A few years ago, when I began doing research about US policy towards Cuba, one of my interests was on the global use of economic sanctions. One very informative study came from the researchers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics (IIE), and their book Economic Sanctions Reconsidered (now in its third edition). This very thorough examination of economic sanctions, and its various uses all over the world and at different periods in recent history, was very enlightening and made an impact in the field when it was first published. Today, critical assessments of economic sanctions (and other forms of sanctions) are frequently conducted by academic and sanctioning institutions, such as inside the UN.
As I read more about international sanctions, I also tried to consider its psychological interpretation in the form of "indirect aggression" (such as harms inflicted circuitously), and then later its moral applications. The idea of sanctions as indirect aggression is not far-fetched, especially when one considers the historical uses of blockades and siege warfare, and realizes that they share the same goals. By the end of the first World War, nations eventually noticed how they had to change their military strategies to avoid massive slaughter. As a result, then-US President Woodrow Wilson saw sanctions as a way to avoid such direct conflict:
"Apply this economic, peaceful, silent deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. The boycott is what is substituted for war."
But, I never understood how something described as "deadly," or a substitute for war, would bring about peace, or positive change. Furthermore, provided that the research by IIE found that international sanctions have no more than an estimated 33% chance of success (with unilateral sanctions having less success), one also begins to question the use of such policy. The embargo on Cuba raises such simple questions, and considering its long and recent history one can see how the embargo is viewed as a form of aggression against Cuba from the US. Thus, the burden of its justification lies heavily on those who continue to support this form of indirect aggression, and only reasonable and honest to be critical of its supporters.
Constant changes in our global society compels us to review our past actions and beliefs, and again make new judgments on issues and moral dilemmas. In the case of US sanctions, IIE explains the need for such a reassessment [PDF]:
"Since the 1960's, however, trade and financial patterns have become far more diversified, new technology has spread more quickly, and the US foreign aid budget has virtually dried up with the exception of selected countries and objectives, the war of terror, and combating AIDS. Recovery in Europe and the emergence of Japan have created new, competitive economic superpowers, and economic progress worldwide has reduced the pool of truly vulnerable target countries. The most obvious and important explanation for the decline in effectiveness of US sanctions is the relative decline of the US position in the world economy."
From this critical view, one need only go one step further and consider the moral or ethical implications of a specific policy, namely economic sanctions.
Joy Gordon from the Carnegie Council, a research institute whose mission is to "encourage and give a voice to a variety of ethical approaches to the most challenging moral issues in world politics," in 1999 provided some strong arguments on the ethics and morals of economic sanctions, a subject she has written about extensively.
"Many of those who defend sanctions do not argue that damage to innocents is morally acceptable, but rather that this damage is not inherent in sanctions and could in principle be mitigated or avoided altogether. Where measures are taken to minimize civilian harm, the argument goes, sanctions are ethically defensible. But this optimism is inconsistent with the nature of economic sanctions, as well as with the history of sanctions and the logic of the vested interests created by sanctions. If economic sanctions are motivated by an intent to do economic damage [such as the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and Helms-Burton of 1996], then partial sanctions and humanitarian exemptions [such as the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000] will allow the target nation [e.g. Cuba] to adjust its economy to minimize the overall damage, undermining the intentions of the political actors imposing the sanctions."
"The more complete the sanctions, the more effective they will be, in terms of economic damage; but that in turn means that the economy as a whole will be undermined. The greater the degree to which the economy is generally undermined, the greater the damage to the civilian population, outside the military and political leadership... Sanctions that are economically effective necessarily entail the greatest harm to those who are the most vulnerable and the most disenfranchised from power."
"To say that sanctions are ethical as long as we make sure to minimize civilian harm is to mask the fact that sanctions by their nature cause harm to civilians directly and primarily."
Gordon, in another article, also addresses the morals of sanctions through Just War theory:
"I do not deny that the contexts in which sanctions and sieges occur may be different, the intent of each may differ, the nature of the demands may be different, and the options of the besieged or sanctioned states may be different. But the moral objection to sanctions does not rest on the analogy; sanctions do not have to be identical to siege warfare in order to be subject to condemnation under just war principles. Indeed, if the intent of sanctions is peaceful rather than belligerent, then the usual justifications in warfare are unavailable. I am morally permitted to kill where my survival is at stake; and in war, I am morally permitted to kill even innocents, in some circumstances. But if one's goal is to see that international law is enforced or that human rights are respected, then the stakes and the justificatory context are quite different. It is hard to make sense of the claim that 'collateral damage' can be justified in the name of protecting human rights; or that international law might be enforced by means that stand in violation of international laws, including the just war principle of discrimination."
These serious criticisms of economic sanctions have made their impact. Currently, sanctioning institutions, like the UN, prefer "targeted sanctions" or "smart sanctions" that have more focus on travel and financial restrictions against targeted political leaders. Yet, this change in practice should not discourage any more serious criticism.
Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute (and blogger for the Cuban Triangle) recently addressed some of the ethical concerns over the US embargo, namely the recent restrictions on family travel to Cuba outlined in the 2004 report by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. Peters, like Gordon, examines these sanctions through Just War principles:
"By their very nature, the new family sanctions do not discriminate. In fact they target the welfare of ordinary citizens, regardless of the fact that the focus of policymakers is the secondary economic impact on the Cuban government when fewer visits take place, and fewer gift parcels and cash remittances arrive."
"The Bush Administration's Cuba family sanctions have precisely the impact that Just War theory teaches states and statesmen to avoid: They harm innocents while leaving the king unscathed. The restrictions on visits and material assistance hurt the Cuban families who are their direct target -- but they are of little to no consequence to the Cuban government except as fodder for propaganda."
While Peters' astute examination focuses on the ethics of the Cuban family travel restrictions, he refrains from making similar judgments on the entire US embargo towards Cuba: "I do not believe that countries have a God-given right to trade with one another or that our unilateral trade embargo is in itself unethical... There are moral virtues to be found in [free trade], but I view the overall free trade issue through a practical, not a moral prism."
But, some scientific evidence has recently convinced me that perhaps there is a need to view global trade through a moral prism. Just last month, Michael Shermer, monthly columnist for Scientific American, made a compelling argument about why the US should trade with Cuba, based on recent scientific studies.
Shermer, a libertarian, who recently argued that "[m]arkets are moral" because they are based on an innate human "moral emotion of 'reciprocal altruism'," has taken one step forward in examining international economic sanctions by considering economic evolution, or Evonomics. According to Shermer, our relative wealth and diversity in retail products is due to market capitalism that evolved as a "complex adaptive system." Just like in biological evolution, "[i]n economic evolution, our material economy proceeds through the production and selection of numerous permutations of countless products." Shermer highlights this phenomenon through the obvious wealth differences between an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe from South America (the Yanomamö people) and residents of Manhattan. But, there is also cultural evolution involved here. Shermer notes that "[i]n addition to being fierce warriors, the Yanomamö are also sophisticated traders, and the more they trade the less they fight." In the end, trade becomes an important social adhesive that deters conflict and eventually leads to wealth and prosperity.
Following this logic, Shermer deduces that trade (when viewed through Evonomics) evolved as a way to create stability and security within competing tribes (or between any identified social groups), and that "cooperation that goes into making trade successful accentuates amity and attenuates enmity." Shermer cites some very interesting scientific studies that show how trade can be viewed as a form of exchange that increases trust and cooperation between partners. According to the studies, the human brain reacts positively to these exchange exercises and becomes active in producing several gratifying feelings, one being cooperation and trust due to the neuro-chemical oxytocin.
Shermer concludes that "free trade makes people more trusting and trustworthy, which makes them more inclined to trade, which increases trust … creating a self-enforcing cycle of trust, trade, freedom, and prosperity."
While I personally do not support all libertarian doctrines, I do support means that encourage cooperation and peace. And it should be obvious too that most Libertarians in the US oppose the US embargo towards Cuba, since most oppose the use of economic sanctions (or any barriers to free trade) altogether. This fact also reveals a glaring contradiction in those who continue to defend the US embargo, but somehow also defend free market principles.
Anyway, if we accept Shermer's argument that trade will increase feelings of trust and cooperation, and hopefully friendly relations between nations, then one might feel morally compelled to advance such an argument, especially if one considers that the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells us that "it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations." When viewed as an American, one should also consider that the United States wields great power and influence, and thus has an even greater responsibility than other smaller nations to adhere to the moral norms of international law and human rights. Thus, trade can become one way to promote global cooperation, and then further the cause of human rights.
But, with this perspective in mind, it should also become apparent that there are many more problems in the world that require remedies far beyond increased global trade. The latest World Report by Human Rights Watch highlights these various problems, and also considers how US power and influence has found it "convenient to appear credulous" to violators of human rights. The World Report does not criticize the US for trading with dictators of the world, but with having "fallen victim to the tendencies to bank on the 'democrat' [in reality the dictator] rather than democratic principles."
"If [established democracies] accept any dictator who puts on the charade of an election, if they allow their commitment to democracy to be watered down by their pursuit of resources, commercial opportunities, and short-sighted visions of security, they will devalue the currency of democracy. And if dictators can get away with calling themselves 'democrats,' they will have acquired a powerful tool for deflecting pressure to uphold human rights."
The US, and its citizens, have a great responsibility to evaluate their policies seriously and apply strict principles that defend the cherished values of democracy and human rights. These are ethical and moral decisions to make, but must nevertheless be argued. But, in the case of economic sanctions, its supporters have a much heavier burden to bear, especially in the face of facts that no longer justify its cruel application.
[Read the Human Rights Watch World Report chapter on Cuba.]
[And the chapter on the United States.]