“A nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force.”

An “economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy” is how U.S. president Woodrow Wilson described trade sanctions in 1919. In the aftermath of World War I, he presented them at a conference in Indianapolis as the alternative that would make actual war redundant. One definition of these sanctions that still holds today is that they are measures in which one country publicly suspends a major portion of its trade with another country to attain political objectives. These objectives can either be compliance, subversion, deterrence or sending a strong international or domestic signal. However, throughout the twentieth century, the variety of conflicts and a continuing search to hit the opponent where it really hurts have made the ways to achieve these objectives increasingly specific. In particular, sanctions nowadays do not have to be imposed from one country on another; part of a package of sanctions usually includes measures from one country against specific citizens of another. But did these developments over the past century shape a more efficient tool?economy, the Western governments are also hurting their own financial markets.

Maximum damage

When further advocating the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor president Wilson proved himself an advocate of so-called total boycotts. Trade, business or even communication had to be made impossible for all the citizens of a sanctioned country. Much like in a physical war, the main idea was that trade wars should inflict as much damage on a country and its inhabitants as possible. However, total boycotts proved less effective in preventing war than initially thought in the run-up to the next World War. In the thirties, sanctions failed to make Mussolini withdraw his troops from modern-day Ethiopia. Furthermore, trade sanctions by the U.S. against Japan prompted the latter to enter World War II. Japan’s minister of foreign policy, Teijiro Toyoda, called the sanctions on oil imposed by the U.K. and the U.S. an “encirclement”, and the fear of losing all access to petroleum resources sent the country into a paranoia that contributed to its eventual willingness to fight.
Next to an absent or adverse effect, a third possible unwanted outcome was to hurt the wrong people. In the sixties, Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung was the first to argue that sanctions “hit the innocent along with the guilty”. From the conflicts of the decades that followed it became clear that this concern was justified. It culminated in the first sanctions issued against Iraq. In this case, comprehensive sanctions were imposed, preventing the flow of all commodities and products to and from a sanctioned country – as opposed to particular sanctions which only block particular goods and commodities from the target country. With the sanctions that were imposed upon Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait, civilians were hit much harder than intended, arguably even harder than in a physical war, in which civilians are protected by law and commonly spared by both fighting parties. For the first six years after the installment of the sanctions, Iraq was shut off from all foreign trade, including exporting its own oil, which devastated the country’s economy and society.

Terrorists and targets

When the U.N. started to acknowledge the mistakes made in Iraq in the mid-nineties, the terms ‘smart’ and ‘targeted’ sanctions gained momentum. They are comparable to the particular sanctions mentioned earlier. At the end of the decade, when sanctions were imposed to ban blood diamond trade from a number of African countries, the U.N. explicitly stated that no civilians should become collateral damage. Perhaps not surprisingly, this development of targeting the source more specifically was accelerated by the events of 9/11. To target terrorists, Juan Zarate, George W. Bush’s adviser on combating terrorism, announced that smart sanctions would go “on steroids”. Part of this operation was the U.N.’s demand that its 189 member states would freeze the assets and restrict the movement of a list of specific terrorists. This had been tried before against leaders of Haiti’s junta, but with little success. In that first attempt at targeting individuals, the U.S. discovered some problems that are still pressing today, such as accidentally sanctioning a pastor instead of a military lieutenant with the same name.
Targeting the list of terrorists proved to be easier demanded than done, due to differences in the spelling of the targets’ names and the informal ways in which Middle Eastern terrorist networks conduct their monetary transactions (hawala). A second problem is exemplified by former Libyan dictator Muammar Quaddafi’s frozen assets, which now have to be returned to the country after his death. Some of the accounts had been frozen for over 30 years. Since his death, it has turned out to be very hard to decide what part of his 200 billion ‘fortune’ is dirty money and which part of it belongs to whom exactly. Additionally, bank software, such as the worldwide news media, showed to have some difficulty with the correct spelling of the former dictators’ name – a common problem throughout this story.

I’m on the list

In the trade wars of today, the sanctioning of individuals continues to be a significant part of the measurements. In the conflict between Russia and the West over the Crimea, both parties take turns at it. Even Wikipedia now keeps an up-to-date list of sanctioned individuals on both sides of the conflict. The people on this list are mainly close allies of Putin or Obama, and have their assets as well as their travel rights frozen. However, Putin and Obama are not listed. The official explanation for this is that only suspects in the Crimea conflict are sanctioned. In reality, this leads to only minor impact, since both countries have enough resources of their own to operate, and truly vital companies (such as Gazprom) can still operate freely. Some people are even happy with their position on the list, such as former presidential nominee John McCain, who said he was “proud to be sanctioned by Putin”, adding jokingly that he regretted that he would have to cancel his spring break in Siberia.

Thus, individual sanctions seem to be strongest as a symbolic measure; a signal instead of a way to world peace and reconciliation. Among the more absurd examples are the sanctioning of Obama by Chechen leader Ramzan Khadyrov for his ‘slander’ campaign against Russia, and the list of 60 specific luxury goods that the U.S. banned from export to North Korea, containing James Bond movies and Hennessey’s cognac – on which Kim Jong Il allegedly spent 800,000 dollars a year. Targeted or smart sanctions may not have made Woodrow Wilson’s wish for a total substitute to war come true yet, but as odd as and impossible to impose some individual sanctions may be, they are still the far more preferable option.