North Korea and Iran are under U.N. economic sanctions and have been for quite a long time (North Korea since 2006, Iran also since 2006). But are sanctions effective? Can they be effective against even intransigent and belligerent  political and military leaders?

Let’s see what the Internets thingies say. The first clipping here is part of an article about sanctions against Syria and is dated Sep. 3, 2011:

Political scientists have addressed these questions and have arrived at some conclusions. While differences in data and methods have produced somewhat different findings, the basic empirical results are as follows. Economic sanctions are only successful in about a third of the cases in which they are used. The work of Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliot, as reviewed here, shows that sanctions are most effective if the goal is simply destabilization of a target state (a 52% success rate) but are less effective if the objective is modest policy change (33%) or major policy change (25%) by the target government. Some scholars are even more pessimistic, suggesting that Hufbauer, Schott and Elliot overestimate the success of sanctions; Robert Pape argues that only 5 of their 40 claimed successes actually stand up to scrutiny.

There is also evidence that economic sanctions worsen target governments’ respect for basic human rights. Dursun Peksen explains these findings as follows:

via Are Economic Sanctions Effective? | World Politics News Review.

Next up, a speech given by Kimberly Ann Elliott, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, before the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Trade Committee on Ways and Means, October 23, 1997. Ms. Elliott first quotes President Woodrow Wilson:

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. It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted, but it brings a pressure upon the nation which, in my judgment, no modern nation could resist.

Then follows with this:

The reality, alas, has been far different from what President Wilson envisioned. The global, comprehensive, and vigorously enforced sanctions against Iraq and the former Yugoslavia have produced at best limited and tenuous results. Unilateral sanctions—even when imposed by the largest economy in the world—face far more difficult challenges, especially in an increasingly integrated international economy. Even against such small and vulnerable targets as Haiti and Panama, military force eventually was required to achieve American goals.

Extensive empirical research on the effectiveness of economic sanctions throughout this century suggests that these two cases are not unusual. Since 1970, unilateral US sanctions have achieved foreign policy goals in only 13 percent of the cases where they have been imposed. In addition to whatever effect repeated failure may have on the credibility of US leadership, other recent research suggests that economic sanctions are costing the United States $15 billion to $19 billion annually in potential exports. This, in turn, translates into 200,000 or more jobs lost in the relatively highly compensated export sector.2

via Congressional Testimony: Evidence on the Costs and Benefits of Economic  Sanctions


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How was Japan treated in the 1920’s and ’30’s and ’40’s? Was Pearl Harbor inevitable?

In the 19th century, right up to the end of WWI in 1918, Britain had maintained the world’s most powerful navy, necessary to protect her Empire,  “whatever the cost”. However, that cost proved eventually too high (Britain had a “two-power standard”, which meant “a navy equal or superior to those of any two other powers combined”). Naval force had to be partly replaced by diplomatic alliances, one of which was the 1902 Angl0-Japanese alliance which allowed Britain to reduce her naval presence in the Far East and concentrate it in Europe.

In the early 20th century, Japan became an increasingly militaristic society, partly as a result of  an 1894 regulation which stipulated that the ministers of the Navy and Army had to be serving officers, not civilians. Disenfranchised samurai formed gangs and secret societies, some more respectable than others. “Virtually all these societies practiced assassination” and there was a widespread tolerance of even vicious law-breaking when the perpetrators claimed honour as their motivation. Assassination was leniently punished and sometimes not punished at all, and “constitutional government in Japan”, meaning the rule of law, essentially broke down.

In 1922, the Anglo-Japanese Treaty was scrapped under American pressure, and replaced by a Washington conference that resulted in scrapping of ships, a size limit  and a 5:5:3 capital ship ratio for the U.S., U.K. and Japan respectively. Japan felt betrayed and ganged up on. Winston Churchill, so perceptive in many ways, was convinced Japan was too far away to ever threaten Britain’s security.


