Sanctions As Policy

February 18, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

To sanction North Korea? To continue to sanction Iraq, Haiti and Cuba? To end the arms embargo against Bosnia's Muslims? American foreign policy these days is about one half part sanctions. Indeed, the U.S. has been the principal user of sanctions since 1945, but whether the glass of effectiveness is half full or half empty is an open question.

President Woodrow Wilson tried to sell America on the League of Nations by arguing for sanctions as an alternative to war. ''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.''

If only Wilson's prescription for international conflict resolution were the answer. But we know enough about sanctions now to see their weaknesses. Not just that, as in Iraq and Haiti, undue weight can fall on the poorest and weakest, but because politically they can be, if applied without forethought, quite counter-productive.

The Serbian case is the present day's outstanding failure. The wars of the former Yugoslavia are rooted in large part in the economic crisis of 1979-1989, when Yugoslavia was scissored between its need to repay a huge foreign debt and its attempt to create a market economy.

Unemployment, hyperinflation and a drastic fall in living standards, combined with bitter conflicts over federal and republican budgets, were the catalyst for political disintegration. Economic sanctions merely worsened the problems that helped trigger the war.

Sanctions required the Serbian government to reimpose state monopolies. Sanctions also gave new life to the police and armed forces, whose numbers had been reduced. President Slobodan Milosevic's personal authority was strengthened because it was he who could determine which enterprises received subsidies, which workers would be unemployed and which pensions would be paid. Nevertheless, the arms embargo has undoubtedly succeeded in decreasing the intensity of the conflict.

South Africa, in contrast, is a case where sanctions probably worked in the way they were supposed to. With South Africa, the sanctions were more selective. They did not seek to destroy the economy, only to hinder it. Never were they strong enough to induce the ''rally-round-the-flag'' mentality that total sanctions (or total bombing) inevitably produces. But they did persuade the business community to lean on the government.

How then to get sanctions right? In Haiti's case, where a rich and powerful elite controls practically everything, general sanctions appear to end up hurting the poor and strengthening the army, which comfortably sits astride its black-market businesses. The belated policy of freezing the assets of the coup leaders and revoking their U.S. and European visas are probably going to be more effective, in the long run, than any economic embargo.

In Iraq, because sanctions have been so unusually widely supported and well policed, they have compelled Saddam Hussein to agree to allow the United Nations inspectors to monitor Iraq's disarmament. Paradoxically, sanctions have probably reinforced Saddam's political grip. Now that the disarmament program is completed, sanctions should be loosened and the Bush policy of requiring Saddam's resignation should be abandoned.

In the former Yugoslavia, removing sanctions now probably would not yield much political reward. That should happen only as part of a package deal on Bosnia and Kosovo. As for the arms embargo, it must remain in place as the one instrument that stops the war escalating.

North Korea, the probable clandestine nuclear bomb maker, is the most difficult case on today's sanctions agenda. Total economic sanctions would probably solidify the regime's hold even further. But if Pyongyang persists, for all its compromises earlier this week, in refusing the International Atomic Energy Agency the right to make the ''special investigations'' it thinks are necessary, the U.N. Security Council may feel it has no choice but to impose some sanctions.

Better then they are concentrated solely on the military and high-tech sectors and the leadership's personal assets, if banked abroad. At the same time there should be a parallel effort to woo public opinion in North Korea by reducing the perceived confrontation with the South -- for example, by canceling the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

Sanctions need subtlety and skill if they are to find the weak links in an enemy's defenses. In the world we now live in, we have to study war a little less and sanctions rather more.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist.

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