Bruce Jentleson, former member, State Department Policy Planning Staff
Bill Lane, Chairman, USA ENGAGE
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground. From Cuba to Iraq to Burma the United States is using
economic sanctions to change unsavory behavior. Do sanctions really work?
BILL LANE: Sanctions are a tool but what has happened, it’s become the weapon of choice for
U.S. policymakers. Over the last 4 years there’s been 61 different unilateral actions, sanctions
imposed by the U.S. government, ranging from countries as mainstream as Mexico.
BRUCE JENTLESON: In my assessment actually, I think that sanctions actually have worked
sometimes more than we give them credit for. For example, in both the Iraqi and Iranian cases,
there’s little question in my assessment that sanctions have achieved a great deal in limiting
the efforts of both countries to enhance their military capabilities, particularly with nuclear and
other weapons of mass destruction.
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s
produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson. When one country imposes sanctions
against another it’s a form of economic warfare. During the last decade governments and international
organizations have increasingly resorted to economic sanctions. With me today to discuss the
effectiveness of sanctions as a foreign policy tool are Bruce Jentleson, a Professor of Political
Science at the University of California in Davis. Professor Jentleson was on the policy planning
staff of the State Department from 1993 to 1994 working on a range of issues including rethinking
the sanctions strategy. My other guest is Bill Lane, Director of Governmental Affairs at the
Caterpillar Corporation, and chairman of a recently-formed business group called USA ENGAGE. This
coalition of over 600 companies and trade associations joined together because they were concerned
about the increased use of unilateral sanctions by the United States. First we hear from Bruce
Jentleson and whether he thinks sanctions are a necessary foreign policy tool.
JENTLESON: I think they are a necessary tool. I think that in the foreign policy toolbox you
want to have as many different strategies as you can draw upon as possible to deal with the range
of issues that you’re faced with, whether they concern human rights and democracy or threats of
nuclear proliferation or aggression by states against U.S. allies and U.S. interests. I think the
difficult question for sanctions is, given that they’re necessary, how do you make them effective?
Because ineffective sanctions can actually be worse than no sanctions at all. We have tended to
turn to sanctions as kind of the default option. “We don’t know what to do, so let’s do sanctions.”
Well, that’s not a very useful pattern of reasoning or thinking for any kind of government policy.
And sometimes we think that even if we do them and they don’t work, well at least we did something.
And in fact I think they can be negative, not only economically for U.S. economic interest but also
in terms of U.S. political interest. So we really, in my view they are necessary, and we really
have to think about how to make them work better.
DAVIDSON: And Bill Lane, you come from a business perspective. What is your opinion of the
necessity of sanctions for U.S. foreign policy?
LANE: Sanctions are a tool but what has happened, it’s become the weapon of choice for U.S.
policymakers. Over the last 4 years there’s been 61 different unilateral actions, sanctions imposed
by the U.S. government, ranging from countries as mainstream as Mexico to some of the very—I should
say Mexico, Switzerland, Turkey, Indonesia—to countries that truly do require serious attention by
the U.S. government. What we’re trying to do is to promote alternatives so that sanctions become a
tool but a tool that you use very late in the process rather than something that becomes what is
truly a weapon of choice. And we think there are a lot of tools there. We think multilateral action
works far better. We think traditional statecraft is something that needs much more attention. We
think our diplomats need far more tools than they have right now. One thing that we’ve noticed is
as we’ve reduced a lot of the tools that our diplomats have to engage in diplomacy in the way of,
as we’ve reduced the foreign aid budget, is that we’ve seen an increase in unilateral sanctions,
which from our way of thinking is really another form of unfunded mandates. So we’ve got to give our
diplomats more tools so that we can engage in a much more effective foreign policy rather than one
that just grabs an occasional headlines but then moves on.
DAVIDSON: Bruce Jentleson, do you agree that multilateral sanctions are more effective than
the unilateral sanctions?
JENTLESON: Oh yeah, very much. Especially in the post-Cold War world. During the Cold War there
were certain times where you might make an argument that said the United States had to be out there
by itself, but the world has changed. The difference though is that sometimes U.S. action that seems
unilateral can actually bring about multilateral action and sometimes it can backfire. And I think
that as much as possible….
DAVIDSON: Any specific cases that you’re thinking of?
