It’s too early to tell. That’s the consensus of sanctions experts on how America’s economic and diplomatic penalties on wayward countries will change under President Barack Obama. Yet while Obama has maintained some sanctions instituted by his predecessors against rogue regimes — such as extending sanctions on Iran for another year — a more cooperative U.S. approach to sanctions is clearly expected.
“There is more interest in multilateralism and cooperation with allies, more willingness to work with the U.N. Security Council and talk with our enemies,” said David Cortright, president of the Fourth Freedom Forum and research fellow at the University of Notre Dame.
That multilateralism is all the more urgent in the face of continuing provocations from North Korea and to a lesser extent Iran. Yet both regimes also underline the fundamental problems with sanctions: How do you find consensus among different countries to agree on sanctions in the first place? Then how do you enforce them to make sure they’re effective — so that they hit the people who deserve it, while sparing those you’re trying to help?
Putting Players in the Penalty Box During her first overseas trip as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton suggested that Western economic sanctions imposed on Burma have failed to sway the repressive military junta, while depriving its people of vital assistance. Yet at the same time, Clinton cautioned that reaching out to the Burmese leadership has also failed to influence them — a reflection of the perennial sanctions dilemma.
One developing trend to address this dilemma is a shift from penalizing entire nations to specifically targeting individual leaders through restrictions on their travel and foreign assets or indictments by the International Criminal Court — as evidenced by the ICC arrest warrant issued for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The U.N. Security Council is increasingly imposing such measures, and heads of extremist groups are being targeted through the world body’s “terrorist list,” a roster that has grown to the thousands since Sept. 11, 2001.
“The only sanctions that are effective are targeted ones,” argued Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S. envoy to Mali, Madagascar and Cuba who’s currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Sanctions usually hurt [innocent] people and help the government we’re trying to change by consolidating their power.”
Huddleston acknowledged that broader sanctions against nations don’t always fail, citing the West’s effective sanctions during the 1980s against the former apartheid government of South Africa. However, she pointed to American sanctions on Haiti as more typical.
“In Haiti, our sanctions were a disaster and very detrimental to the people,” she said. “They created a huge black market with gas smuggling which served to enrich corrupt elites.”
Mark L. Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group’s Washington office, also believes that great care must be taken to prevent sanctions from hurting the wrong people.
“At this stage, most governments and international organizations understand that the unintended consequences have to be identified to the greatest degree possible and be part of the initial cost analysis to be sure everyone knows the costs, likelihood of success and net balance for the country.”
Schneider said studies show that U.S. sanctions have only been effective between 25 percent and 33 percent of the time. In particular, he pointed to the failure of sanctions against Zimbabwe’s government. But he too cited the anti-apartheid sanctions as an example that sanctions often require time and dedicated in-country activists to be effective. “Even those took years to achieve success and then would not have succeeded except for the courage and commitment of the people of South Africa,” he said.
Schneider noted that even when sanctions are imposed on a country, there should be a “continuum” within which they operate, starting with the removal of benefits such as military aid from a government that has violated human rights. Penalties should then scale up across the spectrum of foreign aid before affecting trade, he argued.
Double-Edged Sanction Sword Africa offers an example of how sanctions can miss their mark if not pinpointed correctly. In Zimbabwe for example, the United States and European Union maintain visa bans and asset freezes on individuals and companies linked to human rights abuses, as well as embargoes on the sale of arms and equipment that could be used for internal repression.
But the sanctions seem to have only fueled recalcitrant dictator Robert Mugabe’s determination to dig in against the West while the rest of his country plunged into destitution. Recently though Mugabe said he would give the United States, Britain and the European Union 100 days to normalize relations with Zimbabwe and end his nation’s international isolation, but the West remains skeptical — which reveals the double-edged sword of economic sanctions.
“The West does not want to come to the party unless the new government can provide stability. But without resources, it’s difficult to see them providing stability, so they’re in a catch-22 situation,” Cheryl Hendricks of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies recently told the Christian Science Monitor.
But because Mugabe has at least formed a unity government with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, new sanctions aren’t likely. Huddleston said that from a U.N. perspective though, new sanctions are likely on Somalia if radical Islamist groups within the country take power, though there will still be a need to provide food to the nation’s malnourished people.
