cities, where most industry was located.
Would it be wise to force targeted countries into a desperate position? Regarding North Korea, Professor Peksen points out, this may do more harm than good, as it risks “deteriorating the already-poor living conditions of North Korean citizens”. US and UN sanctions have caused great unforeseen humanitarian consequences in the past. In the 1990s, more than 10,000 Haitian citizens tried to flee their country for the US by boat when living conditions grew desperate as a result of sanctions imposed after a military coup.
Professor Peksen also worries that sanctions may be counterproductive by “giving another excuse to Pyongyang to put the blame on the US and other ‘enemies’ for all economic and other problems North Korea is facing.” In Iran, those hit hardest by the sanctions are precisely those who otherwise would support a more moderate government in Iran, according to the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation report. Sanctions actually galvanised support for the regime, which has been able to appeal to the patriotism of its people and resist the sanctions without many repercussions.

 Seeking alternatives 

Many experts are pessimistic as to what sanctions can realistically achieve. However, there is room for improvement. Governments will need to search for better ways to enforce sanctions such as stricter border controls and monitors on financial transactions, and imposing secondary sanctions to minimise sanctions-busting. 
Research analysing the largely unsuccessful ‘UN sanctions decade’ of the 1990s also suggests the adoption of ‘carrot-and-stick diplomacy’ and bargaining as opposed to the punishment logic that permeates much of current foreign policy-making. As the spectre of nuclear confrontation looms, there is an ever greater need to design reliable conflict-resolution alternatives to war.
Nickolas Tang
10 August 2017 - last edited today