After decades under a brutal military dictatorship, Myanmar is steadily, if unevenly, moving towards legitimate democracy. Reasonably fair elections have been held, military interference is lessening and the economy is opening up. Yet, American economic sanctions remain in place.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration moves headlong into easing the diplomatic and economic isolation of Cuba – where the current totalitarian regime has made no commitments to democracy or human rights, supports a disastrous regime in Venezuela and shows no interest in economic liberalization. In fact, Cuba is getting more repressive.
But this is no surprise. For a long time, but accelerating under President Obama, American sanctions policy has been an illogical, incoherent, ineffective mess. The United States currently imposes sanctions on over a dozen foreign countries that have produced material changes in those nations’ behavior that range from nothing to getting worse.
American sanctions policy is normally driven by a media feeding frenzy with either the president of members of Congress jump on the publicity bandwagon. Once in place, sanctions tend to attain a powerful inertia – there is little to gain by letting other nations off the hook, particularly when changes in policy or government are unlikely to be ideal in the eyes of the American media and political class. Of course, nations where American has vital national interests get off with a tongue-lashing, if that.
The imposition of economic sanctions is nothing less than a declaration of intellectual bankruptcy and political cowardice. Imposing sanctions offers cheap and easy publicity with no real cost.
Sanctions are mostly tokenism. Either America’s political leadership is unwilling to engage in a serious strategy to effect change or is unwilling to admit that the United States does not have the requisite influence necessary to force change.
The useless sanctions regime against Russia is a perfect example. Since sanctions were imposed by the Obama administration, Putin and Russia have formally annexed the Crimea, continued to occupy eastern Ukraine with a proxy army, increased aid and involvement in Syria, and clamped down ever more on domestic dissent. In short, Russia is getting worse.
A cursory knowledge of Russian history would have predicted failure. Russia is a nation predisposed to xenophobia, prefers strong central leadership over democracy and has stoically accepted extraordinary economic difficulties. To think that knocking a couple of percentage points off of Russian GNP would be effective is absurd.
Instead of sanctions, the Obama administration could have helped the Ukraine truly defend itself. That does not mean aircraft carriers and ballistic missiles, rather defensive systems and assault weapons that would assist in the defeat of ground troops. Handing Putin’s irregulars and special forces a defeat would do far more to change behavior than banning his generals from visiting EPCOT.
And Russia is not unique. In the vast majority of cases, economic sanctions are nothing more than empty symbolism and political grandstanding. In only the rarest of outliers do sanctions effect real change. Far more often changes in foreign governments’ policies are the result of far larger internal and external socio-economic forces. The alleged pressure imposed by sanctions is more than outweighed by nationalistic anger at foreign interference.
It is time to finally drop the charade that sanctions are anything but a minor diplomatic tool, to be used selectively for specific, accomplishable goals. Unfortunately, as long as public relations trumps smart foreign policy, the United States will continue to waste resources and squander its influence.