APeaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy:
The Ethics of Economic Sanctions
Apply this economic, peaceful, silent deadly remedy and there will be no
need for force. The boycott is what is substituted for war.
In the 1990s, economic sanctions have emerged as one of the major tools of
international governance. Although the United Nations Security Council
imposed sanctions only twice between 1945 and 1990, it has done so 11 more
times since 1990. Yet this statistic pales alongside the number of times the United
States has imposed sanctions, in concert with other nations or unilaterally. The
United States has been “the most prominent practitioner of peace time restric-
tions on trade and other economic transactions” since World War II, having tar-
geted 35 countries for sanctions just between 1993 and 1996.2 Because of the
increasing frequency with which sanctions are used, and because of the human
damage they entail, it is particularly urgent to look at their ethical implications.
This essay examines the ethical complexities of, and justifications for, “indi-
rect” sanctions, that is, sanctions imposed upon an economy at large in order to
influence the leadership. It does not consider sanctions that target individuals (for
example, by denying them visas) or direct material economic intervention (for
example, prohibiting the sale of weapons or of chemicals whose sole use is military).
The ethical problems posed by indirect economic sanctions are especially
complex because of the peculiar way in which they have been framed since the
end of World War I. Before that time, sanctions were understood as economic
warfare, and as such they fell under the rules of war. When the League of Nations
was formed, the drafters of the League’s Covenant reframed economic sanctions
as the alternative to war, a“peaceful” instrument of international diplomacy that
could effectively prevent military aggression. In the end, economic sanctions were
]Hamilton Foley, cd., Woodrotu Wikotr’s Case for the League of Nations (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1923), p. 71.
ZDavid Leyton-Brown, “Extraterritoriality in United States Trade Sanctions,” in David Leyton-
Brown, cd., The Utility of Itrtertsutiond Economic Sanctions (London: Croom Helm, 1987), quota-
tion at p. 255; and a 1997 study by the National Association of Manufacturers, cited in Richard
Haass, “Sanctioning Madness, ”Foreign Affairs 76 (November-December 1997), p. 74.
124 Joy Gordon
described in odd, paradoxical terms. The history of sanctions since that time
reflects this ambivalence: they are “peaceful” yet “deadly,” they are “potent” yet
involve no force. They are depicted as civilized and humane, in contrast to mili-
tary actions, yet devastating and intolerable to leaders engaged in wrongdoing if
they are strict enough.
If sanctions were indeed peaceful, there would be no ethical dilemma. If,
on the other hand, they were flatly understood as an act of aggression, the frame-
work of the rules of war would offer guidance for their use. It is precisely because
they do so much human damage in the name of achieving peace that it so diffi-
cult to untangle their ethical ramifications.
In the pages that follow, Iassess the moral legitimacy of sanctions in the
contexts of just war doctrine, Kantian ethics, and utilitarianism. Imake the
following arguments: sanctions are inconsistent with the principle of discrim-
ination from just war doctrine; sanctions reduce individuals to nothing more
than means to an end by using the suffering of innocents as ameans of per-
suasion, thereby violating the Kantian principle that human beings are “ends
in themselves”; an dsanctions are unacceptable from autilitarian perspective
because their economic effectiveness necessarily entails considerable human
damage, while their likelihood of achieving political objectives is low.
Moreover, alternative goals such as punishment or the expression of resolve or
moral outrage do not resolve these ethical dilemmas, but instead only offer an
unpersuasive attempt to justify sanctions in the face of their failure to achieve
their ostensible goals of preventing aggression and bringing about internation-
Each of these complementary frameworks speaks to adifferent dimension
of sanctions. Although none of them offers acomprehensive treatment, in com-
bination they allow us to address awide range of issues related to sanctions.
Targeting Innocents: Tbe Principle of Discrimination
In many regards, sanctions are the modern version of siege warfare: each involves
the systematic deprivation of awhole city or nation of economic resources.
Although in siege warfare this is accomplished by surrounding the city with an
army, the same effect can be achieved by using international institutions and
international pressure to prevent the sale or purchase of goods, as well as to stop
migration. It is sometimes argued that an embargoed nation can still engage in
marginal trade, despite sanctions; but in asiege as well there may be marginal
APEACEFUL, SILENT, DEADLY REMEDY: THE ETHICS OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS I25
ways of getting goods through gaps in the blockade. In both cases, however, the
unit under embargo or siege is amixed population rather than amilitary instal-
lation, or is entirely civilian. In both cases, the net effect is the same: the disrup-
tion or strangulation of the economy as awhole.
As Michael Walzer notes, siege is the oldest form of total war; in siege,
noncombatants are not only exposed, but in fact are more likely to be killed than
combatants, given that the goal of siege “is surrender, not by defeat of the enemy
army, but by the fearful spectacle of the civilian dead. ”3The principle of discrim-
ination in just war doctrine requires the attacker to distinguish between combat-
ants and noncombatants; between combatants who are injured and those who are
uninjured; between combatants who are armed and those who have surrendered
and are defenseless; and so forth.4 There has never been astrict prohibition
against killing civilians, or killing injured or unarmed combatants, when it is
required by “military necessity” or as an unavoidable consequence of an attack
on alegitimate military target. Acommon example is that an ammunition facto-
ry is alegitimate military target in wartime; if during the bombing of the factory
civilians who live nearby are also killed, no war crime has been committed. What
is prohibited is to target civilians, or injured or defenseless combatants, directly,
or to bomb indiscriminately where the deaths of civilians are foreseeable. Siege
warfare reverses these priorities: civilian suffering is not “collateral” damage, but
rather is the primary objective of the siege strategy, or at least the foreseeable and
direct result of siege.
