Economic sanctions are bound to be a long-term failure

Tehran, Jan. 23, 2016: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in January 2016. The burgeoning Iran-China partnership is the direct result of Western sanctions (source: dpa)

Trade has always been the best way to connect people, creating strong bonds based on mutual interest. Limiting trade, on the other hand, can be a weapon. Today, the United States and the European Union use this weapon in the form of sanctions.

When one country unfairly either subsidizes its exports or introduces protective tariffs, retaliation with similar measures is legitimate. It is, however – as experience proves – a very dangerous instrument to be used in foreign policy, especially as a means of punishment. It normally inflicts damage on the wrong people, causes unintended consequences and makes situations worse.

For example, to limit Japanese expansion in Asia, in 1941 the U.S. declared an embargo on raw materials to Japan and froze all Japanese assets.

The prevailing opinion in Washington was that these measures would stop Japan from occupying various territories in Asia. But instead of pulling back, Japan chose the other option: war with the U.S. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

The sanctions against Iran and Russia do not hurt their leaders. On the contrary, they reinforce the belief that the West is the enemy

Today, EU and U.S. sanctions against Iran and Russia have similar motivations. The reasons behind the trade restrictions are understandable and honorable, but the measures themselves are ineffective. They hurt ordinary people, not the regimes. As the bombing of the civilian population in Germany during World War II did not weaken those in power, the sanctions against Iran and Russia also do not hurt their leaders. On the contrary, they reinforce the belief that the West is the enemy and strengthen the current systems. Just look at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings.

Because of the sanctions, both Tehran and Moscow are being driven into close relationships with Beijing. China is now Iran’s largest trading partner.

Moreover, the sanctions not only damage the countries they target, but also their trading partners, many of which want – and need – good relations with the West.

Loss of influence

The negative consequences for the U.S. and the EU are different. Compared to Europe, the U.S. is less dependent on foreign trade. But these maneuvers, which are aimed at achieving foreign policy – not trade-related – goals, are a big reason for the loss of American political influence in many parts of the world. European countries, for their part, also use sanctions for “educational” purposes as a tactic in hybrid warfare – and mainly just lose markets. Europe’s political influence has already become quite small in many parts of the world.

Marginalizing powerful countries will not help. Military attacks can only be avoided by deterrence and countering the threats they present. A credible deterrent, combined with economic inclusion, is the best means for maintaining peace, prosperity and sovereignty. If U.S. President John F. Kennedy had used economic sanctions to prevent the stationing of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962, the Soviet Union would have succeeded.

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