Forgotten Errands: The Cumbersome Chores of Constructing a Better Future 

“You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Woodrow Wilson, 1913. 

In an attempt to reconcile personal cynicism with international idealism, ‘Forgotten Errands’ will examine various ethical dimensions of contemporary foreign policy matters, combining a pragmatic view of economics, politics, military force, and diplomacy with considerations for the type of future our courses of action on these elements will establish. The middle path between extremism and passivity; liberalism and realism; or compassion and stringency may be difficult to find, but we are bound by this errand of humanity to abandon disillusionment and endeavor to strive towards a visionary future.

In his State of the Union address on February 12th, President Barack Obama affirmed that Iran would maintain its position on the axis of evil during his second term, suggesting diplomatic solutions to Tehran while reaffirming the American hard stance against Iranian nuclear capabilities and steadfast support for Israel.  Not to mention that just days earlier, on February 6th, Obama authorized new sanctions targeting the Iranian Central Bank, adding to the myriad embargoes already in place, as the United States, United Nations, and European Union attempt to prevent the development of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program through the slow stifling of economic activity.

Image courtesy of the US Army, public domain.
Image courtesy of the US Army, public domain.

As the West continues to use this increasingly popular tool of economic statecraft to =target enemies with coercive force, it seems only responsible to ask: just how effective are economic sanctions?

I believe it is now time to re-examine the cost of these sanctions. Sure, economic sanctions look good politically, as policy makers can engage in a sort of enemy finger pointing which lends a bit more credibility than mere verbal denouncement without the consequences of an all-out military engagement. But, the age of globalisation with new media fronts emerging daily, why not choose to reinvent the power of communication from behind the podium, and revitalise the strength of coercive soft power rather than perpetuate large-scale military interventionism and economic warfare?

There is no doubt that these sanctions can be destructive for the economy of the targeted country, and devastating for the lives of those who must bear the burden of food shortages, recession, and hyperinflation. But is this really ‘success?’ On February 7th, a Gallup poll reported that a large majority of Iranians feel their national and personal livelihoods have been hurt as a result of the UN, EU, and US sanctions targeting Iranian nuclear capabilities. The same poll, however, indicated that, while the nation has one of the highest rates of general suffering in the world, Ahmadinejad’s government receives only one fifth of the blame attributed to the United States, with the majority of Iranians still supportive of nuclear development programs.

In short, the American sanctions have yet to inspire compromise in Iranian officials or populaces, and have instead created civilian enemies and generated a massive amount of human suffering along the way.

And this is not specific to Iran. The Peterson Institution for International Economics in Washington DC estimates that, where success is defined as the achievement of a policy’s set goal, less than one third of twentieth century sanctions can be classified as fully successful or even partially successful.

The economic sanctions levied against India and Pakistan between 1998 and 2001 were unsuccessful in deterring the nuclear technologies programs in these countries, and the sanctions currently in place targeting North Korea are similarly ineffective in deterring nuclear advancements and testing.

The sanctions levied against Iraq in 1990 with the objective of compelling Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, the payment of reparations, and the surrender of any weapons of mass destruction remained largely in place until after the 2003 invasion. The war In Iraq, thus, arguably began as an economic war, with civilian casualties reaching hundreds of thousands as food and medical supplies dwindled to dangerous levels. Pregnant women and children were painted as the innocent victims of the American objective to undermine the policy objectives of Saddam Hussein, as the leading cause of death in children under three years of age became dysentery and diarrhoea as a result of malnourishment.

Unsurprisingly, just as these sanctions damage the economic vitality of a nation, they often provoke a nationalist response and distain for the sender country amongst the targeted people. This sort of nationalist response is visible in the 1935-36 League of Nations’ attempts to constrain Italy, as Benito Mussolini proclaimed: ‘To sanctions of an economic character we will reply with our discipline, with our sobriety, and with our spirit of sacrifice.’ Corresponding sentiments of nationalism and defiance are manifested in the 1948-55 Soviet sanctions against Yugoslavia, the 1963-66 US actions against Indonesia, the 1965-79 UN measures in Rhodesia, and the 1980s US sanctions in Nicaragua.[1] The Gallup poll references earlier in this article would suggest the same to be true in Iran. With the spread of suffering in the region, Iranians still favour the continuation of nuclear programs over submission to Western demands.  This attitude is visible within the rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as he insights nationalist defiance in this 2007 statement:  “Enemies have assumed that they can prevent the progress of the Iranian nation through psychological war and issuing resolutions, but they will be defeated.”[2]

In 1998, American sanctions programs were responsible for between 15 and 20 billion dollars worth of revenue losses in US trade, which, while a small percentage of GDP, accounted for more than the total American foreign policy budget in the same year[3].

Why is it that we have chosen, time and again in the face of policy failure, to employ economic sanctions at the cost of diplomatic initiatives, Western reputation, and innocent lives? Why is it that the United States cannot instead use these tens of billions of dollars to finance diplomatic initiatives, cultural outreach strategies, and other programs that could inspire shifts in public opinion to support the Western agenda? As the Obama administration confronts continuing issues with Iran, old embargoes with Cuba, and various peripheral calls for the sanctioning of Israel and Palestine, it would be wise to re-examine the dozens of cost-benefit analyses that fail economic sanctions as a policy mechanism. If the West really wants to accomplish any change in the region in accordance with the Western agenda, let us put our money where our mouths are, and disband these costly practices for a more comprehensive outreach policy conducive to actual progress.



[1] Schott, Hufbaur, and Elliot, 2009. ‘Economic Sanctions Reconsidered’ pp. 8 http://www.piie.com/publications/chapters_preview/4075/01iie4075.pdf – February 6, 2013

[2] New York Times, 6 January 2007, online

[3] US Council on Foreign Relations, 1998. Transcript: ‘Sanctions against rogue states: do they work?’

http://www.cfr.org/world/sanctions-against-rogue-states-do-they-work/p5 – February 6, 2013

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