Siege operates by restricting the economy of the entire community, creat-
ing shortages of food, water, and fuel. Those who are least able to survive the
ensuing hunger, illness, and cold are the very young, the elderly, and those who
are sick or injured. Thus the direct consequence of siege is that harm is done to
those who are least able to defend themselves, who present the least military
threat, who have the least input into policy or military decisions, and who are the
most vulnerable. The harm done by the enemy’s deprivation is exacerbated by
domestic policy, which typically shifts whatever resources there are to the military
and to the political leadership. This is sometimes done for security reasons, in the
belief that defending against military attack is the highest priority, more immedi-
ately urgent than the slower damage of hunger and illness to which the civilian
JMichael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 161.
4See generally Ian Clark, Wagirsg War: APhilosophical Introduction (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1988), pp. 87-97; James Turner Johnson, Just War Tradition and the Restraint of
War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 198 1); and Telford Taylor, “War Crimes,” in his
Nuretnberg and Vietnam An American Tragedy (New York: Times Books, 1970).
126 Joy Gordon
population is subjected. It may also happen because the leadership is corrupt, or
because the desperation creates conditions for black marketeering. Both of these
consequences —the suffering of the innocent and helpless, and the shifting of
resources to the military and the privileged—are as old as siege itself.
Thus, the argument can be made that siege is aform of warfare that itself
constitutes awar crime. In just war doctrine we could demand ajustification for
amilitary strategy in terms of the obligation to minimize harm to civilians: the
ammunition factory was alegitimate target, and there was no way to bomb it
without collateral damage to nearby residential areas. But siege is peculiar in that
it resists such an analysis: the immediate goal is precisely to cause suffering to
civilians. In the case of the ammunitions factory, we can answer the question, how
is this act consistent with the moral requirement to discriminate? In the case of
siege, we cannot.
Sanctions are subject to many of the same moral objections as siege. They
intentionally, or at least predictably, harm the most vulnerable and the least polit-
ical, and this is something the party imposing sanctions either knows or should
know. To the extent that economic sanctions seek to undermine the economy of a
society and thereby prevent the production or importation of necessities, they are
functioning as the modern equivalent of siege. To the extent that sanctions deprive
the most vulnerable and least political sectors of society of the food, potable water,
medical care, and fuel necessary for survival and basic human needs, sanctions
should be subject to the same moral objections as siege warfare.
Drew Christiansen and Gerard Powers argue that the just war doctrine does
not apply to peacetime sanctions in the same way that this doctrine applies to
sieges and blockades imposed as part of awar effort. The fundamental difference,
they hold, is that the use of economic sanctions is rooted in the intention to avoid
the use of armed force, as opposed to the intent to multiply the effects of wars The
distinction between sanctions-as-war and sanctions-as-nonviolent-alternative-to-
war goes back to the fundamental question, what kind of “things” are economic
sanctions? Are sanctions “a stern but peaceful act”-a punishment that inconve-
niences or embarrasses, but does no damage of the sort that raises moral issues?
Or are they aform of slow-acting but lethal warfare, which targets the innocent
and helpless in away that would constitute awar crime in amilitary context? The
implications of this ontological issue are enormous: in one view, economic sanc-
tions are attractive and can be ethically justified easily and often; in the other view,
$Drew Christiansen, S.J., and Gerard F. Powers, “Economic Sanctions and Just-War Doctrine, ”
in David Cortright and George A. Lopez, eds., Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a
Post-Cold War World? (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 102-3.
APEACEFUL, SILENT, DEADLY REMEDY: THE ETHICS OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS 127
sanctions do gratuitous, direct human damage that is ethically indefensible.
Christiansen and Powers suggest that warfare is akin to the death penalty,
whereas sanctions are more like attaching someone’s assets in acivil proceeding.G
In this analogy, the economic domain is seen as fully separate, and of adifferent
nature altogether, from the domain of power and violence. But economic harm,
while it is not directly physical, can also be aform of violence. The sanctions-as-
mere-seizure-of-assets theory, whether on the level of the individual or an entire
economy, implicitly assumes a starting point of relative abundance. Whether the
seizure of someone’s assets is inconvenient or devastating depends entirely on
what those assets are and how much is left after the seizure. “Economic depriva-
tion” is not auniform phenomenon; the loss of conveniences constitutes adiffer-
ent experience from the loss of the means to meet basic needs.
Ido not deny that the contexts in which sanctions and sieges occur maybe dif-
ferent. The intent of each may diffeq the nature of the demands maybe different, and
the options of the besieged or sanctioned states may be different. But the moral objec-
tion to sanctions does not rest on the analogy; sanctions do not have to be identical to
siege warfare in order to be subject to condemnation under just war principles. Indeed,
if the intent of sanctions is peaceful rather than belligerent, then the usual justifications
in warfare are unavailable. Iam morally permitted to kill where my survival is at stake,
and in war, Iam morally permitted to kill even innocents, in some circumstances. But
if one’s goal is to see that international law is enforced or that human rights are respect-
ed, then the stakes and the justificatory context are quite different.
Lori Fisler Damrosch has argued that sanctions warrant aparticularly
high degree of tolerance because of the importance of the international norms
they are intended to protect:
Especially in the case of norms such as the prohibitions against aggression and
genocide, which are themselves devoted to the preservation of human life, it may
be necessary to tolerate ahigh level of civilian hardship in order to prevent or at
least discourage future violations.7
Yet it is hard to make sense of the claim that “collateral damage” can be
justified in the name of protecting human rights; or that international law might
be enforced by means that stand in violation of international laws, including the
just war principle of discrimination. Thus, if sanctions are analogous to siege war-
fIbid., p. 107.
7Lori Fisler Damrosch, “The Collective Enforcement of International Norms Through Economic
Sanctions,” Ethics &International Affairs 8(1994), pp. 74-75.
128 Joy Gordon
fare, then they are problematic for the same reasons —both effectively violate the
principle of discrimination. But if sanctions are not analogous to siege, then they
are even more difficult to justify. If the goals of sanctions are the enforcement of
humanitarian standards or compliance with legal and ethical norms, then exten-
sive and predictable harm to civilians cannot. be justified even by reference to sur-
vival or military advantage. Insofar as this is the case, sanctions are simply a
device of cruelty garbed in self-righteousness.
