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.

The first is purely pragmatic. Like all forms of collective security, multilateral sanctions require a unanimity rarely achieved in international politics. Fifty years ago Hans Morgenthau described the problem in his classic work Politics Among Nations:

The logic of collective security is flawless, provided it can be made to work under the conditions prevailing on the international scene. . . . The odds, however, are strongly against such a possibility. There is nothing in past experience and in the general nature of international politics to suggest that such a situation is likely to occur.

. . . Collective security, then, can succeed only on the further assumption that all or virtually all nations will come to the defense of the status quo . . . regardless of whether they could justify such a policy in view of their own individual interests.

. . . What collective security demands of the individual nations is to forsake national egotisms and the national policies serving them. Collective security expects the policies of the individual nations to be inspired by the ideal of mutual assistance and a spirit of self-sacrifice. . . .

Conflicts between national and supranational interests and morality are inevitable, at least for some nations [and] those nations cannot help resolving such a conflict in favor of their own individual interests and thus paralyzing the operations of the collective system.

The United States imposes economic sanctions when a large body of its citizens, as represented in Congress or by the president, conclude that some other nation's behavior is so egregious as to preclude normal economic relations. It is a fact that this point is reached rather sooner here than in most other countries, including other democracies. The French and the Japanese, for example, take a less idealistic (they would argue, less moralistic) view of their role in the world and do not like to let ideology get mixed up with commerce. For reasons that have spawned a thousand books, Americans have a different view of their nation and its foreign policy. The view that foreign relations need not reflect moral judgments is not popular here. While learned treatises and distinguished diplomats have long argued that international financial institutions, international commerce, and even our bilateral relations should not be "held hostage" to moralizing over human rights, most Americans seem to think that to carry on normal political and economic relations with oppressive regimes is distasteful and demoralizing. Congress repeatedly votes to stop such relations regardless of what our friends and allies are doing.

To argue against all unilateral sanctions, then, is to argue for subordinating America's moral judgments to an international lowest-common-denominator. It is to argue that we must wait for an international consensus that is, for all the reasons Morgenthau noted, extremely rare.

Business lobbies, by the way, do understand the logic of collective security; their united campaign to end U.S. economic sanctions meets all of Morgenthau's tests. Companies are acting "regardless of whether they could justify such a policy in view of their own individual interests" to oppose trade sanctions that do not affect them directly. Unocal, which wants the sanctions on Myanmar lifted because it is involved in a natural gas pipeline there, opposes the Cuba embargo. Caterpillar wants to sell tractors to China; it opposes sanctions on Myanmar. Mobil has petroleum interests in Nigeria; it opposes sanctions against the Sudan. USA*Engage itself consists of a large group of business lobbyists who set aside their own particular projects in order to focus on the greater good of eliminating all economic sanctions.

There is a second and deeper flaw in the argument against unilateral sanctions. It overlooks the unique position in the world now held by the United States, and underestimates the necessity of American leadership to the peace and prosperity we currently enjoy. The argument against sanctions would be far more powerful -- though still not irrefutable -- if it were made in Belgium or Holland. In a speech in October 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told students at Catholic University that "for almost as many years as I have been alive, the United States has played the leading role within the international system; not as sole arbiter of right and wrong, for that is a responsibility widely shared, but as pathfinder -- as the nation able to show the way when others cannot." Is it possible that we must show the way with words and weapons, but refuse a leadership role when commercial advantage may be lost?

The history of this century is largely a story of progress when the United States led the international community -- or, perhaps more accurately, through its leadership created an international community -- and of disaster when we abandoned that role. This has been true of major security successes ranging from the creation of the League of Nations to the victory over Japan and Germany to the winning of the Cold War. It was equally true of the formation of the international financial system after World War II.

Consider an example of American leadership that is directly relevant to the sanctions case. Bribery of foreign government officials has been a common practice, especially in the Third World, when foreign investors sought favors from poorly paid officials who were supervising government contracting or privatization programs. From the viewpoint of the honest American businessman, there were two logical solutions: All foreign businessmen should stop using bribery or all should be permitted to do so. What businessmen feared was a situation in which Americans were forbidden to use bribery but their competitors were free to do so.

Yet that is precisely the system Congress imposed in 1977, when it adopted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in response to the Water-gate special prosecutor's discovery of bribery payments to foreign officials by American corporations. Congress made the bribery of foreign officials a federal crime, rejecting the notion that competitive business advantage required -- and justified -- such conduct. Bribery was wrong, the law said, regardless of whether the French and the Japanese and the Germans did it. American businessmen complained, and no doubt lost some business. But the American example was not without effect. There began a campaign of official U.S. pressure on both "briber" and "bribee" governments: the former to join us in making bribery of foreign officials a crime, and the latter to police their officials better. This campaign was conducted directly in foreign capitals, through private organizations like Transparency International, and in multilateral organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

That campaign, fueled by American leadership, is having results. In November 1997, the OECD's 29 member states -- virtually all the world's developed economies -- plus Argentina, Brazil, and Chile adopted the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. In the last several years, country after country has criminalized bribery of foreign officials and ended the tax deductibility of what had once been considered a normal business expense. International conferences about corruption are frequent, and the issue is high on the agenda of most multilateral institutions. Progress is visible. Calls for repeal of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, once common, are now rare. The business community has come to realize that the proper way to level the playing field is to raise the business practices of our competitors to our level, not to descend to theirs.