JENTLESON: Oh yeah. Take for example the case of Iraq. These are the most extensive multilateral
sanctions in the history of the world. And I think that they came about in part from, kind of, U.S.
efforts to bring about a multilateral coalition. We could not have maintained them without the United Nations.
DAVIDSON: And what is the problem with the U.S. going it alone on sanctions, applying them unilaterally?
JENTLESON: Well, in most cases there’s two problems. One is if they can get the technology or the
good elsewhere, what have you really accomplished? You may feel good about it but if you’re concerned
about them acquiring a particular weapon say, and they’re getting it from another supplier, then
you really haven’t achieved your goal. Second I think is a question of credibility. It’s like any
sort of situation. If you say to somebody, “I’m really going to hurt you,” and then they stand
there and they see that you didn’t hurt them, your message is much less credible than before. And
thirdly, if we have to fight with our allies and use our political capital with our allies in some
of these issues, political capital is a finite resource just like somebody’s saving account is. And
you’ll have less money in the bank the next time when something is really, really important that
you want to bring leverage on your allies, because you’ve wasted some on an issue that you didn’t
necessarily have to waste.
LANE: We so cheapen the currency when it comes to unilateral sanctions that it’s very hard
to find any examples where sanctions have worked. Given the fact that they don’t work then the
second question is, what’s the cost? And it’s easy to try to figure out what the cost is from a
lost exports or lost jobs standpoint. The Institute for International Economics estimates that in
1995 the cost was something about, somewhere between $15 and $20 billion a year in lost exports.
But when you go beyond that, what’s happening is that American companies are being tainted as unreliable suppliers.
When you buy a Boeing jet or a Caterpillar bulldozer you’re making a decision that’s going to last decades.
And what’s very important for those decisions is confidence that you’re going to be there to provide product support.
If you lose that confidence you’re going to lose the sale.
But then the costs even go beyond that. When you purposely turn over major markets, as the U.S.
did in the Soviet Union with the pipeline embargo, you’re giving your competitors—in our case the Japanese—what is in effect a protected home market which allows them to have greater economies of
scale, which allows them to be a more formidable competitor in other markets. Markets in North
America, markets in Europe and Asia. Fourth, as Bruce pointed out, when you purposely go out and
violate your treaty and trade obligations it puts you on the defensive. So that instead of going to
other countries and asking them to comply with their trade obligations, we’re constantly on the
defensive and we can’t get other countries to lower their trade barriers. And lastly, and perhaps
the biggest cost of sanctions, is when you do something that has political appeal but doesn’t
address the underlying problem. For example, if Iran is producing weapons of mass destruction and
all we’re doing is encouraging them to buy European and Asian equipment, that could be the biggest
cost of all because you’re not addressing the real problem.
DAVIDSON: Which is?
LANE: Which is, how do you get your allies, how we can come up with a coordinated effort to
stop the threat of weapons of mass destruction.
JENTLESON: This is where I know, in my assessment actually, I think that sanctions actually
have worked sometimes more than we give them credit for. If we’re sensitive to the fact that they
have a range of objectives and it’s not always the most extreme objective that they are to achieve.
For example, in both the Iraqi and Iranian cases, there’s little question in my assessment that
sanctions have achieved a great deal in limiting the efforts of both countries to enhance their
military capabilities, particularly with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Even in the
Libya case where there’s been a lot of push and shove on the sanctions, in some ways sanctions have
helped politically for a period of time, have Khadafi lower his profile and somewhat isolate him.
That’s beginning to change but for a number of years that was very helpful. There are even cases in
which we’ve used sanctions in which they’ve helped stop military coup d’etats right in their tracks.