The Suffering of Innocents as aMechanism of Persuasion:
In addition to viewing sanctions within the ethical framework offered by just war
doctrine, we should also examine them from adeontological perspective. Irefer
here to Kant’s ethical theory, which holds that all rational beings are character-
ized by “dignity,” the inherent worth of aperson that makes him or her irre-
placeable and that stands in contrast to those material things with aprice, which
can be exchanged for other things of equal or greater price without loss. This is
the basis for Kant’s claim that all rational beings have autonomy, the right and
the capacity to rule themselves. In Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals,
Kant says that it is acategorical imperative, an unconditional moral mandate
binding on all rational beings, to “act in such away that you treat humanity,
whether in your own person or in the person of another, always as an end and
never simply as ameans.”8
This ethical framework would arguably have had little to offer in the
debate over sanctions at the time that Article 16 of the Covenant of the League
of Nations was being set forth as amechanism of enforcement. The articulated
purpose of sanctions was quite narrow: it was to stop military aggression. In that
context, there were two innocent populations involved—the nonpolitical/non-
military population of the aggressor nation and the entire population of the
nation under attack. Because deontological ethics enjoins us to treat all human
beings as ends in themselves and not solely as means, it would not offer much
guidance in the situation where some innocent population (or at least asector of
the population) will be harmed, and where the issue is whether the innocents
who are harmed will be the civilian population of the aggressor nation upon
whom sanctions are imposed, or the civilian population of the attacked nations
who are the objects of military aggression. In this case, either one population is
aJames W. Ellington, 3d, trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), p. 36.
APEACEFUL, SILENT, DEADLY REMEDY: THE ETHICS OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS I29
the means to the military victory of the aggressor, or the other population is the
means to interdict the aggressor.
But deontological arguments do offer guidance in situations where mil-
itary aggression is not at issue, and where the choice therefore is not which
innocent population suffers harm, but whether an innocent population may
be harmed in the service of the political interests of aforeign state, or for the
interest of the international community in enforcing norms. Where sanctions
impose suffering on innocent sectors of the target country population for an
objective other than preventing the deaths of other innocent persons, this is
clearly incompatible with deontological ethics, since in these situations, to use
Kantian language, human beings are reduced to nothing more than ameans
to an end, where that end is something less than the lives of other human
It is sometimes argued that sanctions are defensible when the sanctioned
population consents, or has leaders who consented, or can be deemed to have
consented. If those harmed by sanctions were to consent, then arguably sanctions
would be consistent with their autonomy. Iwill look briefly at afew of the
notions of consent that have been invoked in this context: the actual consent of
those who will suffer the sanctions; the purported consent of the civilian popula-
tion to the acts of the national leaders; and the shifting of moral agency, and
implicit consent, to the target nation.
Within the history of sanctions, it is quite rare to find actual consent by those
most affected by siege or by the sanctions.g The sanctions against South Africa,
and arguably Haiti, were perhaps the only instances in the twentieth century that
could be defensible on deontological grounds. In the case of South Africa, a
number of sectors of the black population, which was directly harmed far more
than the white minority leadership, actively supported sanctions, although that
view was not unanimous.10 Similarly, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had strong
popular support for his leadership, supported sanctions against Haiti, although,
9It is not unusual, however, for sanctions to trigger a“siege mentality” in which the populace
joins with the state in akind of nationalistic determination to endure the sanctions at any cost. This
is quite different from an expression of actual consent by the citizenry to endure sanctions in order
to eventually and indirectly pressure the state into changing policies.
IOsee the overview of the internal debate over sanctions described in chapter 2of Africa Research
Centre, The Satsctiotss Weapon (Cape Town: Bucho Books, 1989).
130 Joy Gordon
as in South Africa, popular support for sanctions in Haiti was not universal or
consistent. According to one observer, there were “three distinct moments. ”The
first came with the original sanctions; there was great enthusiasm for them
among the Haitian people, who were themselves defenseless and thought sanc-
tions would hasten the departure of coup leaders. In the second moment, the
sanctions, though not welcomed with enthusiasm, were nevertheless accepted by
most of the population because coup leaders opposed them, and because the
sanctions were perceived as an act of solidarity by the international community.
In the third phase, it became clear to the Haitian people that not only had the
embargo failed to achieve its stated goals, but new financial gains were being
made precisely by those whom sanctions were supposed to target. 11
Damrosch and others have noted the importance of obtaining support for
sanctions from “authentic leaders” within the population that bears the brunt of
the economic deprivation. 12 But even that is quite different from actual con-
sent—and from actual authorization. The leader of any movement may well
decide that certain sacrifices can be borne by some for the sake of the movement;
but that does not mean that those to be sacrificed have consented. By contrast,
in Anglo-American law the notion of autonomy is reflected in the requirements
that must be met in order for an individual to consent to be harmed. Whether it
is authorization for surgery, awaiver of liability for injury, or consent to be a
subject in medical experimentation, not only must every particular individual
sign an explicit statement of consent, but consent is not valid unless the signator
has been informed of the nature and likelihood of the harm; and like every con-
tract, such an agreement is not valid in circumstances of duress or coercion. With
sanctions, the risks include malnutrition, lack of emergency medical care, lack of
fuel, and deprivation of the necessities of survival, as well as the less visible
harms of psychological trauma, lost education, lost job opportunities, and social
disintegration. Given the stakes, it would seem that acommitment to autonomy
and the integrity of the person would require that those who would be most vul-
nerable to these injuries must provide actual, explicit, and informed consent.
Where that is not the case—which is to say, in almost every case of sanctions in
the twentieth century and before-then sanctions are simply the imposition of
suffering upon the innocent, against their will.
