Are economic sanctions a good idea? Sanctions were applied to Iraq between the two Gulf wars. They had no obvious effect on the leadership. They inflicted significant harm on ordinary citizens of Iraq. We are currently applying sanctions to North Korea. Again, it is not obvious that the leadership is affected, and, again, the ordinary people are clearly suffering.
The goal of sanctions is to get countries to change their behaviour. However, their main effect on autocratic dictatorial leaders is to prevent them from leaving the country. It doesn’t change their lifestyle: they still have the power to get what they want for their personal life. Sanctions clearly hurt the citizens of the country. That may cause them to wish that they had a different leader, but it doesn’t give them the power to overthrow that leader.
This doesn’t mean that sanctions have no purpose. Sanctions were used to good effect on South Africa in the ’80s. South Africa was not led by a dictator who was able to ignore the will of the people; sanctions had a strong enough effect on the minority voting population to make it possible for the regime to change. For a country whose leadership is not elected, however, sanctions do not seem to be very effective.
I think we need to seriously consider the alternative: trade freely. This is likely to give the citizens of the country more power and more knowledge that they may be able to use to change the leader’s behaviour. This isn’t to say that we should subsidize the country, and it isn’t to say that we should sell them weapons or advanced surveillance technology which will be used to oppress people. But we should sell them food and medical supplies and consumer goods. We should tell them about the world outside. Just sending radios into North Korea would probably do more in the long run to change the country’s behaviour than any set of economic sanctions.
It might seem that selling food will just prop up the dictators. But the fact is that the dictators will stay in power anyhow. Selling food will help the people. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?
I don’t know if there is a good way to change the behaviour of a dictator. But I’m fairly sure that sanctions isn’t it, and I think we’ve had enough of preemptive invasions. We need to find some new approaches.
I will be on vacation next week, and may or may not update the blog.