Thoughts on Sanctions

Earlier, I ran an international book giveaway. When I looked into the logistics of sending books around the world, it became clear that I couldn’t send them to countries currently under U.S. sanctions. Every other legal hurdle against running an international giveaway, I found some solution, but not that one. Therefore, I excluded sanctioned countries.

I doubt anyone from the sanctioned countries would’ve entered the giveaway anyway, but it made me think: what is the point of blocking the movement of books?

For years, I’ve seen references to how sanctions harm innocent civilians, such as the former sanctions on Iraq (here is a good article about it from 2001), but it took this to make me think about it for real.

Sometimes people justify sanctions as a way to force regime change in other countries? Has this… ever happened? It seems to me that it entrenches existing regimes. Sanctions give the people who run targeted countries an easy scapegoat for problems, even problems not actually caused by sanctions.

Let’s do this thought experiment: let’s say the Russian had initiated the sanctions and stopped selling oil to any country allied with the United States. Would we think ‘we must take down our own governments so that Russia will lift the sanctions’? Nope, I can’t imagine that. Instead, it would make us despise Russia even more than we already do. We might even rally around our governments as patriots in the face of Russian sanctions.

Though the degree of harm sanctions do to ordinary people who don’t control the government is debated (see that article I linked about sanctions against Iraq) it’s agreed that it does harm.

Does that mean I oppose all sanctions? No. The sanctions the United States put on Imperial Japan during World War II (before the attack on Pearl Harbor) were justified. Why? Because they targeted oil, which the Imperial Japanese Military couldn’t replace from other sources. That forced their military to ration oil, which slowed down their invasion of other countries. It didn’t take down their regime, and it hurt civilians under Japanese rule, but it might’ve saved more civilians whom the Japanese military would’ve otherwise slaughtered.

In that case, oil was a military necessity. I can support sanctions with the primary purpose of impairing hostile armed forces.

Many sanctions don’t work like that.

It seems many governments place sanctions mainly as a public relations exercise which allows politicians to show that They Are Doing Something without entering a hot war. For this purpose… well, sanctions actually do work, I guess. But I don’t want politicians to do things which harm many innocent civilians if that’s the only gain.

I don’t ask you to agree with me. Instead, I request that you ask what the goal of sanctions is. Then check whether actual existing sanctions work at moving towards that goal… or not.

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