Sanctions: a useful but flawed alternative to war

Sanctions are the EU's sole coercive instrument of power short of military action (Brussels, mercifully, does not engage in warfare). The EU needs to understand their impact so that it can use them more effectively.     

Sanctions are the EU's sole coercive instrument of power short of military action (Brussels, mercifully, does not engage in warfare). The EU needs to understand their impact so that it can use them more effectively.

This year opened with new European Union sanctions on Iran – targeting the nation's banking, shipping and industrial sectors – coming into force. Tehran managed to call them both “inhumane” and “ineffective” in one breath while Turkey, a major trading partner for Iran, said they do not concern it and “fall on deaf ears”. A lot of ado, it would seem, about something allegedly futile. At the same time, Turkey complains that EU sanctions on another neighbour – erstwhile friend and now bane Syria – even if tightened recently, do not go far enough. An attitude hardly consistent with its harsh criticism of sanctions on Iran.

Yet, if the Turks' reactions to European sanctions on its neighbours seem inconsistent – the EU policy they are a reaction on is hardly more coherent. In the European Council on Foreign Relations report Shooting in the dark. EU sanctions policies I argue that because of conceptual clarity, lack of implementation monitoring and of impact control it is extremely difficult to assess if EU sanctions have an impact on countries they are directed against, let alone whether they obtain the desired goal.

European sanctions against Burma have grown in scope and sophistication for two decades but three years ago the consensus was agreed that they simply do not work. Then suddenly the generals at Naypiydaw decided to completely reverse course, initiate a process of internal democratisation and open up to the west. Accordingly, the consensus changed and sanctions were henceforth declared a success. Although we still do not know if it was the sanctions that changed the regime's policies or its fear of being crushed in the loving embrace of the Chinese dragon next door. 

Similarly, European sanctions on Belarus – which have been imposed, lifted and re-imposed over the last 15 years – are considered a success. In a sense they are, as they express the union's clear disgust of the repressive practices of Europe's last dictatorship. In practical terms, however, they have not achieved their goal: the practices they target have hardly changed and if they have, then only for the worse. In fact, some opposition activists in Minsk believe that sanctions are responsible for the turning of the screw, as president Aleksandar Lukashenka wants to demonstrate he is not swayed by external pressure. 

In other cases, when more modest goals were pursued through the sanctions policy, the record is brighter. Libya, under a series of different batches of sanctions for its support of international terrorism, did comply and turn over the suspected perpetrators of the Lockerbie bombing. Yet such retroactive compliance did not transform into policy change – which is why sanctions had to be re-introduced – nor did the sanctions address the issue of human rights and democracy in the country, which was, until the revolution, much more severely violated than say in Belarus; which is being sanctioned precisely for that.

Furthermore, sanctions are usually crafted in a way to ensure maximum economic pain for the sanctioned but minimum economic pain for the sanctioners. This squaring of the circle hardly ever works. European trade with Burma actually increased under sanctions. Libya's oil exports were never affected. And it is markedly difficult to try to hurt a country which can turn elsewhere for trade (Belarus to Russia, Burma to China and Japan). Without greater cooperation between members of the international community – see Turkey's scoffing at EU sanctions on Iran – and greater willingness on the side of the sanctioners to also take some economic pain, sanctions' impact will remain limited.

Does this mean that the EU should give up such a muddled policy? Definitely not. Not only most of its defects can be removed through more coherent policy planning and monitoring but there is hardly anything which could replace sanctions. They are the union's sole coercive instrument of power short of military action and Brussels, mercifully, does not engage in warfare. They have been increasingly used over the two decades – the EU imposes now more sanctions than the United Nations – and can claim a number of targeted successes.

However, a number of simple principles have to be factored into the union's sanctions policy. The goal of the sanctions must be realistic. Lukashenka will not agree to democratisation, which would deprive him of his power. And, as the spokesman of Poland's military regime of the 1980s, Jerzy Urban famously said: “The government will always feed itself”. The people – not necessarily.

Which is why it is important for the people to be informed about the nature and goals of sanctions targeting their country. Since these measures are taken allegedly in their interest, they should have the possibility of being able to assess that themselves. Implementation must be monitored and policed, effectiveness assessed and lessons drawn.

In particular, it is clear that the less the sanctioning power is willing to suffer some of the consequences of the sanctions policies – the less credible, economically and politically, the sanctions will be to the targeted regime. If our sanctions policy is defective, we should improve it – not give up on it. It is often our sole instrument of coercion and for the unfortunate subjects of oppressive regimes, a rare reason to hope that things might actually get better.

This article first appeared on Public Service Europe

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Associate Fellow

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