Sanctions Are Collective Punishment, and We Should Reject Them

Gary Chartier makes 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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