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Analysis
G7 right to hold back on Russia, Syria

G7 right to hold back on Russia, Syria

Sanctions have a long history of futility

by Brian Reading in London

Thu 13 Apr 2017

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Common sense prevailed on Tuesday when G7 foreign ministers rejected the US- and UK-proposed sanctions on Russia and Syria following the 4 April chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun. Sanctions by themselves would not be enough to convince Vladimir Putin to abandon his strategic relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. By provoking a US response, Assad has made it harder for Putin to renounce him.

The US should learn the lessons of sanctions history. Sanctions are rarely effective and have been known to lead to war. Big countries and collective action may succeed against small nations, although examples are sporadic. Banning exports to the target country has limited effect. If payments can be made, its essential imports may be obtained elsewhere or as re-exports from third countries.

Likewise, arms bans work only when there are no alternative suppliers of sophisticated weapons. Banning imports from the target and freezing assets is often more effective. However, in practice sanctions are implemented by countries to pacify domestic opinion – their effectiveness, or otherwise, is seldom the primary concern.

In 432 BC, the Athenian empire imposed economic sanctions on Megara, which contributed to the start of the Peloponnesian war with Sparta, a close ally of the Megarians. In 1806 Napoleon Bonaparte forced allies Russia and Spain to join France in banning all trade with Britain. The embargo placed great strain on the continent, and caused little damage to Britain. In 1810 Moscow opted out of the blockade, partly inspiring Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.

The League of Nations called for sanctions on Italy in 1935 in retaliation for its invasion of Abyssinia, to no avail. In July 1941 the US banned oil exports to Japan and froze Japanese assets. The attack on Pearl Harbor followed in December, which drove Washington to enter the second world war. US sanctions against Cuba were imposed in 1960 – 57 years later, they have failed to provoke a regime change on the island.

I had first-hand experience of the operation of failed sanctions against Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, after Ian Smith, its prime minister between 1964-79, declared unilateral independence from the British in 1965. I was then a temporary civil servant and represented the UK department of economic affairs as joint-secretary of the official committee on sanctions against Rhodesia. The late David Lomax from the Treasury department was the other secretary. I provided economic advice, while he dealt with executive action and wrote the minutes of meetings. Lomax was on holiday the week before Easter 1966 and the committee met the day before Good Friday, 51 years ago today.

Landlocked Zambia brought in its oil by rail through Rhodesia from Beira, the Mozambique port. The sanctions meant that routes through Rhodesia were cut off. The oil was instead trucked in drums around the Rhodesian border. I was instructed to telegraph the British ambassador in Zambia to purchase several thousand empty oil drums. The committee meeting ended late and everyone else left for the Easter holiday. I had not the faintest idea how to send a telegraph to Zambia.

A solution sprang to mind: I omitted all references to the instruction in the minutes, and never heard another thing about it. The civil servants were satisfied they had done something by issuing the instruction. They did not bother to find out whether it had had any effect. This story from 51 years ago may yet contain lessons for today’s tortuous experiences in the Middle East.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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