Sunday, May 26, 2013

Disapproval Theater

We rely on sanctions more than ever as an alternative to using military power. But sanctions are unlikely to be a decisive alternative to war even when they raise the cost of doing business for the targeted state or entity.

Sanctions aren't changing policies of states we oppose:

In a world bristling with bad actors, and especially at a time when the country is wary of another war, sanctions have an obvious appeal—and limited impact. Sanctions have failed to dissuade Iran from continuing to enrich uranium. They haven’t dislodged North Korea’s repressive and erratic leaders or forced a rollback of their nuclear and missile programs. For all the international pressure on Syria’s Assad, the regime is getting more ruthless, not less, and the policy debate in Washington has moved on to how much military support to provide the rebels.

That record hasn’t stopped Congress from seeking to pile even more sanctions on the U.S.’s adversaries.

There's nothing wrong with raising the cost of acting contrary to our wishes and interests. And sanctions certainly set us apart from the target nations' actions. So there's value there.

But sanctions are unlikely to achieve our objectives peacefully for the simple reason that any sanctions that hurt a target nation enough to compel them to change their priority policies more to our liking will be sanctions tough enough to seem like an act of war to the target nation's leadership. So sanctions tough enough to work will likely just compel the target nation to escalate to military action as their response.

Japan did not endure our 1941 oil embargo or change their policy toward China--they attacked us at Pearl Harbor to clear the way for a general assault on the resources of Southeast Asia. And any trade sanctions weak enough to allow Japan's leaders to believe that they could cope would not have been enough to compel a change in Japan's China policies.

So sanctions as an alternative to war will not generally work. If tough enough to compel a change in behavior, they will likely be considered an asymmetric act of war by the target nation that will then escalate to military action. And if not tough enough to be seen as an act of war, the sanctions can be endured.

Sanctions can buy time to increasing the cost of an action to a target nation. And express our displeasure. Which makes us feel better about ourselves. And sanctions may even weaken a target state prior to escalation to war.

But as a substitute for war sanctions are not what they are cracked up to be.

Although just in case the sanctions on Iran hurt the mullahs more than it appears, this is a wise precaution:

Just nine months after hosting the biggest multinational mine-warfare exercises “ever” to be held in and around the Persian Gulf, the Navy’s 5th Fleet and its foreign partners outdid themselves with a second, even larger wargame. More than 20 nations participated in September’s International Mine Counter-Measures Exercise 2012, collaborating against fictional ecoterrorists whose capabilities were suspiciously similar to the real-world arsenal of Iran. This month, 41 nations and some private-sector companies participated in IMCMEX 2013, which despite the name expanded beyond minesweeping to practice protecting civilian oil tankers, oil rigs, ports, and even desalinization plants as well.

You never can tell.