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The Injustice of Sanctions

Dan Drezner reviews and responds to a recent debate over the effectiveness and desirability of imposing economic sanctions to achieve foreign policy goals:

But the Venezuela case also highlights another problem with Bhatiya’s argument — when he suggests that “the use of sanctions is not about the removal of regimes.” The current sanctions against Iran and Venezuela suggest that this is wrong. As sanctions have become more potent, they are asked to do more.

Current U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and Iran clearly are aimed at bringing down these regimes rather than changing their behavior. For that reason, they can’t be as limited and targeted as some sanctions advocates claim them to be. In order to have the destabilizing effect that the administration wants, they have to be far-reaching and very harmful to the civilian population. Strangling Maduro’s oil revenues also means strangling the people that rely on those revenues for bringing in food and medicine. Cutting Iran off from being able to access and use financial institutions makes it practically impossible for Iranians to pay for imported food and medicine. No one really thinks that the Trump administration cares about the plight of civilians in these countries, but other sanctions advocates should seriously rethink their support for a policy that inflicts collective punishment on an entire nation.

The recurring problem with punitive sanctions is that the wrong people are punished for the wrongdoing of those in power. It is the middle-class businessman, the factory worker, and the most vulnerable among the young and sick who bear the brunt of sanctions policies. Regime officials and their cronies are typically the last to pay a price. It is inherently unjust to add to the burdens of people who are already enduring the corruption, mismanagement, and abuses of their government, and it is particularly cruel to do this when the increased suffering seems more likely to strengthen the regime’s control rather than weaken it. Sanctions advocates may believe that they give “teeth to the ideal of a values-based foreign policy,” but in practice they make a mockery of our values and make us responsible for causing enormous hardship and deepening poverty.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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