The Economic Warfare Body Count

Whenever there is a debate over the efficacy of sanctioning an authoritarian state the supporters of the economic war have to resort to the equivalent of a body count to back up their claims.

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Vladimir Milov insists that sanctions on Russia are “working”:

Expecting immediate results is unrealistic and even counterproductive. Given time, sanctions may well deter Russia’s aggressive behavior.

Sanctions advocates always point to sanctions’ economic destructiveness as proof that the policy is “working,” but in most cases this doesn’t lead to the targeted state making any of the desired policy changes. Adversarial authoritarian states are least likely to make concessions under sanctions pressure, so whenever there is a debate over the efficacy of sanctioning an authoritarian state the supporters of the economic war have to resort to the equivalent of a body count to back up their claims. Nicholas Miller made this apt comparison several years ago:

Using economic damage to gauge the success of sanctions is like using body counts to measure success in counter-insurgency – it’s an indicator that your policy is having an effect, but does not necessarily imply you’re any closer to achieving strategic objectives.

While sanctions advocates are usually at pains to deny that US sanctions have caused widespread suffering in the targeted country in order to avoid the blame, they are nonetheless eager to take credit for spiking inflation, a plummeting currency, and GDP contraction to “prove” that their policy is “working.”

“Look at all the destruction we have caused!” they say, and then redefine success as nothing more than inflicting economic pain. This was a standard Trump administration defense of their “maximum pressure” campaigns. It didn’t matter if the targeted government’s behavior changed for the better (it didn’t) or if they became more conciliatory (they hadn’t), because their economies were being strangled.

Once sanctions advocates have defined success in these terms, they can say that sanctions are “working” without addressing the strategic goals that the sanctions were supposed to serve. The destructive effects of sanctions become the justification for causing more destruction. They no longer need to be able to show any discernible progress with respect to advancing US interests, because they have made hurting another country for the sake of hurting it their only real goal.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.