In the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has repeatedly been confronted with a spectre of governments committing terrible violence against their own people. More often than not, the U.S. has preferred to address these conflicts from afar. For the most part, the American people have been allergic to the prospect of their government sending their military – their relatives, friends, and fellow citizens - to intervene in conflicts that do not seem to have much to do with them. So instead, the favourite alternative has been the imposition of economic sanctions on the countries and regimes in which this violence is taking place. Right now, we are seeing this play out before our eyes in Syria. And though the situation is much different in Iran, we can see how popular this tool has become for addressing conflicts that Americans do not foresee coming to their own shores any time soon. How are we to assess this situation? Should we see it as perhaps an indication that the U.S. is not as militaristic as it is often accused of being? Or should we see it as a sign that self-interest has completely won the day in U.S. foreign policy, to the exclusion of considerations of what is best for people thousands of miles beyond their shores? Though it may be uncomfortable to do so, we need to consider that the latter may best reflect U.S. motivations. Economic sanctions, I want to argue, are either too destructive to be just or too weak to be effective. As an American Christian myself, I am convinced that their popularity represents a lack of political will to actually come to the aid of our attacked neighbours, men and women for whom Christ also died.
Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps the newest form of economic sanctions – so-called targeted, or smart, sanctions – will turn out to be our most effective tool in repelling the violent tendencies of oppressive regimes. The recent history of economic sanctions, however, does not make the prospect look very promising. International political economists can only agree on one case where sanctions definitely worked: those imposed on South Africa in the 1980s. There, an international consensus developed saying the apartheid system and the regime that enforced it had to go. The international community came together and imposed tough economic sanctions, and these sanctions are given part of the credit for ending apartheid in that country. Beyond that single case, it’s not all that clear that economic sanctions have been very effective. Heavy sanctions were imposed on Iraq in the 1990s and they did not really work, at least not in the way they were intended to. They were effective at crippling Iraq’s economy and creating a humanitarian crisis, but they were not effective in producing substantive political change.
The 1990s, in fact, have come to be called by ethicists and policy experts “the sanctions decade.” Once the Cold War ended, there was suddenly room for greater international cooperation in resolving conflicts. Since the world’s largest militaries were drawing down their forces and arsenals, economic pressure was the most convenient way of addressing the conflicts that arose in the 1990s. Donald Losman, a leading expert on sanctions, points out that sanctions are tools that seek to avoid armed force. They use economic pressure to indirectly apply political pressure. This is probably why they were not all that effective. Until recently, sanctions primarily targeted a country’s general economic well being, in the hope that the people in that country would get fed up with supply shortages, high unemployment, etc. and then demand political change. This seems like it could work if (and it is a big if) the people had enough of a voice to influence their government’s policies. But many of the countries that were targeted with sanctions are not democratic. Their governments simply do not respond to political pressure that easily. So in the 1990s, conflicts that were addressed by economic sanctions alone went largely unresolved.
That brings us to the modern day sanctions against Iran and Syria, which are dubbed as “smart sanctions.” They are considerably different than the sanctions of previous decades. Instead of blanket trade embargoes, these measures target the financial assets of government leaders. Instead of applying economic pressure on the general population – economic pressure that oppressive regimes have proven adept at insulating themselves from – they specifically target the political and military leaders. This means there is far less likelihood that civilians will be harmed in the process. Smart sanctions are thus far more humanitarian than the blanket sanctions of the 1990s.
There is a catch of course. There always is. The catch is that it is not entirely clear if smart sanctions really work. If, for instance, the U.S. commits to applying sanctions only on Iran’s political and military leaders, this decision is contingent upon the U.S. being able to access those leaders’ financial assets.
This is only possible, for the most part, if Iran’s leaders have some portion of their assets invested in countries that are willing to assist the effort to freeze those leaders’ assets. So depending on how much Iran’s leaders have invested abroad, the U.S. will be limited in how much economic pressure they can bring to bear on them. The same could be said of Syria as well. The whole issue is, as you can probably imagine, far more complicated than that. But hopefully this gives you an idea of what the U.S. and its allies are up against in regards to targeted, or smart, sanctions.
So what does the Christian just war tradition have to say about all of this? Over the centuries it came to identify several criteria a conflict must meet in order to be considered just. The criteria themselves are not hard and fast rules. Yet they have proven to be extremely helpful as a framework to help Christians make decisions about war. For the sake of brevity, I will skip over the criteria of legitimate authority, just cause, and discrimination. Suffice it to say that these are probably the least controversial of the seven criteria when it comes to deciding whether economic sanctions are just or not. The only thing that should be noted is that ethicists have recently made a strong case for seeing sanctions as a modern, more technologically savvy form of siege warfare. In other words, just because sanctions respond to a conflict using economic pressure – instead of bullets and bombs – does not mean they should not be treated as an element of warfare.