There are two Latin American examples in the first Clinton administration; in Guatemala, 1993; and
in Paraguay in April of 1996. In both cases we threatened, with our Latin American allies, to
impose sanctions and the threat was sufficiently incredible—in part because it was multilateral—but
in both cases the military coups got stopped in their tracks. And then you have cases like Haiti
and Serbia in which—or in the Haiti case sanctions did not work. There’s no question they didn’t
work. They hurt the wrong people. But the real question is, could they have worked if they were done
effectively? The problem in the Haiti case was not that we did sanctions, its that we did them piecemeal,
incrementally, one step forward/one step back; we didn’t get serious about them for almost 2½ years
into the crisis. Whereas if we had from the outset imposed comprehensive sanctions on this island nation
with an economy that as a matter of basic strategy was relatively easy to isolate—you can’t prove this—but
in my view we might well have toppled the military government a lot sooner than before. And so I think
that we can’t, the same way we identify the problems that sanctions have, we can’t underestimate both
the ways in which they can work and the need for them to work. And so that in our efforts with our allies t
here needs to be a serious kind of strategic dialogue which essentially says, “We in the United States
are willing to submit we use them too little. You folks need to admit that we have common interests that
need to be served by this kind of strategy. Let’s try to find some common ground here that may limit the
number of uses but make them more effective and more cohesive and multilateral when we use them.
DAVIDSON: Bill Lane.
LANE: If I could just, I think this was probably summed up best for me in a discussion I had
with a Hill staffer. And in a very candid moment he said, “You know, I’ve got to tell you, unilateral
sanctions are lot like chicken soup—everyone up here knows they don’t work but they make us feel good
and they don’t really do a whole lot of harm.” There’s a problem with chicken soup. First of all, if
chicken soup keeps you from going to the doctor and taking the tough medicine needed to get well, it
really does do you harm. And the other thing is that it really does a job on the chicken. And increasingly
what we’re finding is that U.S. workers and U.S. exporters are playing the role of the chicken. What
we need are policies that work, not just policies that make you feel good for the moment. And often what
happens with unilateral sanctions is they’re imposed and then people move on to other issues. Active
engagement takes an awful lot of hard work. It doesn’t necessarily grab headlines. But we think that’s
where you see the most meaningful change.
JENTLESON: I think that that’s, actually in defense of my grandmother’s chicken soup, it actually
used to work very well. But that’s definitely the exception and the recipe was never written down
so it can’t be reproduced. But I think that we have some common ground here as the phrase is, but
in the sense of looking for alternatives. But part of that I think also has to be that the more
credible the threat is of sanctions from the get-go, the more likely it is that you can achieve
your objective without necessarily having to impose them. And so the area in which I think some of
our allies need to move more towards our position is recognizing that countries like Iran and Iraq
have posed serious threats. The human rights situation in Burma, there are groups within many European
countries that are concerned about that too. Are there ways in which we can agree to act together both
through sticks and carrots that will coordinate our policies and maybe make it more credible to those
whose behavior we seek to change, that there’s a common Western position.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. You’re listening to Common Ground, a program
on world affairs sponsored by the Stanley Foundation. My guests today are Bruce Jentleson, Professor
of Political Science at the University of California at Davis. Professor Jentleson has also worked on
sanctions as a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff. My other guest today is Bill Lane,
Director of Governmental Affairs for the Caterpillar Corporation, and chairman of USA ENGAGE, a coalition
of 600 businesses concerned about the way economic sanctions are applied by the U.S. and their impact on U.S. business.
The Stanley Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that works to promote thought and
dialogue about the world. Tapes and transcripts Common Ground programs are available; at the end
of the broadcast, I’ll give you information on how to order.
DAVIDSON: Bruce Jentleson, you cited Iraq as a successful application of sanctions?
JENTLESON: Well I was specifically talking about the efforts to limit their military capabilities.
LANE: The most successful.
DAVIDSON: Because I wanted to bring in the humanitarian aspect there and the fact that a lot of
innocent bystanders in Iraq have been hurt by the sanctions and people have said if the purpose of
the sanctions is to get rid of Saddam Hussein, well it’s only strengthened his support. How do you
balance the hurting of the unintended?
