Do economic sanctions work? And a poem by Bertolt Brecht.

A convoy of military trucks speeds past. Armed men are disgorged outside parliament. TVs play patriotic music. Facebook goes down. Men in uniform grace local street corners. People are arrested. The patriotic music is interrupted to announce that General so-and-so is dissolving parliament to protect the constitution/democracy/the people. Condemnation follows from the democratic world.

Image result for military coup in myanmar

There has just been a military coup in Myanmar. In addition to widespread condemnation, the US and some of its allies are also discussing sanctions.

Economic sanctions are an attractive proposition. They apply pressure to the leadership by closing their Swiss bank accounts, and cutting their economy off from the world. The resulting economic decline causes people to vent their frustration at the regime, who then presumably restore the constitution/democracy the people. All this without any shooting or bombing!

Critics argue sanctions often leave the leadership unscathed while the population struggles with rising prices and goods shortages. The people with guns still eat well and live in nice houses, while the rest are pushed into poverty – and they still can’t vote.

What does the research on sanctions say? I’ve read through the papers so you don’t have to.

Here are some key points:

  • It can be difficult to determine if a sanction has worked or not, especially since they are often combined with other policy tools. It can be difficult to disentangle whether the target state changed their behavior because of an economic sanction, diplomatic effort, or the threat of a military intervention? A classic work in the field – Economic Sanctions Reconsidered – argued that between 1914 to 1990, sanctions worked in 40 of 115 cases, for a 34% success rate. Critic Robert Pape argues they incorrectly coded many examples, and the true figure is more like 5 of 115.
  • For Pape, sanctions cause enormous human suffering, and can increase the likelihood of conflict because policymakers “may escalate in order to rescue their own prestige.”
  • What about “smart sanctions,” those that narrowly target elites and their power base? Reviewing the use of specialized financial sanctions against Sudan, Russia, and China, the authors said: “rarely has so powerful a force been harnessed by so many interests with such passion to so little effect.”

    The consensus is that smart sanctions are relatively ineffective, but are an easy political option for countries which want to act, but do not want to go to war, or be accused of causing mass suffering in target countries.

What is the international community to do then? Diplomacy, perhaps through those states best positioned to exert pressure, like China. Humanitarian support, to the degree that it can be provided without simply enriching elites. Otherwise, the outlook is rather grim for those hoping for a quick solution.

In the words of Robert Pape:


Finally, I am reminded of Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem, The Solution, following the 1953 uprising in East Germany

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas. Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?


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