The criteria that prove to be the real sticking points are right intent, last resort, reasonable chance of success, and proportionality. The criterion of right intent basically states that the purpose of entering into conflict must be to win peace. For Christians, the goal of peace is connected to the virtue of love. We desire peace for our neighbors who fall under attack because we take seriously Christ’s commandment to love them (John 13:34). For that reason, our intention in responding to a conflict is extremely important. The problem raised by economic sanctions is whether they truly reflect an intention to win peace out of conflict or whether they reflect a desire to avoid getting one’s hands dirty. In other words, are sanctions just an excuse to spare ourselves the cost of war? The history of sanctions suggests that they usually are.
The most common argument in support of economic sanctions is made using the criterion of last resort. Broadly speaking, last resort means that all reasonable means short of war should be tried before armed force is resorted to. The word reasonable is key here. This criterion does not say that any and every means must be tried. That would make a just war virtually impossible. Instead, last resort means that armed force should be avoided only if other, less destructive means of addressing the conflict hold significant promise in resolving it. The problem with the way we tend to talk about economic sanctions, though, is that we talk about them as a means short of war. Yet the violence that they have done and are by their nature intended to do require us to see them as a form of warfare, albeit indirect warfare. By the time the U.S. imposes economic sanctions on a country involved in a certain conflict, they have already entered into that conflict themselves. Which begs the question: What are we really hoping sanctions will achieve?
That brings us to the criterion of reasonable chance of success. The Christian just war tradition has long realized that legitimate authority, just cause, right intent, and last resort are all crucial to determining whether a conflict is just. Satisfying these criteria alone, however, should not be enough to justify armed force (or economic strong-arming). If a war that is otherwise justified has no prospects for success, it is all but assured that the violence of the war would only add fuel to the fire. Jesus once asked his disciples: “Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace” (Luke 14:31-32). Part of what it means to be Christians who are committed to just war principles is the willingness to honestly assess whether our goals – however just they may be – are actually achievable using the available force. If they are not, then we need to be prepared to take force (including economic coercion) off the table.
The just war criterion of proportionality is where I think we have been misled the most when it comes to economic sanctions. Essentially, this criterion says that the force we use to repel an attack – after all, the Christian just war tradition assumes that unjust aggression has already taken place – must not wreak as much destruction as the violence that prompted our intervention. This applies both to our pre-war assessments and to our prosecution of the war once it starts. Christians must demand that a war’s destructiveness be as minimal as possible because this destruction means real human costs to real human beings, each one of whom is our brother or sister for whom Christ died. With regard to sanctions, this means that the wanton economic destruction of general sanctions must be rejected outright. Their economic destructiveness reaches far too wide and goes far too deep and has consequences that are far too long-term to be considered proportional. Smart sanctions, on the other hand, have essentially the opposite problem. The force they employ may actually be disproportionate in the sense that they may be too weak to effectively deter the force to which they are a response. Relying on targeted sanctions alone may in fact turn out to be like taking a knife to a gun fight. Time will tell. Yet when we see violence being committed against innocent civilians – as we see now in Syria - time is not a luxury we have at our disposal. Sometimes urgency is necessary in the pursuit of justice.
Again, the problem with the way we typically talk about economic sanctions is that we do not admit that they are themselves a use of force. We like to imagine that they are analogous to a parent who gives their child a warning before they impose actual punishment. Yet we would do well to remember that they inflict real harm on the people in the country they target. Sanctions have real human costs. When we are searching for a remedy to violence, we must take care not to unnecessarily add to people’s suffering. At the same time, however, those of us who subscribe to the just war tradition are convicted that Christ’s command to love our neighbours should spur us to look for a remedy that is just. The pursuit of just goals tends to require greater risk than the acceptance of injustice. Moreover, Christian men and women who are committed to love and justice are often asked to risk more because of this commitment. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). More often than not, sanctions represent a desire to avoid incurring such risks. This should give us pause, lest we presume the presence of justice merely because we and our loved ones are kept out of harm’s way.
Of course, I do not mean to suggest that military intervention is always more preferable to sanctions. The use of armed force is judged by the same just war standards as sanctions. But sanctions must be judged by those standards. In commenting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) once asked what Jesus would have the Samaritan do if the man he encountered on the road was still being attacked by thieves. His answer was that Jesus would have the Samaritan act to stop the violence, even if that meant risking his own safety. This is something that resonates with many of us. We feel that as Christians we should come to the aid of our brothers and sisters who come under attack, if we have the means to do so. Yet it is important that Christians ask whether the policy of responding to international conflicts with economic tools from afar truly reflects a commitment to come to our neighbours’ aid. Perhaps this policy instead reflects the motivation of the priest and Levite, who were content to pass by on the other side.