JENTLESON: I think that that’s a very important question. In Iraq I think the answer is a
little different than in other cases. Saddam Hussein has been offered from 1991 a deal in which he
could receive humanitarian assistance in exchange for agreement for U.N. supervision of the distribution
of the food, medicine, etc. And U.N. supervision of where the money went so that he would not
divert it to efforts to rebuild his military. Saddam refused that deal up until late 1996. So to a
great extent I think the international community has tried to try to target the sanctions so that
they did not hit the Iraqi people. But that the roadblock on that was Saddam and his continued
efforts to basically not care about his own people. But even in that context I think that the sanctions
I was particularly emphasizing were those that were aimed at his military complex. The Haiti case
is a little more complicated because that is often described as sort of like the neutron bomb. You
destroyed the economy and you left the government standing. And indeed there, there was a very serious
humanitarian issue because the government and the elite avoided the effects of the sanctions; they
maintained their bank accounts, they had all sorts of profits off the black market, while the people
suffered. But interestingly I think that the problem there was what I was referring to earlier, which
is it’s a reason for doing sanctions comprehensively rather than incrementally. Because if you do them
comprehensively the impact has a greater chance of being quicker and more immediate and you don’t have
these long, drawn-out issues that get you into, these long, drawn-out situations that get you into the
humanitarian problem. So again it comes back to trying to, if you’re going to do them, you need to do
them the right way and in some ways it’s like the military has its doctrine of decisive force, which
it used in the Gulf War. Well for sanctions I think one wants to think about, perhaps, its own version
of a doctrine of a decisive, forceful use of sanctions rather than the incremental, partial strategy.
LANE: But if it’s unilateral it’s never going to be decisive.
JENTLESON: That’s right.
LANE: We’re lacking any examples where they work. And quite often Mary, what you were talking
about is exactly right. Whether you’re targeting Cuba or countries in the Middle East the first to get
hurt, and maybe the only folks to get hurt, are the ones that are the poorest in the society. Let met
just say one thing about USA ENGAGE. If it was just sanctions targeted against a few Middle East countries
there never would have been a need to form the USA ENGAGE coalition. What happened was we saw a proliferation,
not in just the numbers of sanctions but the target countries. Right now there’s 35 different countries that
are being targeted for unilateral sanctions. And not only aren’t they working but they are greatly complicating
relationships and undercutting a lot of our foreign policy objectives.
DAVIDSON: What are your theories behind this proliferation of unilateral sanctions? Is it, you had mentioned
earlier sometimes they’re done for feel-good reasons.
LANE: Well, some of it is political; some of it is that I think a lot of the disciplines that were
in the place during the Cold War have broken down. When you look at sanction regimes prior to the end of the
Cold War the objective was primarily national security. The goal was to keep high technology away from
communist countries. Sanctions tended to be multilateral. And they tended to work. With the end of the
Cold War the sanctions are almost always unilateral; there is a variety of reasons why they are being
imposed, from everything from narcotics trade to democracy to human rights to religious persecution to
child labor to national security issues. They don’t work. Pure and simple they don’t work. And if
they worked we could be having a different discussion. And they’re always costly. And then lastly
we’ve got a whole new set of policymakers, both within the administration and on the Hill, who don’t
remember the catastrophic consequences of the grain embargo or the Russian pipeline embargo, where
the U.S. in effect turned over major markets to our Japanese and European competitors. You know
when you get yelled at at a Grange meeting that makes an impression. When you hear about getting
yelled at at the Grange meeting it’s not quite the same.
DAVIDSON: And Bruce Jentleson what do you see behind the increased use of unilateral sanctions.
Is it tied to the end of the Cold War?
JENTLESON: Yeah, I think it, most of it comes from Congress and not necessarily Republicans
or Democrats. But in some ways it’s consistent with the way that Congress likes to play its role
in foreign policy. Which often is high on the rhetoric and less on thinking through, “Is strategy
A going to accomplish objective B?” And I think it is damaging. It’s this proliferation. It is as
if, it’s anything that you use too often you do devalue it as a currency and you devalue its credibility.
And it’s why in my view we need to focus on when sanctions will be most effective. Our allies are
right in the sense that we use them too often and we’re right in the sense that we need to use them
more often than they tend to be willing to do. And many of these efforts are just pieces of legislation
that go through the Congress. The Congress is really the key actor in this. Any President doesn’t like
these sanctions because they tie his hands, they take away discretion and they’re not part of a larger
strategy. And I think part of the solution to this really fundamentally involves what are the alternatives.
