The Magazine


Why Sanctions Are Necessary

Jul 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 44 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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In rhetoric not ordinarily heard from the business community, the new lobby known as USA*Engage warns that "two-thirds of the world's population" is now "threatened" by a novel form of "proliferation." The threat that alarms USA*Engage is not the proliferation of, say, ballistic missiles, but the spread of trade sanctions imposed by the U.S. government.

Indeed, the explicit goal of the several hundred businesses and trade associations that make up USA*Engage is to end the use of sanctions as a tool of U.S. foreign and security policy. In an extraordinary media and advertising campaign in recent months, USA*Engage, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Foreign Trade Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, and other business lobbies have worked to discredit sanctions as a blunt, overused instrument that only does harm. Last week, responding in part to this pressure, the Senate moved to lift sanctions on India and Pakistan and to weaken the force of existing and future sanctions by exempting agricultural and medical goods. A bill sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar that would have largely gutted all future sanctions -- the favored legislation of the anti-sanctions crusaders -- was only narrowly turned back. Lugar's bill may well resurface this fall after a Senate task force issues its report on the issue.

As this burgeoning campaign to abolish them makes clear, sanctions are a great annoyance to the constituents of America's business lobbies. While foreign competitors, French or Japanese or German, merrily bid for contracts abroad, American companies find themselves tangled in a web of legislation designed to express disapproval, block trade in certain commodities, or perhaps deny resources to disfavored or hostile regimes. But the elimination of economic sanctions as a foreign-policy tool would be an extraordinarily radical action, for it would leave our government facing its adversaries with just two alternatives: words or war.

The history of U.S. human-rights policy shows that "mere" words can sometimes be effective tools. This is especially so when the regime under attack is pledged to respect common values, whether because it sees itself as part of the West and seeks American approval, as was the case with Latin American dictatorships over the past two decades, or because it has signed international agreements, as did the Soviet Union (which was pledged to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the Helsinki Agreement). But words appear to have little impact on the most savage regimes, those we now call "pariah states," such as Libya and Iraq. Nor did words have much impact in past decades on the likes of Mussolini and Hitler. Confronted with hard cases, the United States may wish to reinforce its words with economic pressure.

Think of the policymaker's options. Country A is engaged in very grave human-rights abuses: a government-organized mob has killed some opposition leaders and burned down a church, and the government has jailed several honest judges and shot five journalists. Country B has been caught trying to send weapons-grade plutonium and missile-guidance systems to Iraq. Country C has just invaded an island belonging to its neighbor. We could simply denounce these acts from the podium in the State Department's press-briefing room. We could send troops to fight, as we did when Kuwait was overrun and when Grenada's government was hijacked. However, in situations where words are likely to be ignored but soldiers are unlikely to be sent, without economic sanctions the policymaker's quiver would be empty.

To escape the choice between words and war, governments for centuries have used economic pressure. Even when sanctions are mostly symbolic, they are still important, for they show that we take seriously what the regime in question is doing. More commonly, economic sanctions do have an economic effect on the targeted regime. And the proof is the fierce struggle by so many target governments to have the sanctions removed. They pay fortunes to lobbyists in Washington, and they denounce and revile the sanctions and the members of Congress who promote them -- all the while insisting that the sanctions do not affect them in the least or that sanctions only starve children and do not hurt the regime. But with rare exceptions, American economic sanctions have a moral and an economic impact -- and the target regimes deeply resent and are hurt by both.

Opponents of U.S. sanctions have made "unilateral sanctions" their special target. They argue that sanctions observed by many nations would be much more effective. True enough. Far better for trade with an outlaw regime to be restricted by many nations than by just one. But the argument against unilateral sanctions has two great flaws.