The Evils of Economic War

Economic warfare is warfare, but it is rarely treated as such when policymakers are debating whether they should employ this weapon.

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Francisco Rodriguez reports the findings of a new paper on the destructive effects of sanctions:

The evidence decisively shows that sanctions make living conditions worse in target countries. I looked at 32 academic papers that estimated their effect. Of these, 30 found consistently negative effects on measures ranging from poverty, inequality and growth to health conditions and human rights.

The magnitude of the harm is dramatic. One study estimated that sanctions would lead to a decline in a state’s gross domestic product by as much as 26 per cent – equivalent to that in the Great Depression. Another found falls in female life expectancy of 1.4 years – similar to the estimated effect on global mortality of the pandemic. In many cases, the harm is similar to that suffered during armed conflicts, making economic sanctions possibly the deadliest weapon used by western powers [bold mine-DL].

Economic warfare is warfare, but it is rarely treated as such when policymakers are debating whether they should employ this weapon. The U.S. has engaged in armed conflict reflexively over the last thirty years, and it has been even more cavalier in waging economic war. Policymakers know in advance that economic warfare won’t achieve anything useful, but many still endorse waging economic war because they don’t take its deadly consequences seriously and because they take for granted that the US has the right to inflict punishment on target states at will. Their desire to be seen “doing something” about some international problem counts for more in their minds than the lives and welfare of innocent people.

Sanctions advocates often present using this weapon as a peaceful alternative to war rather than acknowledging that it is a different form of warfare, and they do this to make an indiscriminate and cruel policy seem humane by comparison. The illusion that economic warfare is a humane option makes it much easier for politicians and policymakers to endorse it, and the fact that the costs are borne by people in the targeted country makes it politically safe for them to support. When confronted with the overwhelming evidence of the harm that sanctions cause, they will usually deny that their policy harms ordinary people and insist that it somehow magically only hurts the targeted government.

In his paper, Rodriguez marvels at how such obviously harmful and failed policies continue:

The evidence surveyed in this paper shows that economic sanctions are associated with declines in living standards and severely impact the most vulnerable groups in target countries. It is hard to think of other cases of policy interventions that continue to be pursued despite the accumulation of a similar array of evidence of their adverse effects on vulnerable populations [bold mine-DL]. This is perhaps even more surprising in light of the extremely spotty record of economic sanctions in terms of achieving their intended objectives of inducing changes in the conduct of targeted states.

If broad sanctions were judged solely by their results, it is hard to see why a rational policymaker would ever support them. The proof that they do far more harm than good is extensive and well-established by now, and their lack of success in changing regime behavior is proverbial. The trick is that sanctions are usually judged by the intentions of their senders rather than by the effects that they have in the real world.

Read the rest of the article at Eunomia

Daniel Larison writes 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.

6 thoughts on “The Evils of Economic War”

  1. Economic sanctions may not be physical warfare but they are still warfare. The average people living in the nations suffer from the sanctions & the governments stay intact. The leaders of the countries are not affected. The people do not rise up to overthrow the governments.
    The US meddles in other nations’ affairs by staging coups, fighting wars for regime change although the regimes do not threaten other nations. After the Gulf War & long before the Iraq war began, the US & UK bombed Iraq from the No-Fly Zones & had the UN impose sanctions against Iraq which led to starvation of the people. The UN’s Oil For Food Program restricted the amount of food Iraq could buy.

    1. People who die as a result of imposed sanctions are just as dead as people who died from being shot or torn apart by a bomb explosion. And their death was probably a lot slower and more painful.

  2. Sure as a general principle they cause harm but do they cause the action they are intended to force?
    With Russia it isn’t stopping the war and they are working out ways to overcome them that will reorder economic blocs.
    So with these the economic harm is not such that they will cause the wanted thing to occur.
    Another failed attempt at sanctions …

  3. Yes, but the root of this problem is dependence on international trade. For environmental reasons alone, things should be made and bought locally. This article shows the financial harms that can also be caused by international trade. There is no inherent reason why any country needs to depend on international trade, and the elimination of this unnecessary dependence is what needs to be addressed.

    Not to mention that economic warfare doesn’t cause any environmental harm like physical warfare does.

    To be clear, the U.S. is the problem here, as usual. I don’t support U.S. sanctions, because they’re always on countries that oppose the U.S. empire, which I also oppose. But if these countries would just make and buy their own stuff, they wouldn’t need international trade. I don’t want everyone to become rich like Americans or western Europeans, because that would just cause more environmental and ecological devastation (rich people in the countries mentioned should instead give up their opulent wealth; we need people to live simply & naturally, which we’re admittedly very far from and which will therefore take a very long time to achieve, not to all aspire to be like rich white people).

    1. The root of the problem is dependence on the dollar. That will take time to resolve, but the process has started.

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