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Embargoes and Sanctions Prop Up Regimes, Not Topple Them

Diplomats, when frustrated by totalitarian regimes, resort to sanctions and embargoes to make a point. But do these actually work in toppling tinpot dictators? The evidence suggests otherwise.

Written by johnleemk on 5:06:59 am Mar 10, 2007.

A common tool of diplomats when faced with recalcitrant totalitarian or authoritarian regimes is to exert force via sanctions or embargoes. By cutting off trade with these defiant regimes, the thinking goes, we will bring them to their knees.

How true is this thinking? Not very much, apparently. Most regimes which have been subjected to trade sanctions in the past only saw their dictators become more obscenely rich and powerful, while their people suffered in silence.

In Iraq, after all, the sanctions merely starved the Iraqis while Saddam continued with his merrymaking. In North Korea, the sanctions have kept Kim Jong-Il as alive and kicking as ever, even while he continues to repress his people. And let's not forget Cuba, which has been aggressively embargoed by the US for almost half a century, and whose communist regime is still going strong.

The only nation where embargoes or sanctions can be said to have been effective is South Africa. I recall vividly images of South African planes having to take long detours over international airspace when flying to London, simply because no African country would permit South African aircraft to fly over them.

Yet, South Africa remains the exception, not the rule. In most other cases, trading with totalitarian regimes has brought more benefits than disadvantages.

After all, how did communism collapse? Was it brought down by sanctions and embargoes, or by an exchange of ideas, as would accompany trade? It was obviously the latter. By bringing things as mundane as Beatles records and pop cultural artifacts into the Soviet Union, the Russians became acutely aware that life under capitalism was not at all as bad as the communists would have it.

Similarly, why is China beginning to open up and reform itself? Why is it trying to have local government elections (even though it can't even enforce the results)? Is it because they've been cut off from the global economy, or is it because they're more bound up with the fate of the world than ever?

Again, the answer is clearly the latter. The Chinese government is becoming aware that trade is highlighting the differences between its society and others, and is also highlighting internal inequalities, and is now taking action to resolve these issues.

The list really could go on and on. South Korea turned from an authoritarian regime to a real democracy at the same pace as its economy and trade grew. So did Taiwan. Vietnam too is on the same road.

Clearly, South Africa is the only outlier that our hypothesis cannot explain. Why couldn't we end apartheid with trade? One argument I've seen put forth suggests that South Africa, despite its own horrid policies, cannot be defined as a really authoritarian or totalitarian regime.

After all, the whites had the vote in South Africa. It was a pseudo-democracy. And even though the South Africans were cut off from the global economy, because their leaders did not impose controls on freedom of information and thought, the whites were acutely aware that they were international pariahs — and most of them were not happy about it.

This, then, is why sanctions brought down apartheid — because in the first place, South Africa was not a real totalitarian regime.

Trade has many benefits. It brings about a more efficient economy, and improves the living standards of all. But it also has less tangible and less obvious benefits — such as supporting democracy and freedom of thought. Perhaps there is some truth to the aphorism that the freer the market, the freer the people.