Today is not one of the great days in the history of American foreign policy. In fact it’s the 202nd anniversary of one of the stupidest things we ever did. On this day in 1807 a besotted Congress passed a law essentially banning all US foreign trade at the request of President Thomas Jefferson. It was one of the great spectacular flame-outs of American foreign policy history, one of those rare ‘perfect failures’ that, like the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba or the response of Jimmy Carter to the Iranian Revolution, followed the famous road of good intentions straight to hell.
The misbegotten Embargo Act caused an economic depression that devastated the livelihoods of the administration’s supporters. Farmers couldn’t export their crops; urban industrial workers, sailors and artisans lost their jobs in droves. The Great Embargo also infuriated its enemies as powerful merchants and financial companies reeled under the disruption of trade. Jefferson was elected as a ‘small government’ man; the Embargo led to the greatest expansion of federal authority and power before the Civil War as federal officials tried to clamp down on every ship in the country.
Yet it failed in all its goals. When the Embargo Act (and the equally bizarre and misguided follow up acts that closed down the loopholes left open by the first act) was finally lifted at the end of Jefferson’s administration, nothing had changed. America had detonated what it thought was the ultimate weapon in its arsenal, the economic equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. The result was a muffled squeak; the loss of America’s trade had almost no impact on the policies of the countries we hoped we would starve.
The failure of the Embargo did not discredit the ideas behind it. Right up until the present day, Americans continue to overrate the power of economic sanctions to bend other countries to our will without war. This is less because we are stupid than because we are narcissistic, slothful and vain. We think other people are just like us, and we prefer pleasing illusions to ugly facts both when it comes to the wider world and also and especially when it comes to ourselves.
There are two ways the narcissism comes in: we overestimate how important we are to other people, and we assume that decision makers in other countries are as motivated by pragmatic and commercial considerations as we are.
The embargo showed both of these delusions on full and glorious display. Jefferson and his allies believed that the American trade was crucial to Britain and France, the two great powers engaged at the time in the death struggle known to history as the Napoleonic Wars. By withholding our vital raw materials we would force them to agree to trade with us on our terms, and stop harassing our ships and our sailors. At the same time, Jefferson believed that both the British and the French governments would be forced to agree to our demands because, of course, they were pragmatists looking for the most efficient and least expensive way of solving trade problems.
Both calculations were wrong. We needed international trade just as much or even more as Britain and France on the one hand. On the other, both the French and the British saw the world entirely in terms of the great war they were fighting. If they had been purely pragmatic and rational economic actors, they wouldn’t have fought almost a generation of ruinous wars. Both sides thought something more important than money was at stake in the war, and both sides cared more about winning the war than about maximizing their short term GDP.
The vanity and sloth come in because when faced with hard choices we often try to do two things at once: to take the easy way out, and to keep our self-respect. The only way to do this is to lie to ourselves, and so we do. The only way that Jeffersonian America could have compelled respect from France and Britain would have been to prepare for war: to build a large navy that could effectively protect our trade and insist that other navies respected our maritime rights. That would have been expensive and embarrassing, and it could well have involved the US in a war. The Jeffersonians didn’t want to admit that a weak, neutral trading country couldn’t insist on its rights; they therefore adopted the pleasing belief that economic sanctions would be an easy and effective alternative to the nasty business of military build ups and war.
We are still exhibiting all these characteristics today. We still overestimate the effect of economic sanctions on countries like Iran, North Korea, Myanmar and Sudan. As in 1807 this is partly because we think other people are more pragmatic and economically minded than in fact they are; it is also partly because we don’t want to fight them — but don’t want to have to look at the mirror and accuse ourselves of, for example, ignoring genocide in Darfur. More often than not, sanctions are a way to make ourselves feel good while doing nothing to solve an underlying problem.
More precisely, they are a bone that politicians can throw organized moral and political lobby groups. We’ve gotten a little smarter since 1807; the sanctions we adopt these days may not work much better than the embargo, but they hurt our domestic economy less. The countries we boycott tend to be small and poor rather than rich and important. We’ve also learned how to carve out exemptions for important economic interests. This way politicians can keep on the good side of lobbies ranging from the Cuban-Americans to the Darfur activists without losing contributions that they value highly. Thus our noble regime of sanctions against Sudan (a regime conducting what the US government has officially designated as a ‘genocide‘ in Darfur) exempts gum arabic from the sanctions so that our vital soft drink supply isn’t threatened.
I suppose we can take some pride in the evolution of the politics of sanctions since 1807. We are much more experienced hypocrites than we used to be; we have learned to make sure that our empty moral gestures are truly empty and we don’t make gestures that cost us real money or, with the exception of Cuban cigars, cut us off from the products we want.
As with so many problems in foreign policy, there is no total answer to the problem of sanctions. Sometimes you need them even though they are a profoundly unsatisfactory tool. “Diplomacy,” Teddy Roosevelt once said, “is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ while feeling around for a stick.” Sanctions can be part of that stick-hunting process, signaling an increase of tensions as part of a broader diplomatic and possibly military push. “Smart sanctions” that target the objects of your ire more precisely can also have benefits. And, of course, the more multilateral sanctions are the better chance there is that they will have some effect.
I appreciate the dilemma that human rights organizations and others face when they try to influence policy. They need politically achievable goals or their contributions will dry up and their members will lose enthusiasm. Yet it is very hard to change the domestic behavior of foreign governments using conventional foreign policy tools. Sanctions offer an attractive middle way; they may or may not change behavior overseas, but advocacy organizations who get sanctions adopted win concrete victories that make their members feel that their contributions and their activism are having an effect.
Still, with certain exceptions, it seems to me that sanctions today are mostly targeted at ourselves: like a bathroom scale set to take fifteen pounds of your weight, they make us feel better about ourselves without changing anything. Worse, the more we use them, the more worthless they are. A central bank that prints too much paper money soon loses credibility; a nation that overuses sanctions as a display of moral outrage and political displeasure soon finds that its disapproval carries less weight.
Sanctions should be effective and rare. Right now, as in 1807, they are neither.