...................................... .. ................................................................................
11 Claudette Antoine Werleigh, “The Use of Sanctions in Haiti: Assessing the Economic
Realities, ”in Lopez and Cortright, eds., Economic Sanctions, p. 162.
lZ “The Civilian lrnpactof Economic Sanctions, “in Lori Fisler Damrosch, cd., Enforcing Restraint:
Collective Intervention itsInternal Conflicts (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993)
APEACEFUL, SILENT, DEADLY REMEDY: THE ETHICS OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS 131
Damrosch frames the question of imputed consent as: “Do we assume that peo-
ple of the target state are innocent and passive bystanders, victims of their own
rules and of sanctions? Or that they have the capacity to exercise free choice? “13
The question seems to invite the response that, of course, all persons have free
will and are therefore accountable for their choices. But we know from the his-
tory of sanctions that this is not arealistic depiction of anation under sanctions.
Under sanctions, state control over the media is likely to increase, while nonstate
parties have less access to equipment and materials needed to disseminate infor-
mation.14 As families are forced to go to the black market for necessities, their
savings are eroded and their energies are directed primarily toward meeting their
immediate needs. The economic hardship to the middle class and the poor means
that they will not have enough resources to consider emigrating. Even in ademo-
cratic society, the civilian population has no direct input into particular military
and political decisions; and in an authoritarian society, this is even more true.
Thus, the answer to Damrosch’s question is no, we should not assume that
the civilian population freely chooses the decisions made by the military and
political leaders; it may not have even freely chosen the leaders themselves.
Neither should we assume that it freely chooses to stay, given the burden and cost
of emigration. It is not even clear that we can say that apopulation freely choos-
es to support national military and political decisions, in acontext of limited and
distorted information and enormous social and political pressure.
THE SHIFTING OF MORAL AGENCY
Walzer notes that siege warfare has historically been justified not only by the
assumption of consent on the part of the civilian population, but also by the shift-
ing of agency from the besieging nation to the recalcitrant leaders of the besieged.
In Walzer’s description of the siege of Jerusalem, Titus, commander of the besieg-
ing army, “lamented the deaths of so many Jerusalemites, ‘and, lifting up his
hands to heaven . . . called God to witness, that it was not his doing.’ Whose
13Ibid., p. 302.
14For ~X~mple:“Milosevic ...consolidated much of his power by implementing tight controls
and limiting both the flow and the content of public information. Although one radio and television
station and two independent papers existed, they had few resources and were greatly limited in what they
could report. ”Julia Devin and Jaleh Dashti-Gibson, “Sanctions in the Former Yugoslavia,” in Thomas G.
Weiss et al., eds., Political Gain and Civilian Pain (New York: Rowman &Littlefield, 1997), pp. 180-81.
132 Joy Gordon
doing was it?” asks Walzer.ls If the fault lies with the political and military lead-
ers of the city for their failure to surrender, then this “makes Titus himself into an
impersonal agent of destruction, set off by the obstinacy of others. ”16Britain’s
blockade of Germany in World War Icaused mass malnutrition among civilians,
which greatly increased their susceptibility to illness, although the blockade did
not actually cause starvation. According to Walzer, studies indicate that “some
half million civilian deaths, directly attributable to diseases such as influenza and
typhus, in fact resulted from the deprivations imposed by the British blockade. “17
Although the British had blockaded the entire German coast, they consistently
denied that the economic intervention was directed at German civilians.
The claim “invites ridicule,” Walzer says.
Who did the inflicting?Not the British, though they stopped the ships and
confiscated cargoes; they took aim at the German army and sought only mil-
itary aims. And then, the officialhistorian suggests,the Germans themselves
pushedciviliansinto the front lineof the economic war. . . where the British
could not help but killthem in the course of legitimate military operations.18
This is fundamentally the argument made by Haass and others that sanctions which
harm the innocent are permissible if the shortages are “the direct result” of cynical
manipulations by the state to get international sympathy.19 This position invokes the
same claim about indirection. that the countries imposing sanctions are not “caus-
ing” the harm; ratheq the leadership of the target country is “causing” the harm by
failing to comply with political demands, or by failing to distribute domestic
resources in the way that would most favor the vulnerable sectors of the population.
It is important to distinguish between the imposition of deprivation, and the
response to deprivation. Undermining acountry’s economy is still undermining a
country’s economy—it is still the initiating cause, regardless of how the sanctioned
country responds. The moral burden may broaden to include the sanctioned state
when it exacerbates the shortages; historically, this is how the sanctioned state gen-
erally responds. It is not uncommon to hear the argument that agency rests with the
target nation, because of its misconduct “It was Saddam’s choice to invade Kuwai~
it was Iraq’s fault for refusing to cooperate with UNSCOM. ”But the existence of
wrongdoing does not somehow “make” sanctions come about in away that vitiates
MWaIZer, p. 162, note 4, citing “The Wars of the Jews, ”bk. VI of The Works of Josephus, The.
Lodge, trans. (London, 1620), chap. XIV, p. 722.
16Ibid., p. 162.
17Ibid., p. 173.
1’ “Sanctioning Madness,” p. 82.
APEACEFUL, SILENT, DEADLY REMEDY: THE ETHICS OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS 133
the moral agency of institutions imposing them. Nations violate international norms
quite often; sometimes the international community responds to international
wrongdoing by military action, diplomatic protest, sanctions, or other measures.
Sometimes it does nothing. The situation itself does not compel any particular
response, Indeed, asuperpower can violate international norms with considerable
impunity. For this reason, the nation or institution imposing sanctions is still the
nation or institution that has imposed the deprivation—with choice, with intent, and
in the face of other options, ranging from protest to inaction to military invasion.