And I think in some of the areas in which we have an agenda now. We have found out that the euphoria of
the end of the Cold War didn’t last very long. The world remains a place with problems and threats
to U.S. interests and values. There are more wars going on now around the world than there were
during the Cold War. We even have had to use our own military troops more often than almost any
other period during the Cold War. And so how do we deal with these threats to our interests and
our values? And I think that we need to be more strategic in our use of sanctions and we need to
see what else is in the tool box. And sometimes the argument is made that if we just trade with
these countries things will follow. There are some cases in which it may be true but a lot in which
it is not and so some of the efforts for more of a partnership between the business community and the
government would be areas in which the business community can be proactive in the areas that it’s
heavily trading and investing. And taking discrete measures that might help promote liberalization,
democratization, civic society, and those kinds of things. And then you have something to say to people
that says “We’re not doing sanctions but we really do, we are doing something else; it’s not just that
we’re doing nothing.” Because you come back in the end to people being uncomfortable with sanctions
but not willing to give up on either the global interests or the values that they hold dear.
LANE: One of the most disturbing trends is what happened last year in that the U.S. government
started to formally endorse the notion of secondary boycotts as a legitimate way to try to influence
DAVIDSON: Exactly what is a secondary boycott? How does work?
LANE: Let me explain. Many of us recall when the Arab League tried to put increased pressure
on Israel by saying that it would not trade with countries that traded with Israel. It’s one thing
to say “We will not trade with Israel,” but the idea was to add greater pressure and to use their
economic clout to put increased pressure to go after them in a secondary boycott fashion so that
they would not—other countries, including the United States—would not trade with Israel. The business
community, the government, the NGO community, we were all united and we felt this was not an appropriate
tool and resisted that pressure and am very proud of that. The pressure lasted for about ten years.
In the last year though both with the D’Amato legislation that was passed as it relates to Iran and
Libya and the Helms-Burton Law as it relates to Cuba, formally endorses the notion of secondary boycotts.
And this is very disturbing and I think it’s going to have the, I think it’s already having the
exact opposite reaction that we wanted. We want to work with our allies. What this is doing is
driving a wedge between us and our allies. Just as the proposed secondary boycott against Israel
united the U.S. and reaffirmed our support for Israel. These are dangerous tools. And if they are
entered into lightly you, not only are they not effective but they can be downright counterproductive.
And that’s what I think we’re seeing with both pieces of legislation.
JENTLESON: Yeah I think that’s right. I think that, as Bill was saying before, you go back
even to the early ’80s and the controversy over the Soviet-Siberian pipeline, and the United States
attempted another one of these secondary boycotts against our allies. And even someone like Margaret
Thatcher who was so supportive of Reagan policies in so many other ways really went to the mat on this
issue. Because not just is it the economic interest but there’s a connotation, a feel to it that basically
says the United States is telling us what to do. And if you want to push the hot button of the
LANE: ….National sovereignty. Just like in the United States.
JENTLESON: That’s right. And especially when you come to a case like Cuba. In the Iran case
I think it’s a little more complicated because there were some terrorism incidents in Europe and
the like and it doesn’t justify the secondary boycott but it has made it a little bit more difficult
issue. The Cuba case the Europeans see as blatant American domestic politics. “You’re playing out
your domestic politics and putting a burden on us.” So again when you want to say them on a really
important case, that we really need to work together because we have a shared interest here in this
other case, a shared threat, it’s like the boy that cried wolf. You’ve said that so many times when
you didn’t need to say it that you have less credibility when you really, really need it.
LANE: What I think Cuba gives you is an excellent example in two ways. One, that if you
think in terms of a continuum of complete isolation at one end and full engagement at the other,
the two countries where we’ve had the greatest isolation is with Cuba and North Korea. These are
also the two societies that have changed the least. If the goal of the embargo with Cuba is to keep
the Cuban people poor you can make the case that it’s been very successful. But if the goal is to bring
freedom to Cuba we’ve had a 38-year failure. And at some point we need to reexamine that policy.
JENTLESON: That’s also a good case where you want to think about transitions and so-called
JENTLESON: Because people assume sometimes that the Cuban-American community is totally
united and is supportive of all these sanctions. In fact it’s not the case. It’s not a monolithic
ethnic community on this and there are some splits; it just happens that the most politically powerful
elements are those that are in favor of the sanctions.
DAVIDSON: Bruce Jentleson and Bill Lane have been my guests on Common Ground. Bill Lane is
Director of Governmental Affairs for the Caterpillar Corporation, and chairman of USA ENGAGE, a
coalition of businesses concerned about U.S. sanctions policy. Bruce Jentleson is Professor of
Political Science at the University of California-Davis and a former member of the State Department’s
policy planning staff. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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