Sanctioning Trade for Fun and Foreign Policy

Trade sanctions are a favorite foreign policy tool, but they don’t have a very good record. It’s hard to find a case where sanctions forced a regime to change policy against its perceived interest. Even the best of cases, such as South Africa, there were many factors in play. The ban on oil sales against Iraq reduced the regime’s revenue, but did not drive Saddam Hussein from power.

The tragedy in Burma, or Myanmar, has raised the issue yet again. The U.S. already has a stiff sanctions regime; the Europeans impose less exacting standards. But other nations–China, India, Thailand–blissfully trade and invest with Burma.

To its credit, the Bush administration is developing a “smarter” set of sanctions, directed against members of the ruling junta, their families, and businessmen made wealthy with the junta’s aid. These steps–barring travel, shopping trips, and use of bank facilities–will actually punish the guilty, those actually involved in tyrannizing the rest of the population.

Congress is considering legislation to penalize the gem and timber trades. Here private action is moving more quickly: a number of jewelers have announced that they will no longer handle Burmese stones.

While attempting to better target those who make policy in Burma, rather than the mass of people who already are suffering greatly, the Bush administration should reject advice from pundits and activists alike to punish China for backing the Burmese government.

In fact, Beijing is not alone. India and Thailand have gotten in bed with the military junta as well. Moreover, whatever China’s influence, the Chinese government almost certainly does not have sufficient power to force the junta to effectively yield power. Finally, as I point out in a recent article, punishing China–by, for instance, instigating a boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games–would antagonize the Chinese people as well as leaders. And that would end up being a very high price to pay for a strategy doomed to fail from the start. There is much on the U.S.-China agenda these days, and pushing for a boycott would wreck bilateral cooperation across the board.

There’s no good answer to odious regimes like the Burmese military junta. But to be effective sanctions need to be smarter as well as tougher. The dumbest strategy of all would be hitting other countries, like China, for crimes committed in Burma.