Another balancing act involves Sudan’s government, which is accused of committing a host of atrocities in the Darfur region. Huddleston warns that further punishment could jeopardize 30 years of international peace efforts in the southern part of the country.
Schneider of the International Crisis Group predicted that sanctions will continue, with more of Sudan’s leaders specifically targeted. “Clearly in the aftermath of the ICC indictment of President Bashir, there will be some governments exploring additional targeted sanctions designed to put more pressure on the Sudanese government either to comply with the arrest warrant or to meet a series of other humanitarian and political concerns surrounding the several million displaced persons in Darfur and full implementation of the North-South comprehensive peace agreement,” he said.
Eating the Carrots, While Dodging Sticks? Many experts view the effectiveness of sanctions in general as dependent on the particular situation. “Sanctions are a tool,” said Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute. “In some cases they’re effective; in some cases they’re useless.”
Cortright echoed that opinion. “Sanctions almost always have an impact,” he said. “But whether it will bring about the policy changes intended depends on many factors, like the degree to which sanctions are integrated with other conflict resolution measures. You need sticks but you also need carrots.”
One example that critics of the carrot-stick approach often cite is North Korea, which has routinely flouted the West while at the same time engaging in talks over its nuclear program. The reclusive regime stirred international concern recently with its launch of a long-range Taepodong-2 rocket in early April. North Korea claimed the launch was related to satellite operations, but some analysts said it could be a test of the missile’s projected capability to strike the U.S. state of Alaska.
After much deliberation, the U.N. Security Council managed to come up with a unanimous condemnation of the launch, though China was able to tone down the tougher text in the original draft. Nevertheless, North Korea reacted angrily to the statement, calling it “wanton,” expelling U.N. inspectors from the country, and declaring that it would “never participate” again in the six-party talks over its nuclear program — exactly what many had feared.
So far, Obama has tried to carefully balance the need to preserve the nuclear discussions while not letting Kim Jong-il get away with this latest crisis. The administration has stressed the need for talks while at the same time presenting a U.N. sanctions committee with a list of 11 North Korean companies reportedly involved in ballistic missile technology. The U.N. Security Council said it would tighten existing sanctions imposed on Pyongyang in 2006 that were never enforced — though the official list of targeted individuals and companies was still subject to approval by the 15 council members as of the end of April.
Cortright — who has written extensively on sanctions and served as an adviser to the United Nations, think tanks and foreign ministries — said the launch was unlikely to generate new sanctions from U.N. Security Council, primarily due to opposition from Russia and China. He acknowledged the launch as evidence of North Korea’s habit of taking concessions from the West while continuing its military programs, and predicted some increased focus on enforcement of existing penalties as a result, such as better international coordination in monitoring weapons flows into the “hermit kingdom.”
“The launch is an example of North Korea using a bellicose form of diplomacy,” Cortright told The Washington Diplomat. “But we need to keep our powder dry and focus on what’s in our interests: establishing a new relationship with the North Koreans, easing non-military sanctions, normalizing diplomatic relations and reducing their level of paranoia. Past experience shows that if we can hold to our terms and get them implemented, we have a better chance of constraining their nuclear program.”
Most experts agree the launch was an example of Pyongyang’s brinksmanship tactics to create a crisis and use it as a negotiating chip, particularly with a new U.S. administration. Even before the launch, North Korea had successfully wheedled concessions from the West while managing to keep its nuclear program relatively intact.
But Cortright rebuts the view that it’s easy for rogue countries to eat incentive “carrots” and successfully avoid the stick. He argued that President Clinton’s North Korea sanctions and incentive program were initially effective. “What was missing was willingness of the U.S. to comply with its part: providing additional fuel, subsidies and normalizing diplomatic relations,” he charged.
Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that continued diplomatic engagement is the only realistic option. “It is useful to remember that we are still dealing with a regime that is focused on its own survival,” she pointed out. “And if the analysts of North Korea are correct that this is a weak moment for Kim Jong-il’s regime, then it is going to take all the more effort by the diplomatic parties and the diplomatic coalition in the six-party [talks] and elsewhere to continue to reassure North Korea that diplomacy is what we are intent on, but also to reassure North Korea that it doesn’t really have any other options but to proceed in the conversation with us.”
