Analysis & Opinions - METRO U.N.

Sanctions: Tool of Diplomacy, Tool of Coercion

| May 09, 2018

As a centuries-old means that states use to affect the behavior of other states, sanctions have been and are likely to remain controversial for basically two reasons: They often do not have the desired effect on government behavior or they can badly hurt civilians.

But as an alternative to the devastation of modern warfare, let alone the horrors of nuclear war, sanctions have a well-deserved place in the tool box of diplomacy.

In modern times, sanctions go beyond attempts to affect government behavior and now stigmatize political leaders as well as fight drug traffickers, nuclear proliferators, terrorists and other bad actors.

“Smart sanctions” have been developed that are focused to avoid hurting civilian populations by targeting individuals, companies, financial systems or access to transport, although they sometimes affect a larger number of people in particular over the long run.

As an alternative to war, sanctions have had a discernible impact on government behavior but have never provided a solution to the problem that triggered the sanction decision. This can only be accomplished later on as a result of converging policies of the countries involved. North Korea is a relevant example. The country has been the target of a total of nine sanctions decisions by the UN Security Council between 2006 and today. Moreover, the US, the EU, Japan and South Korea have imposed additional sanctions that together had a crippling effect on the country.

It is hard to imagine that without them Kim Jong Un would have declared his willingness to discuss a denuclearization of his country and to offer peace with the Southern neighbor. But the solution on both issues can only come as a result of negotiations.

Whereas North Korea was the target of both UN and state sanctions, Russia could not be sanctioned by the UN because of its veto power despite having violated basic international norms by annexing Crimea and intervening in East Ukraine. This is another negative aspect of the UN Charter’s permanent membership status, which perpetually excludes these states from the application of UN norms that all other members have to follow.

Nevertheless, Russia became the object of sanctions coordinated between the US and the EU, as well as of various unilateral US sanctions including actions against Russian individuals. These sanctions did not cause a withdrawal from Crimea or East Ukraine but very likely deterred further action in Ukraine, that Russia had publicly contemplated (though the counterfactual, of course, cannot be proven).

The case of the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) is another example where sanctions worked, first, to get Iran to the negotiating table and, second, to innovatively create a mix of positive incentives linking the reduction or lifting of sanctions to Iranian concessions; for example, a reduction of nuclear materials and enrichment or enhanced international control to secure its non-nuclear status. This constructive use of sanctions would have been in vain were the Trump Administration to withdraw from the agreement with probably disastrous consequences for peace in the region and the survival of the international proliferation regime.

Despite their shortcomings, sanctions are a useful tool of diplomacy as a coercive alternative to military measures, but their growing use in international politics may have an undesirable collateral effect in the long run. Reacting to this growth, states may be inclined to reduce their vulnerability to sanctions by cutting external dependencies and links and thereby undermine the interconnectedness of the globalized world.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kaiser, Karl.“Sanctions: Tool of Diplomacy, Tool of Coercion.” METRO U.N., May 9, 2018.

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