Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



For half a century the United States has used economic sanctions as a way to punish other countries for pursuing policies it concludes are dangerous to American interests.

Last week the United Nations, with strong support from Washington, imposed sanctions on the government of Afghanistan for refusing to turn over to the United States for trial a Saudi terrorist, Osama bin Laden. He is charged with masterminding the bombing of two American embassies, in Kenya and Tanzania, last year.

The United Nations, with reluctant U.S. support, reportedly will lift many sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War if Baghdad permits the resumption of international inspection of facilities suspected of making chemical and biological weapons. The Security Council favors this compromise as a means to reduce suffering endured by the Iraqi population resulting from the sanctions.

A hard look at the history of economic sanctions imposed over half a century is useful, particularly as the United States reassesses foreign policy for the 21st century. We should ask if imposition of economic hardship on another country will result in changing its governments behavior, or whether it merely brings suffering to millions of people. Here are some cases:

* Communist China. The Truman administration imposed trade restrictions on the Peoples Republic in 1950 when it aided North Korea in its war with the United States and the United Nations. The objective of both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations was to isolate Communist China and force a change in its anti-western foreign policy.

Later Presidents Carter and Reagan eased those trade restrictions because of China's change in policy when Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. Last week Bill Clinton announced a major new trade agreement with China under which its markets will be opened in return for Beijing's membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

If this agreement proves successful, it will be a victory for U.S. sanctions policy.

* North Korea. This is a different story because, after forty-nine years of U.S. and international sanctions, the Pyongyang regime shows no sign of changing its totalitarian system or its anti-western policy. It recently agreed to talk about its nuclear arms program if the United States and Japan provide it with massive economic assistance and food for its undernourished population. Some call this extortion, or blackmail. It is hardly a victory for sanctions.

* Cuba. When Fidel Castro came to power forty years ago and imposed police state controls on Cuba, he brought on economic sanctions from the United States. Castro turned to the Soviet Union after President Kennedy tried to overthrow him in 1961, and this led in 1962 to the Cuban Missile Crisis in which Soviet missiles were placed ninety miles from U.S. shores.

The U.S.S.R.s demise in 1991 resulted in a cutoff of Russian assistance to Cuba. Castro continued the tight police controls but has lobbied the Pope and recently the leaders of Spain and Latin American countries to persuade Washington to lift its sanctions, which have kept Cuba impoverished. So far, sanctions have not worked to bring a change in Cuban policy, or regime.

* Iran. President Carter imposed tough sanctions on Iran after it took fifty-two American diplomats hostage in 1979. The fundamentalist Muslim clerics who run that country show no sign of changing either Iran's foreign policy or its tight internal police controls. Russia and France propose lifting U.N. sanctions on Iran, but President Clinton has adamantly opposed it. . So far, tough sanctions on Iran have not worked.

* Libya. President Muammar Qaddafy incurred U.S. sanctions in the 1970s when he supported terrorism against American interests in the Middle East. He also brought a U.S. bombing of his capital in 1986 for a bombing in Berlin which killed and wounded U.S. servicemen. Sanctions were tightened further when Qaddafy refused to turn over two terrorists who were accused of bombing a Pam Am flight over Scotland in 1988.

Recently Libya agreed to turn the terrorists over to a Scottish court in return for a partial lifting of the sanctions. In this case tough sanctions, including bombing, seem to have worked.

* Iraq. An objective of the U.S. bombing of military installations in Iraq in 1991 and the economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was to encourage the ouster of its dictator, Saddam Hussein. However, after nine years of sanctions, Saddam still controls Iraq despite the suffering of the Iraqi population. Nothing short of an invasion is likely to oust him from power or change his anti-western policy. Sanctions clearly have not worked.

* Serbia/Yugoslavia. The United States and NATO allies imposed economic sanctions on Yugoslavia, ruled by Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, after his support for the ethnic cleansing actions by Bosnian Serbs in the early 1990s. Last spring the NATO bombing of Belgrade and other Serb cities, as well as the Danube bridges, caused much damage and was expected to produce a popular uprising to oust Milosevic from power. Still, despite his defeat in Kosovo and the damage inflicted on the Yugoslav economy, Milosevic remains.

* Indonesia. This may be the only case where sanctions worked, not only to change another country's policies but also its leadership. Because of Indonesia's financial vulnerability and the trade restrictions imposed by the U.N. in 1998 and 1999, President Suharto was persuaded to give up power after thirty-three years. Recently a new moderate president, Abdurrahman Wahid, was elected through a democratic process and agreed to grant East Timor its independence following a referendum held there last summer. He has also moved to open up Indonesia's political and economic systems, something Suharto and his family refused to do for thirty years. Although moderate U.N. sanctions may not have been a decisive factor in bringing about change in Indonesia, they clearly contributed.

Today U.S. policy makers need to be clear-headed about what foreign policy objectives are served by economic sanctions. Are they designed to punish an enemy government for bad behavior? Or to encourage it to reform government institutions? Or to bring about its ouster"

The United States has employed sanctions for all three reasons. In Cuba in 1961, in Iran in 1980, and in Iraq in 1991, the U.S. objective was to overthrow a regime. In Libya in 1986 and probably in Kosovo in 1999, U.S. bombing was intended to punish an adversary for outrageous actions. In the cases of China and Indonesia, however, sanctions were designed to bring about a change in government policy.

North Korea is an example where sanctions designed to force policy changes have been unsuccessful and where military punishment may be needed unless the Pyongyang regime stops producing missiles that can hit the United States and Japan..

Presidents occasionally use economic sanctions as a substitute for military force when it is not clear that a vital national interest is at stake. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the Clinton NSC team seems to have believed that sanctions and forceful diplomacy would persuade Slobodan Milosevic to change course. However, when Secretary of State Albright's tough talk last spring did not intimidate the Yugoslav leader, Clinton was persuaded that Kosovo was a vital U.S. interest and the NATO air war commenced. Had Milosevic not withdrawn his troops from Kosovo in June, Clinton would have been pressured into launching a ground war in an area of the world that few Americans believe is a truly vital interest.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST

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