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Sanctions Are Collective Punishment, and We Should Reject Them

Gary Chartier makes [1] a very compelling case against the use of economic sanctions:

Sanctions are deeply objectionable, too, because they represent purposeful attacks on others. Again, that’s their point. They wouldn’t work if they didn’t undermine Bozarkians’ welfare—not just by affecting the sizes of their bank accounts but also by impeding their access to the actual, life-enriching goods and services they could buy if trade were unimpeded. And choosing to injure real aspects of well-being is always cruel and unreasonable. It involves treating the welfare of Bozarkians as less important than, and therefore trumped by, our own putative policy goals.

Doing so might make sense if the goods we sought to realize really were more important than the goods sanctions deliberately attack. But they’re not.

In short, sanctions are a cruel practice of bullying weaker states at the expense of their civilian populations. They rarely succeed on their own terms, but even if they succeeded more often that would come at too high a cost. Trying to compel another state to yield to our government’s demands is itself an abuse of power, and collectively punishing millions or tens of millions of people for the actions of governments they don’t control is unjust several times over. Even if humanitarian exemptions shielded the population of the sanctioned country from the worst effects, they wouldn’t protect against the general misery and increased impoverishment that sanctions are meant to create. Because U.S. sanctions scare off business and investment, they make it practically impossible for people in the targeted country to engage in legitimate transactions for even the most basic and essential goods. They deprive people of medicines and make it more likely that they will become sicker and in some cases die because of the lack of proper treatment. We see this happening in Iran now, we saw it happening in Iraq in the 1990s, and we are starting to see it in Venezuela, too.

Chartier also makes the important point that sanctions are an attack on the targeted country, and that runs the risk of provoking violent response and escalating tensions that can lead to war. Once our government justifies causing widespread suffering in another country to achieve its goals, it is that much closer to justifying the use of force against them as well. In that way, sanctions don’t just harm the targeted country and its people, but increase the likelihood that the U.S. will end up fighting a war that it could have easily avoided earlier. Sanctions are often not an alternative to war, but rather a prelude to it, and for the people suffering from their effects they are an unprovoked attack that does grave harm.

If another major power targeted a smaller country in the same way, we all know that our government would condemn it as unjustified aggression. We need to recognize that our government is guilty of the same thing when it inflicts collective punishment on another nation through sanctions. We have seen what comes from hubris and overreach in unnecessary military interventions, and we need to realize that many of the same dangers and pitfalls await us when our government wages unnecessary economic wars. Sanctions make the targeted country poorer, and they rob that country and all of its trading partners of countless opportunities to trade and exchange ideas.

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5 Comments To "Sanctions Are Collective Punishment, and We Should Reject Them"

#1 Comment By SteveM On June 10, 2019 @ 1:14 pm

And of course the Nitwits in Washington are completely oblivious to the unintended consequences of weaponizing trade, both sanctions and tariffs.

Because of them, the rest of the planet will slowly but surely decouple from the dollar and minimize the dependency on U.S. goods and services. I.e., they will make their own or source elsewhere.

Moreover, it won’t just be the countries that the Global Cop Gorilla directly targets, it will be everybody to some degree because they know that they could be next.

The now well articulated extortion hammer can only hurt the American real economy. Trump and the War-Monger Dopes he surrounds himself with have no idea about the concomitant can of worms that they have opened.

#2 Comment By Donald On June 10, 2019 @ 5:45 pm

This is true and the problem is that across the political spectrum, most Americans either don’t know or don’t care. They oppose wars because Americans might get killed. Outside segments on the far left and in limited rightwing circles ( like here at TAC), I just don’t ever see people condemning sanctions which are clearly meant to hurt an entire population. In fact, they judge them only on the basis of whether they will succeed in pressuring the government to do what we want.

#3 Comment By Clyde Schechter On June 10, 2019 @ 7:51 pm

Our ability to impose sanctions stems from the unique stranglehold we have on the international payments system. I think the only way that the use of sanctions will ultimately end is when the rest of the world decides they have had enough of US bullying and they create a new payments system that is not controlled or dominated by any one country or small alliance. Indeed, our continuing use of sanctions for obviously illegitimate purposes (see Iran) is a provocation for them to do just that.

If the EU, Russia and China were determined to put a stop to this nonsense, I see no reason they couldn’t do so. Their special vehicle for Iran has, as far as I know, had only limited effectiveness. But it is a step in that direction. I imagine it will take a bit more abuse by Uncle Sam to give them the motivation to finally get off their knees.

#4 Comment By JR On June 11, 2019 @ 7:10 am

The language used definitely earns some scrutiny.

However the title “Sanctions Are Collective Punishment, and We Should Reject Them” doesn’t address this sufficiently. Actually it reinforces the use of “Sanctions” as somehow deserved “Punishment”.

US use of “Sanctions” is simply full scale economic warfare and the economic variant of “Gunboat Policy”:
Use of brute power unlimited by any sense of fairness or law to exclusively promote US interest ignoring the fact that the other party may have any interest too.

So use of language is important indeed, but this title needs some revision.

#5 Comment By Nelson On June 13, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

I agree. I’m glad someone mentioned it. Not only do sanctions hurt ordinary civilians they are often counterproductive.

The Cuba embargo has been in place since before I was born. In terms of benefiting citizens of either country it is and has always been a colossal failure.