Thus, it is problematic to hold that sanctions are defensible on the grounds
that most of those subjected to their harm have implicitly consented, or have con-
sented under coercion, or can be deemed to have consented by virtue of the state’s
policies or acts. In these contexts, “consent” does not have any content that cor-
responds to our understanding of what consent is and how it works. Instead, it
seems to be aterm invoked counterfactually, to attribute choice and therefore
responsibility to those who made no choice at all, except perhaps to endure the
circumstances in which they found themselves.
Political Efficacy: The Utilitarian Justification of Sanctions
Since the formation of the League of Nations, those defending sanctions have jus-
tified them in part on the basis of utilitarian reasons: the argument is that the eco-
nomic hardship of the civilian population of the target country entails less human
harm overall, and less harm to the sanctioned population, than the military aggres-
sion or human rights violations the sanctions seek to prevent. Yet if this is so,
then—as an ethical matter—we must look at the effectiveness of sanctions. If they
do not in fact stop military aggression or human rights violations, then aproce-
dure that harms innocent sectors of the population loses its utilitarian justification.
We might begin by distinguishing between economic effectiveness and
political effectiveness. Acommon view is that the “generally accepted goal” of
sanctions is “to influence the conduct of political actors in another country who
refuse to conform to the accepted norms of international conduct. “2° Economic
effectiveness concerns “the volume of pecuniary damage or disruption inflicted,
while political effectiveness refers to the degree that desired changes, if any, are
undertaken by the target state. “21
20Lawrence J. Brady, “The Utility of Economic Sanctions as aPolicy Instrument” in Leyton-
Brown, cd., The Utility of International Economic Sanctions, p. 298.
uDona]d L. Losman, International Economic Sanctions (Albuquerque: University of New
Mexico Press, 1979), p. 1.
134 ]oy Gordon
Johan Galtung points out that the economic damage done by sanctions in
fact tends to have little likelihood of actually achieving the stated goal of forcing the
target nation to change its conduct or policies. Instead, he argues, what emerges is
an ethos of “conspicuous sacrifice. “22Far from undermining the political legitima-
cy of the target state, sanctions often trigger the opposite response:
Galtung used the term “rally-around-the-flag effect” to argue that leaders in tar-
get nations could use the economic pain caused by foreign nations to rally their
populations around their cause. Rather than creating disintegration in the target
state, sanctions would invoke nationalism and political integration.2j
The relation between economic effectiveness and political effectiveness is
not at all clear; indeed, it may be an inverse relation. Many economists and his-
torians hold that, generally, sanctions are politically ineffectual. In the twentieth
century, this assessment dates back at least to the first time the League of Nations
sought to impose sanctions on amajor military power—Italy under Mussolini—
and failed quite spectacularly.24 Rather than impeding Mussolini, the sanctions
were reported to increase patriotic fervor and support for his military project.zs
Sanctions were denounced as ineffectual in stopping aggression,zd and the League
of Nations did not survive.
Losman’s study of long-term boycotts against Israel, Cuba, and Rhodesia
notes that even where there was considerable economic damage, the only apparent
political effect was increased political integration.27 The common (though not uni-
versal) result is that “the morale-killing effects of economic sanctions often operate
. ........... . . ...... ...... ............... .................. .......................... ......................................................................................
22Johan Galtung, “On the Effects of International Economic Sanctions, with Examples from the
Case of Rhodesia,” World Politics 19 (April 1967), p. 395.
23 Ivan Eland, “Economic Sanctions as Tools of Foreign Policy, ”in Lopez and Cortright, eds.,
Economic Sanctions, p. 32.
24The League imposed sanctions on Italy in 1935 to prevent Mussolini from annexing Ethiopia,
but did not embargo coal, oil, or steel. Furthermore, the United States did not participate in the sanc-
tions (and in fact increased its sales of oil to Italy from 6.5 percent to 17 percent), nor did Austria,
Hungary, or Germany. Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott, Economic
Sanctions Reconsidered: Supplemental Case Histories, 2d ed. (Washington, D. C.: Institute for
International Economics, 1990), p. 36.
2s “Far from imposing on the Ita]ian peopleadesire to reverse their government’s PO1icY,sanctions
made the Ethiopian war popular.” George W. Baer, “Sanctions and Security: The League of Nations
and the Italian-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936,” ltrternatiotud Organization 27 (Spring1973), p. 179.
26on June 10, 1936, Neville Chamberlain said in apublic speech that sanctions had “failed to
prevent war, failed to stop war, failed to save the victims of aggression”; on June 18, Anthony Eden
told the House of Commons that “the fact has to be faced that sanctions did not realize the purpose
for which they were imposed.”Robin Renwick, Economic Sanctions (Cambridge: Center for
International Affairs, Harvard University, 1981 ), pp. 17-18.
17Losman, International Economic Sanctions, pp. 125-26.
APEACEFUL, SILENT, DEADLY REMEDY: THE ETHICS OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS
in the opposite fashion, stimulating xenophobia and strengthening the determination
of the target country to maintain its stance. “28The scholarship on sanctions has to a
large extent documented this phenomenon, though it has also described exceptions.
In the first large empirical study of the success of sanctions in the twentieth
century, published in 1985, Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott held that sanctions had in
fact been effective in about one-third of the situations in which they were imposed.29
Theirs is one of the most optimistic estimates. Others question whether sanctions
have been effective even one-third of the time.JOIt is not surprising to see historians,
political scientists, and economists echoing the observation that target nations can-
not generally be expected to change their acts or policies in response to sanctions.
Thus, when we work out the utilitarian calculus of sanctions, we see on
one side that there is not a high likelihood that sanctions will succeed in stopping
military aggression or human rights violations. On the other side of the calculus,
we see the high probability, if not inevitability, that sanctions will harm the most
Sanctions are adevice specifically tailored to harm nations with dependent
or weak economies. The economic effectiveness depends heavily on how depen-
dent the target nation is on imports. Where imports are necessary for production
or consumption, and import substitution is very costly or impossible, trade inter-
ruptions are likely to be seriously disruptive.Jl The greater the inelasticity of
demand for imported goods, the greater is the likelihood of economic disruption.