But this lesson has not been applied to the sanctions issue, where American companies pressure Congress for permission to emulate the amoral policies of their competitors. This might be a reasonable policy -- for Belgium, or Switzerland, or Portugal. It is not a reasonable policy for the United States. The argument against unilateral sanctions is an argument against American leadership and suggests that if we cannot get some sort of majority vote from other traders and investors, we must set our scruples aside. Now, it would be one thing to argue that in the context of war unilateral American action is unwise because it might prove too costly. Take the Persian Gulf conflict of 1991: One could have argued -- many people did -- that if the United States were unable to assemble a coalition, it should not try to force Iraq out of Kuwait, because American casualties would be too high. In fact, a solo American effort would have been feasible and would have cost few casualties. But such an argument has moral weight because, in the context of war, the price we pay for world leadership may be measured in blood.

In the sanctions context, the argument against unilateral action is far less weighty because only money is at stake. On one side of the equation are the profits of various corporations and their shareholders and, no doubt, the jobs of some Americans. On the other side there are important moral principles and sometimes vital security interests. Sanctions against Myanmar reflect civilized outrage at the murderous activities of its rulers. Sanctions against China, Iran, Iraq, and Libya reflect not only moral disapproval but also a sensible estimate of how their actions affect our national security.

In the case of China, it can be persuasively argued that our refusal to apply sanctions when China sold missiles and nuclear technology to Pakistan and other countries is what led India to conduct its nuclear tests, which in turn led to the Pakistani tests and considerable heightening of tension on the Subcontinent. The issue is whether foreign policy should be driven by commercial objectives or only informed by them. With China, the commercial stakes may be high, but the security stakes are higher still.

The principle that American leadership must transcend American commercial interests would be a great deal clearer if the current administration behaved as if it were true, or more precisely, behaved that way consistently. The secretary of state on occasion touts our role as the "indispensable nation" that must lead the world. On other occasions, the administration seems to share the "business first" perspective. Since no administration will admit that it is simply ignoring human-rights issues in order to promote trade, an ideology is concocted to defend this position. Secretary Albright explained this as well at Catholic University:

It is in our interest, and it is essential to our own identity, for America to promote religious freedom and human rights. But if we are to be effective in defending the values we cherish, we must also take into account the perspectives and values of others. We must recognize that our relations with the world are not fully encompassed by any single issue or set of issues. And we must do all we can to ensure that the world's attention is focused on the principles we embrace, not diverted by the methods we use.

This formulation is capacious enough to tolerate just about anything. How should American foreign and human-rights policy "take into account the perspectives and values" of China's Communist rulers, or of Saddam Hussein, or of Muammar Qaddafi? And given that our friends around the globe are almost always far more reluctant than we to use sanctions against human-rights violators, to insist that we avoid squabbles over methods and achieve unanimity of approach would seem to preclude effective action.

The current campaign against economic sanctions does not argue straightforwardly that the business of America is business, or that moral concerns have no place in U.S. foreign policy. Presumably, the authors of the campaign realize that these arguments simply would not sell; it would be a risky business decision to assume, for instance, that American Christians are indifferent to the treatment of their co-religionists overseas, or that Americans cannot be moved by abuses they may see tomorrow on CNN. So the product line the business lobbies are offering features human rights as the true goal of trade and investment. Economic sanctions are usually (and unilateral sanctions are always) ineffective in human-rights terms, they now claim, and the true champions of human rights are out there selling tractors and jets and telephones (and occasionally plans for missiles).

These claims have a more troubling aspect. Presumably corporate spokesmen make the human-rights argument because they feel they must. They know that Americans want to believe their foreign policy is moral. By claiming that commerce is a form of human-rights activity, by using the term "political engagement" to describe not political pressure but trade and investment, they are stealing the language of the human-rights movement. By demeaning the potential impact of unilateral American action, they are undercutting American leadership and the American people's understanding of why it is needed. This not only hurts U.S. human-rights policy but creates a far greater danger for U.S. foreign policy as a whole.

For the business of America at the close of this century is not business; it is leadership, in the search for security and peace as well as for prosperity. Successful leadership requires prudence in strategy and tactics and in the use of resources. Isolating China or any other country that runs afoul of legislation regarding such matters as human-rights abuses and arms sales is not a policy. It is at best a tool of policy, and like most tools it will sometimes be useful and sometimes not. The more basic issue is whether the United States will be able to pursue its own foreign policies -- including its policies of promoting human rights and democracy, and combating nuclear proliferation and missile sales -- with all the available tools. If we must wait for the consent of all other trading nations before employing economic sanctions as a policy tool, or must refrain from using sanctions whenever the short-term interest of an American exporter is harmed, that tool has in effect been discarded. We are then left with only one choice, words or war.

The corporate campaign against economic sanctions marshals many cogent arguments. But we must be clear: Leadership in the search for peace and in support of human rights is not the same thing as engagement through commerce. Leadership imposes costs, and Americans have reluctantly but determinedly paid them throughout this century. Perhaps in the next century we will refuse to do so; perhaps, with a century of wars behind us, we now seek only profit. If so, if we now choose doing business over leading the world, let us at least be honest about it. Let us not delude ourselves with propaganda about a "political engagement" whose success is measured in sales rather than in security or peace.

Elliott Abrams is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This article is adapted from a longer essay in the forthcoming issue of the center's American Purpose.

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