Leery Engagement An ongoing conversation over another’s country’s nuclear ambitions also seems to have reached an important turning point. “I think one of the big issues we’ll see coming up is Iran,” Cortright said.
Despite Obama’s extension of previous sanctions on Tehran, his administration has made a series of gestures toward improving relations between the two longtime enemies. As with North Korea, Cortright sees an emphasis on enforcing existing sanctions against Iran’s nuclear activities, rather than proposals for new sanctions almost certain to face defeat in the United Nations.
“I don’t see any interest or support in the Security Council for additional sanctions, again due to opposition from Russia and China,” he said. “The Security Council’s sanctions have sort of run their course. Obama will support those but I doubt he will be able to do more. The focus will be more on enforcement.”
Meanwhile, European countries have made fresh diplomatic overtures to the Iranians and the United States seems willing to talk, recently agreeing to participate directly in the international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program without preconditions. “It’s critical that the U.S. participate because we have more carrots than the Europeans — the problem is between us and Iran, not between Iran and Europe,” Cortright said. “The Obama administration seems to be serious about engaging the Iranians. The first response from [Iran’s] supreme leader was hard line and rejectionist, but recently they have been more conciliatory. Their national interest is in building a better relationship with the U.S. due to some common interests, particularly in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent in Iraq.”
But reaction has been mixed from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who’s simultaneously indicated he would not suspend Iran’s enrichment of uranium but also reiterated a willingness to negotiate. “We speak very respectfully of Barack Obama. But we are realists. We want to see real changes,” Ahmadinejad recently told German news magazine Der Spiegel.
Likewise, Obama is most likely aware of the limits of winning concessions from Ahmadinejad. While reaching out to Iran, Washington has also warned of tougher sanctions if it continues to defy United Nations demands to halt sensitive nuclear work.
The Cuban Quandry One country where sanctions have a potential for change — and a spotty record — is Cuba. Obama recently removed all restrictions on remittances by Cuban-Americans to relatives in Cuba, allowed unlimited travel to the island for Cuban-Americans, and permitted U.S. telecommunications companies to do business there. But he stopped short of letting all Americans visit Cuba, or lifting the trade embargo.
Cuba expert Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute speculated that although the changes will have a negligible impact on diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, they could make a tangible improvement in interpersonal relationships between their citizens.
“It will be very interesting to see how Obama fills in the blanks in terms of our relations with Cuba, what level of diplomatic engagement he chooses,” said Peters, who served at the State Department during the Reagan and Bush administrations. He argued that although Obama has fallen short of campaign promises to ease all Cuba restrictions on travel, the White House has made it clear that recent liberalizations will not be the last word.
While acknowledging that there’s little chance for a major breakthrough like an Obama meeting with Raúl Castro (though both Raúl and Fidel Castro did recently meet with a group of House Democrats), Peters said one possibility is more engagement between the two countries on issues that “affect us as neighbors,” such as the environment, immigration and drug interdiction. “The fact that Cuba has no nuclear program also makes it easier,” he noted.
Peters argued that with Cuba, U.S. sanctions work against the United States, serving effectively as an embargo against American interests in the country because other nations impose no such restrictions and thereby fill the trade void left by Americans (also see “Using Old Friend Cuba as Its Base, Russia Reasserts Its Latin Influence” in the April 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Huddleston — who served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — agreed that the U.S. isolation of Cuba has run its course and that conversely the United States has just isolated itself from the rest of the hemisphere with its embargo. “We have even less influence in Cuba now than ever,” she lamented. “We’ve kept ourselves from exploring and exploiting oil reserves there and now they’ve found Venezuela.”
Huddleston predicted Obama will continue to veer away from the Cuba policies of George W. Bush, who tightened already tough restrictions. “I’m hopeful that Obama will take a more pragmatic approach to Cuba sanctions,” she said, noting that one possibility is an initiative to improve access to international news within Cuba, which is currently tightly limited by the Castro regime.
Peters said another practical area where U.S. policies can improve is on exports of medical supplies to Cuba, which has suffered from a shortage of medicine and modern supplies following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s patron during the Cold War. Although the sale of medical supplies and drugs to Cuba are technically permitted, Peters said current policies are so onerous that almost no sales from American firms result — a situation he called “crazy.”
About the Author
Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.