Elasticity, in turn, will depend heavily upon whether the imported goods are lux-
uries or necessities; the availability of foreign or domestic substitutes; and the time
period involved. In the short term, demand tends to be inelastic—it is difficult to
immediately replace particular goods, or to immediately adapt other goods as sub-
stitutes. Over the longer term, the economy may develop alternative means of pro-
duction, or develop processes of production that do not depend on particular
imports.sz However, this means that the country is shifting resources from other
28Diane B. Kunz, “When Money Counts and Doesn’t: Economic Power and Diplomatic Objectives,”
Diplomatic History 18 (Fall 1994), p. 461.
29Updated in Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 2d ed.
30Robert pape challenges Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott’s evaluation, arguing that in almost all of the
situations judged to indicate the efficacy of sanctions, there were in fact other factors (such as military
intervention) to which the efficacy could also be attributed. Pape concludes that of the 115 cases of sanc-
tions cited in the study, areading of the data with ahigher degree of methodological integrity shows that
in fact sanctions themselves have brought about political compliance less than 5percent of the time.
Robert Pap., “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work,” lnterwatiotral Security 22 (Fall 1997), p. 106.
The Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott analysis has also been criticized on methodological grounds by A.
Cooper Drury in “Revisiting Economic ,%rctiotss Reconsidered,” ]ormrral o~Peuce Research 35 (1998).
MLosman, International Economic Sanctions, pp. 14-15.
~~Ibid., p. 15.
136 Joy Gordon
parts of the economy. Gasoline for buses may be shifted to factories in order to
maintain production; yet if the transportation system is compromised over the
long term, the economy will simply suffer damage from adifferent source-lack of
labor, because people cannot get to work. Thus, over the long term, the effect of
economic sanctions is that the economic disruption is redistributed very broadly
across the economy. The greater the degree of economic disruption, the greater the
degree of damage to infrastructure generally, including food distribution, trans-
portation, and energy. For these reasons apartial embargo is far less effective-it
permits greater import substitution, lowers the acuteness of the crisis, and there-
fore, presumably, decreases pressure on the state.33
Large and diversified economies are virtually immune to sanctions, since
they have the economic flexibility to pay higher costs in the short run, and to
make structural changes in the long run.sq Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott note that
nations with weak or unstable economies therefore make the best targets for eco-
nomic sanctions. In asection entitled “The Weakest Go to the Wall,” they argue
that “there seems to be adirect correlation between the political and economic
health of the target country and its susceptibility to economic pressure,” and sug-
gest that their data “demonstrate that countries in distress or experiencing signif-
icant problems are far more likely to succumb to coercion by the sender coun-
try. “3sThey conclude with alist of “dos and don’ts” for those imposing sanctions,
including “Do pick on the weak and helpless. “3s Their analysis of the cases indi-
cates that sanctions are most effective when the target is much smaller than the
country imposing sanctions, and economically weak and politically unstable. In
successful cases, the average sender’s economy was 187 times larger than that of
the average target.37
Thus, sanctions offer themselves solely as mechanisms that strong
nations with large economies, or international alliances including strong
-..— “..”—... ——...- .......— —....--..——-
33Note that if asanctions regime builds in extensive humanitarian exemptions—for example, by
allowing enough economic activity to avoid large-scale unemployment—then the sanctions will be
reduced to apartial embargo.
MFo[ example, when the United States imposed agrain embargo on the USSR in 1980, in
response to Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Soviets bought grain instead from Canada and
Argentina, albeit at ahigher cost. M. S. Daoudi and M. S. Dajani, Economic Sunctions: Ideals and
Experiersces (London: Routledge &Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 160. Likewise, the Arab oil boycott
against the United States caused only economic inconvenience but not devastation, and in the long
term arguably resulted in greater economic self-sufficiency, as was the case with Germany in World
uHufbauer, Schott, and Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, pp. 97-98.
36Ibid., rule number (3), p. 114.
wKimberly Ann Elliott, “Factors Affecting the Success of Sanctions,” in Lopez and Cortright,
eds., Economic Sanctions, p. 53.
APEACEFUL, SILENT, DEADLY REMEDY: THE ETHICS OF EC ONOMrC SANCTIONS 137
nations with large economies, can effectively use against countries with weak
or import-dependent economies, or countries with unstable governments. The
reverse is not true— sanctions are not adevice realistically available to small or
poor nations that can be used with any significant impact against large or eco-
nomically dominant nations, even if the latter were to, say, engage in aggres-
sion or human rights violations, or otherwise offend the international com-
munity. This has been obvious since the reformulation of sanctions as atool of
Therefore, there is adanger that sanctions will be used “opportunistical-
ly” by powerful nations39 —for example, as aresponse by asuperpower to its
declining economic hegemony. Here we can understand the particular enthusiasm
the United States holds for sanctions; the sheer size of the U.S. economy means
that sanctions can be imposed at little cost to itself, and with no likelihood that
any other nation could retaliate in kind.
It would seem that we have lost altogether the rationale for sanctions that
was articulated in the formation of the League of Nations, It may be that sanc-
tions, and the attendant harm to innocents, can be justified as an alternative to
actual warfare; but in order to justify this choice on utilitarian grounds, we would
have to have reason to believe that sanctions in fact obtain compliance by the tar-
get state. If not, then they simply constitute the gratuitous imposition of suffering
on ahelpless population, for no ethically defensible reason.
Alternative Goals of Economic Sanctions
As political scientists and historians began documenting the general failure of eco-
nomic sanctions to achieve political goals of compliance, they also began formu-
lating other theories for what the purpose of sanctions is, or could be. As K. R.
Nossal frames the question: “The view that [economic sanctions] are an ineffective
tool of statecraft has become almost axiomatic. ”Yet, he observes, practitioners are
still as inclined to embrace and use them as they are to dismiss their efficacy. But,
he asks, “if sanctions do not work, why do states continue to impose them?”4°
. .. .......
