Sanctioning Madness

Courtesy Reuters


Economic sanctions are fast becoming the United States' policy tool of choice. A 1997 study by the National Association of Manufacturers listed 35 countries targeted by new American sanctions from 1993 to 1996 alone. What is noteworthy, however, is not just the frequency with which sanctions are used but their centrality; economic sanctions are increasingly at the core of U.S. foreign policy.

Sanctions -- predominantly economic but also political and military penalties aimed at states or other entities so as to alter unacceptable political or military behavior -- are employed for a wide range of purposes. The United States, far more than any other country, uses them to discourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, promote human rights, end support for terrorism, thwart drug trafficking, discourage armed aggression, protect the environment, and oust governments. To accomplish these ends, sanctions may take the form of arms embargoes, foreign assistance reductions and cutoffs, export and import limitations, asset freezes, tariff increases, import quota decreases, revocation of most favored nation (MFN) trade status, votes in international organizations, withdrawal of diplomatic relations, visa denials, cancellation of air links, and credit, financing, and investment prohibitions. Even U.S. state and local governments are introducing economic sanctions. Dozens have adopted "selective purchasing laws" that prohibit public agencies from purchasing goods and services from companies doing business with such countries as Burma and Indonesia.

With a few exceptions, the growing use of economic sanctions to promote foreign policy objectives is deplorable. This is not simply because sanctions are expensive, although they are. Nor is it strictly a matter of whether sanctions "work"; the answer to that question invariably depends on how demanding a task is set for a particular sanction. Rather, the problem with economic sanctions is that they frequently contribute little to American foreign policy goals while being costly and even counterproductive. A recent study by the Institute for International Economics concluded that in 1995 alone, sanctions cost U.S. companies between $15 billion and $19

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