As a result of the Washington agreement and the financial necessity to limit the costs of maintaining her empire, Britain wanted stability in her Far Eastern relations and was prepared to make concessions. Japan had decided to follow the Western powers down the colonial route, and Britain was the ideal ally. “As long as Britain was Japan’s ally, the latter had a prime interest in preserving her own internal respectability, constitutional propriety and the rule of law”, but the scrapping of the Anglo-Japanese alliance put paid to that. Within Japan, influence shifted from the Foreign Ministry (for failure) and towards the military. The Nine Power treaty of 1922 had no enforcement provision and anyway enforcement in the Far East became difficult for Britain after the destruction of the Angl0-Japanese Alliance. Britain was then at a disadvantage when Japan invaded China.

By the time Japan took over Manchuria, Britain’s Far Eastern outposts were insufficiently protected and she could do nothing. Yet had America and Britain co-operated, Japan might have been contained and deterred. Pearl Harbor could only be defended by naval forces, but Singapore might have been defended by air power alone. “A strong line with Japan would then have been feasible.” This did not happen. America retreated into isolationism, and a London world economic conference planned by President Hoover for 1933 was scrapped by his successor Roosevelt. Had it taken place, it might have persuaded Japan and others that alternatives to war existed. British Premier Baldwin said, “If you enforce an economic boycott you will have war declared by Japan and she will seize Singapore and Hong Kong and we cannot… stop her.”

In addition to an aggressive and colonial ideology, Japan had another problem: low rice yields. “Japan was short  of 65 million bushels of rice a year. Agricultural productivity had levelled off in the 1920s and there then was no way of raising it further.” Rice imports tripled between 1910 and 192o, but with Japan’s main export – textiles – suffering increasing competition and tariffs, it was becoming increasingly difficult to pay for them. And emigration to the US or Australia was not an option due to exclusion laws in those two countries.

Politician and soldier  Hashimoto Kingoro wrote,

“there are only three ways left to Japan to escape from the pressure of surplus population… emigration, advance into world markets, and expansion of territory. The first door, emigration, has been barred to us by the anti-Japanese immigration policies of other countries. The second door… is being pushed shut by tariff barriers and the abrogation of commercial treaties. What should Japan do when two of the three doors have been closed against her?”

Thus Japanese belligerence, both domestic and abroad, went unchallenged, and alternatives to aggression were not explored. Ironically, the British fighter planes intended for Singapore were instead sent (on Churchill’s command) to help Stalin in his fight against Hitler.


Economic sanctions were imposed by Roosevelt in 1940, at which time only the Japanese army definitely wanted war with the U.S., then a total embargo including oil was put in place in early 1941. “Japan was reducing her oil reserves by 28,000 tons  a day” and the only way to get more was by seizing the Dutch East Indies. “The records of the policy conferences” (attended by the Emperor and various ministers) “reveal… that there was a general willingness to take risks, so that mere deterrence did not work…”


Paul Johnson, in his history of the 20th century, “Modern Times”, writes of sanctions: “Sanctions rarely work: they damage, infuriate and embitter but they do not deter or frustrate an act of aggression” (320).

Here is a site devoted to analyzing sanctions, when they work and when they don’t, and why. In the section “What makes sanctions work?” it says, ”

“The three factors that drive successful sanctions.

In sum, the controllable factors that increase the success rate of sanctions are:
intense, increasing economic pain focused on precise, logical demands, backed by broad-based cooperation among the current and potential trading partners of the target state.”

And focusing on Iran where the issue is weapons capability (like North Korea),

Analysis of all 204 sanctions episodes since 1900 can provide a predictive guide. The 204 cases indicate that high levels of cooperation occur on sanctions addressing weapons capability, such as in the current Iran case, 10% of the time (section 6.4).

via Effective Sanctions.

If sanctions are ineffective in such cases, what are the alternatives? A “surgical” pre-emptive strike like this one, over 30 years ago?


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At the moment, because of Obama’s visit to Israel, attention is on Israel and Iran. But there is no evidence that Iran has nuclear weapons (whereas Israel probably does), nor has Obama provided evidence for his statement “Iran will have a bomb within a year”. On the other hand, North Korea already has nuclear weapons and the rockets to deliver them. Surely North Korea rather than Iran is the more pressing issue?

(All non-attributed quotes above are from Johnson, Paul. Modern Times. New York: Harper Perennial Classics. 2001.)




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(Click for clearer image) Are these the only choices? Are they mutually incompatible?

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