‘8 “Sanctions, “in Evans Clark, cd., Boycotts and Peace: AReport by the Committee on
Economic Sanctions (New York: Harper &Bros., 1932), p. 104.
39Jack T. Patterson, “The Political and Moral Appropriateness of Sanctions, ”in Lopez and
Cortright, eds., Economic Sanctions, p. 90, quoting Richard Falk.
40 Kim Richard Nossal, “International Sanctions as International Punishment,” International
Organization 43 (Spring 1989), pp. 301-2.
138 JOY Gordon
To the extent that commentators have pondered the question of why
sanctions are still used—and why they are justified—they have generated two
main responses: expression and punishment. Galtung and Lundborg, in docu-
menting the failure of sanctions to achieve compliance with the stated political
objectives, argue that sanctions should not be seen as “instrumental. “41
Sanctions are not really designed to achieve compliance, they assert, but rather
are “expressive.” Agovernment may consider sanctions useful if they serve to
“declare its position to internal and external publics or help win support at
home or abroad. “42 It is common enough to hear sanctions discussed in these
terms—” It’s important that we send amessage that this type of conduct is unac-
ceptable to the international community. “43 If we view sanctions in this light,
then they are no longer afailure. For example, after Soviet troops entered
Afghanistan, President Carter imposed agrain embargo on the USSR, which
President Reagan lifted in 1981. The Soviets did not withdraw from
Afghanistan until 1988.44 If we look at sanctions from an instrumental point of
view, they were clearly afailure. But sanctions could also “be interpreted as
having been motivated in part by adesire to signal resolve and leadership to the
domestic public during an election year,” Nossal observes, suggesting that as an
act of expression, the sanctions were in fact successful.4s
However, “sending amessage,” while ordinarily alegitimate undertaking
for astate, becomes ethically problematic if the means of communication consist
of depriving vulnerable sectors of aforeign population of basic necessities. While
sanctions against aggression might be justified on utilitarian grounds, sanctions
as ameans of sending amessage cannot claim the same moral legitimacy. And
while deontological ethics might not be able to raise aparticular objection to
sanctions that prevent aggression— since in either case, some innocent population
will suffer—the same cannot be said of sanctions as expression. Where “sending
41Johan Galtung, “pacifism from aSociological Point of View,” Jotmsu/ Of Cottffict Resolution 3
(March 1959), pp. 67-84; and Per Lundborg, The Economics of Export Embargoes: The Case of the
U.S.-Soviet Grain Suspension (London: Croom Helm, 1987).
4ZRenwick, Economic Sanctiotss, p. 85. Kaempfer and Lowenberg join them in rejectingthe “tra-
ditional” view of sanctions as instrumental, and argue that “sanctions might have an altogether dif-
ferent goal”—which is to serve the interests of pressure groups within the sanctioning country, and
to obtain some utility from taking amoral stance against the objectionable behavior of other
nations. William H. Kaempfer and Anton D. Lowenberg, “The Theory of International Economic
Sanctions: APublic Choice Approach, ”American Economic Review 78 (Sept. 1988), p. 786.
43 See, for example, “UN Sends aMessage to Iraq, Suspends Review of Sanctions, ”Chicago
Tribune, Sept. 10, 1998; or “Nuclear Crisis Sparks Call for Tougher Sanctions, Advocates Want the
Clinton Administration to Send aMessage,” ]ournul of Commerce, June 1, 1998.
44Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, PP. 163-66.
4$Nossal, “International Sanctions as International Punishment, ”P. 316.
APEACEFUL, SILENT, DEADLY REMEDY: THE ETHICS OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS 139
amessage” or “signaling resolve” or “expressing outrage” is the purpose of sanc-
tions, the sanctions patently entail the use of human beings as simply ameans to
an end; human suffering becomes merely adevice of communication. Thus this
purpose is unacceptable on deontological as well as utilitarian grounds.
The second major alternative justification of sanctions is punishment. If we
consider retribution to be the purpose of sanctions, Nossal argues, then we have
another means of solving the problem presented by the “failure” of sanctions.
Sanctions are afailure only if we expect them to achieve changes in policies or con-
duct of other nations, whereas “retributive punishment, by its very nature, always
‘works’”; and, he suggests, “the desire to punish will always be an integral factor
in sanctions. “46 Frederik Hoffman says that sanctions assume that there are
“morally ‘good’ and morally ‘bad’ nations, and it is implied in the very term ‘sanc-
tion’ that this measure is not just any political action; it is intended to be used
against nations that deserve ‘punishment.’ “47Yet it is not clear that the notion of
“good” and “bad” nations is aplausible one, despite the ease with which terms
like “rogue nation” are used. Indeed, the notion of a“rogue” nation is highly con-
trived, and rooted more in the institutional interests of political actors than in any
fundamental concept of international ethics.48 Moralistic claims are deeply inter-
twined with geopolitical gamesmanship, with tendencies toward nationalistic self-
congratulation, and with the tendency to mistake one’s own political strength for
moral superiority. Nossal observes that in the absence of asuperordinate moral
authority, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish legitimate accusations of wrong-
doing from self-serving political realism— acts that are virtually identical can be
deemed outrageous and an offense to international law, or amisfortune for which
no one is to blame, depending on whose interests are at stake.4q
But let us assume that particular acts, such as military aggression, are
inherently wrong, and that it is appropriate for the international community to
A~Ibid., pp. 31S, 321.
wCCTheFunctions of Economic Sanctions: AComparative Analysis, ”~ournal Of peace Research 4
(April 1967), p. 144.
