The Biden State Department has announced that it is undertaking a long-overdue review of American sanctions policy. This is to be welcomed, but there are obvious perils ahead: from neoconservatives with Manichaean attitudes predisposing them to continue fighting the Cold War or finding a new enemy of the month; from liberal imperialists of the Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter persuasion anxious to engage in virtue-signaling in opposition to authoritarian regimes; and from the State and Treasury Departments’ sanctions bureaucrats who are quick with assurances that the foreign government they are sanctioning is on its last legs and will succumb to the triumphant forces of democracy if we ‘stay the course’ and give it one more heave. These area “experts” also enjoy the support of ever hopeful and ever more out-of-touch exile communities, notably those from Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela.
There are a number of things wrong with sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. To the extent they are effective, they immiserate the local population while the country’s leaders rarely suffer from a shortage of supply, even of luxury goods. In their impact on populations they are, as Herbert Hoover once observed, not measures short of war but measures of total war. As Hoover and his aide in Europe Robert Taft never forgot, the continuation of the British blockade of Germany after the armistice and before the Treaty of Versailles was a gift to German nationalists; the near-starvation conditions that resulted led a later British ambassador Sir Horace Rumbold and German Chancellor Heinrich Bruning to speculate somewhat extravagantly that the abnormality of Germans in the 1930s owed something to the past under-nourishment of them and their mothers.
It is also clear that, by isolating a nation’s leadership, sanctions produce hermit kingdoms out of touch with scientific and technological progress and economic and political realities. The need to ration strengthens rather than weakens the group in power, by rendering the general population, including potential dissenters, dependent from day to day on the government for their basic subsistence. Even where exceptions to a sanctions regime are provided, for such things as medicine and library books, shortages of foreign exchange may operate to render them not meaningful.
It is thought that oil sanctions might have deterred Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, but the British justifiably feared that their result would have been a naval war against a powerful Italian fleet and did not view the governance of Abyssinia as a vital interest. The sanctions imposed in the ’80s and ’90s against apartheid South Africa did not bring down the regime, which responded with measures of autarchy. When I visited South Africa in 1997 while the transfer of power was in progress, the department stores bore signs proudly proclaiming that 95 percent of their shoddy but serviceable goods were of South African manufacture. What brought down the regime were the revelations of lawlessness by the police and propaganda ministry and the realization of the leadership that the regime could be sustained only by turning the government over to thugs.
Sanctions are frequently justified as a means of limiting the military power of authoritarian regimes. When military power rested on tanks, artillery, vessels and aircraft, this made more sense. But now, even a relatively backward nation like North Korea is able to achieve nuclear technology.
Sanctions in their current form are prompted, as former British ambassador to the United Nations Sir Jeremy Greenstock has observed, by the desire of politicians and diplomats to be seen as doing something to retaliate against obnoxious regimes or acts. But the “don’t stand there, do something” syndrome has few successes and many failures to report. Sanctions against North Korea have now been in effect for 71 years without producing regime change; for 64 years in the case of Cuba, 41 years in the case of Iran, and 35 years in the case of Syria. In the natural sciences, such a long history of failed experiments would long since have prompted a change of approach; only politicians and diplomats appear to believe in the inviolability of precedent.
Peculiarly perverse are U.S. sanctions against Russia. The framers of the U.N. Charter conceived of the five permanent members of the Security Council as the pillars of world order. How putting one of them in permanent Coventry is conductive to this end is not clear. Equally strange are less formal efforts to prevent Russia from exporting its principal economic asset, natural gas. This strikes at a vital Russian interest, while presupposing that the Nordstream pipeline’s principal customer, Germany, is incapable of protecting itself against supply interruptions. The German government and economy, however, almost single-handedly propped up Russia after 1989; as its principal supplier it still does so.
As the State Department’s recent general pronouncements recognize, sanctions are at war with a Western ideology favoring free trade and communication. But their flaw is worse than that. Their premise, and the vision of their proponents, is that they will foster revolutions from below. The sanctioneers have visions of new Bastille Days; in the words of the Internationale, the “wretched of the earth” will arise and “a better world will be in the birth.” But such hoped-for revolutions from below rarely produce a better world; the widespread public engagement produces much bloodshed, leadership by the ruthless, and animosities which endure. The chances of successful revolutions from below are further diminished by the development of new methods of social control, supplementing the sordid regimes of block captains and secret police files. The authorities now have at their disposal CCTV cameras, voice and ocular recognition, computers, and wireless and internet interceptions.
In fact, today’s successful revolutions, and the ones that it is reasonable to hope for in pariah states like those of Cuba, Iran, Syria, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, are revolutions not from below but from above. As Hannah Arendt observed, in modern revolutions “power is not seized, it is left lying in the street.” It is the governing elites’ loss of confidence in the existing system that causes instruments of repression to collapse or be abandoned.
In this interpretation, the collapse of European communism in 1989 had as one of its key events an occasion in the late 1950s when two mid-level apparatchiks from Stavropol were permitted to take a two-week vacation in France and Italy. This event, multiplied many times in the years just before 1989, had more to do with the largely peaceful surrender of power than President Reagan’s Star Wars or Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland. The mining and sapping of Eastern Europe owed much to the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt and Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
The “Helsinki basket” negotiated during the Carter administration as part of a disarmament treaty, though widely derided at the time, also fostered cultural penetration. So did the Eastern European activities of the Soros Foundation. Whatever may be said of its more doctrinaire later initiatives, including the Open Society Foundations in the United States and the Central European University in Hungary, its activities in Eastern Europe in 1989 were quite constructive. When I visited the Law School of Odessa University in 1990, its dean pointed with pride to a new course sponsored by Soros on Western business methods given by an official of the Polish Ministry of Finance.
It is doubtful that the mid-level officials responsible for feeding, curing, educating, and transporting the Cuban, Venezuelan North Korean, Iranian, and Syrian populations have much confidence in the future of their present systems. Sanctions isolating them and their countries from contact and comparison with the West are one of the chief factors sustaining the present governments.
I may be a poor prophet, but I believe that if the Biden administration has the courage to resume normal economic relations with North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela, that a majority of their regimes will be gone by the end of his term, and with much less bloodshed than would accompany a “revolution from below.”
George Liebmann, president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, is the author of a number of works in international relations, including Diplomacy Between the Wars: Five Diplomats and the Making of the Modern World; The Last American Diplomat: John D. Negroponte and His Times, 1960-2010; and The Fall of the House of Speyer, all published by Bloomsbury.