48See Michael Klare’s discussion in his Rogue States and Nuclear Outkzrus (New York: Hill and
Wang, 1995) of how the “rogue doctrine” came to be articulated by the U.S. military as aconcep-
tual framework that would provide ajustification for the size and nature of the U.S. military in the
face of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Eastern bloc.
wNossa] mentions “the markedly different international reaction” to the destruction by aSoviet
fighter of Korean Airlines flight 007 in September 1983 (which triggered diplomatic retaliation and
limited sanctions by the United States and several other countries) and the destruction by aU.S.
cruiser of Iran Air flight 655 in July 1988. “Many Western leaders called [the KAL incident] an act
of ‘murder.’ . . . In 1988, by contrast, the downing of 655, with the loss nf 290 lives, was widely
characterized as a‘tragic accident.’” Nossa’1, “International Sanctions as International Punishment,”
p. 307, n. 29.
140 Joy Gordon
condemn these acts. Is it appropriate to view anation as analogous to aperson?
Punishment-entirely aside from the issue of its ethical legitimacy or deterrent
effect—is acoherent undertaking only when the wrongdoer is the same entity as
the one who is punished. There is no “punishment” when the person punished is
separate from the wrongdoer and bears t-m responsibility for the wrongful acts.
Yet “punishing the wrongdoer” is very much the language by which sanctions are
Complete and immediate severance of all relations may appear at first ...to be
too severe. ...But it should not be forgotten that the aggressor is fully aware in
advance of the consequences of its act.so
However, if the wrongdoer is not the same person who is punished,
then the theory of retribution is not coherent. No punishment has taken place
when Acommits acrime, and B—his grandmother or employee or neighbor
who had no involvement and no voice in the matter—bears the consequences.
Instead, awrongdoer remains untouched and an innocent person is gratu-
If the intent is to punish the wrongdoer, under what circumstances can we
say that the wrongdoer includes the sectors of the population who do not partic-
ipate, directly or indirectly, in the decisions and policies of the government? This
question becomes more acute in authoritarian regimes where information is high-
ly controlled by the state and popular participation is actively suppressed; and
more acute still when the costs of the sanctions are shifted by the ruling elite to
those who are already politically disenfranchised and economically marginal.
Indeed, this is the likely outcome of sanctions.
The consistent failure of sanctions to achieve political ends undermines
the utilitarian justification. When we consider goals other than political com-
pliance-specifically, expression and punishment—we encounter equally dis-
turbing problems. If the goal of sanctions is expression, then we are using the
suffering of innocents as amere means of expressing aviewpoint, and we have
lost altogether the utilitarian justification. If the goal is punishment, then we
are improperly relying on the analogy of the single person, insofar as we are
treating leadership and civilians indiscriminately as part of the same entity.
This would be inconsistent with, among other things, the just war principle of
soWhitton and Gonsiorowski, “Sanctions,” p. 95.
APEACEFUL, SILENT, DEADLY REMEDY: THE ETHICS OF ECONOMIC SANCTIONS 141
Many of those who defend sanctions do not argue that damage to innocents is
morally acceptable, but rather that this damage is not inherent in sanctions and
could in principle be mitigated or avoided altogether. Where measures are taken
to minimize civilian harm, the argument goes, sanctions are ethically defensible.
But this optimism is inconsistent with the nature of economic sanctions, as well
as with the history of sanctions and the logic of the vested interests created by
sanctions. If economic sanctions are motivated by an intent to do economic dam-
age, then partial sanctions and humanitarian exemptions will allow the target
nation to adjust its economy to minimize the overall damage, undermining the
intentions of the political actors imposing the sanctions. The more complete the
sanctions, the more effective they will be, in terms of economic damage; but that
in turn means that the economy as awhole will be undermined. The greater the
degree to which the economy is generally undermined, the greater the damage to
the civilian population, outside the military and political leadership. The greater
the damage to the civilian population, the more serious the harm will be to the
most vulnerable sectors—infants, the elderly, the sick, the handicapped, pregnant
women, widows with children. Sanctions that are economically effective neces-
sarily entail the greatest harm to those who are the most vulnerable and the most
disenfranchised from power.
The ethical dilemma is not resolved by placing blame on the target state
for its initial wrongdoing or for its response to economic crisis. We know from
the history of sanctions, and of sieges and blockades in wartime, that the state
will generally increase the proportion of the economy that goes to the support of
the political leadership and to the military, for any of anumber of reasons:
because national security is legitimately seen as the highest priority, or because the
nature of the “siege mentality” is that the leadership will first protect itself, or
because desperate need for basic goods creates opportunities for black marke-
teering. This may shift part of the moral responsibility to the target state, but it
does not vitiate the moral agency that resides in the state that initiated the crisis
by imposing sanctions in the first place, particularly in light of the predictability
of the outcome.
The use of sanctions is even more troubling if we acknowledge that the
odds are not good that any political ends will be achieved by sanctions. Even if
the end is one that could justify the human cost of sanctions—such as stopping
the one thing we know about sanctions is that they are gen-
erally unlikely to achieve their goal. Alternative y, we could frame the “goals” of
142 Joy Gordon
sanctions not in terms of political ends, but in terms of punishment or symbolic
expression. However, these cannot claim the ethical justification that was invoked
when sanctions were seen as the means of stopping war—that harm to innocents
may be justified when it is for the purpose of preventing afar greater harm.
Establishing criteria for the ethical use of sanctions does not resolve these
contradictions, but instead masks them. To say that sanctions are ethical as long
as we make sure to minimize civilian harm is to mask the fact that sanctions by
their nature cause harm to civilians directly and primarily. It is like using apick-
axe for brain surgery the nature of the instrument suggests that targeting certain
areas with precision and effectiveness, without killing the patient in the process,
is not going to happen. It is disingenuous to be surprised or apologetic when sanc-
tions turn out to do no harm to aruling elite, to achieve none of the ostensible
goals of the sanctions regarding “unacceptable behavior” or “punishment of
international outlaws, ”and to be generally ineffectual for much of anything
besides rhetorical posturing and the psychological gratification of having done