People are beginning to figure out that economic sanctions do not work, but they still haven’t figured out why:
Western sanctions against Russia are the most ill-conceived and counterproductive policy in recent international history. Military aid to Ukraine is justified, but the economic war is ineffective against the regime in Moscow, and devastating for its unintended targets. World energy prices are rocketing, inflation is soaring, supply chains are chaotic and millions are being starved of gas, grain and fertiliser. Yet Vladimir Putin’s barbarity only escalates – as does his hold over his own people.
To criticise western sanctions is close to anathema. Defence analysts are dumb on the subject. Strategy thinktanks are silent. Britain’s putative leaders, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, compete in belligerent rhetoric, promising ever tougher sanctions without a word of purpose. Yet, hint at scepticism on the subject and you will be excoriated as “pro-Putin” and anti-Ukraine. Sanctions are the war cry of the west’s crusade.
The reality of sanctions on Russia is that they invite retaliation. Putin is free to freeze Europe this winter. He has slashed supply from major pipelines such as Nord Stream 1 by up to 80%. World oil prices have surged and eastern Europe’s flow of wheat and other foodstuffs to Africa and Asia has been all but suspended.
Britain’s domestic gas bills face tripling inside a year. The chief beneficiary is none other than Russia, whose energy exports to Asia have soared, driving its balance of payments into unprecedented surplus. The rouble is one of the world’s strongest currencies this year, having strengthened since January by nearly 50%. Moscow’s overseas assets have been frozen and its oligarchs have relocated their yachts, but there is no sign that Putin cares. He has no electorate to worry him.
The interdependence of the world’s economies, so long seen as an instrument of peace, has been made a weapon of war. Politicians around the Nato table have been wisely cautious about escalating military aid to Ukraine. They understand military deterrence. Yet they appear total ingenues on economics. Here they all parrot Dr Strangelove. They want to bomb Russia’s economy “back to the stone age”.
I would be intrigued to know if any paper was ever submitted to Boris Johnson’s cabinet forecasting the likely outcome for Britain of Russian sanctions. The assumption seems to be that if trade embargos hurt they are working. As they do not directly kill people, they are somehow an acceptable form of aggression. They are based on a neo-imperial assumption that western countries are entitled to order the world as they wish. They are enforced, if not through gunboats, then through capitalist muscle in a globalised economy. Since they are mostly imposed on small, weak states soon out of the headlines, their purpose has largely been of “feelgood” symbolism.
A rare student of this subject is the American economic historian Nicholas Mulder, who points out that more than 30 sanctions “wars” in the past 50 years have had minimal if not counterproductive impact. They are meant to “intimidate peoples into restraining their princes”. If anything they have had the opposite effect. From Cuba to Korea, Myanmar to Iran, Venezuela to Russia, autocratic regimes have been entrenched, elites strengthened and freedoms crushed. Sanctions seem to instil stability and self-reliance on even their weakest victim. Almost all the world’s oldest dictatorships have benefited from western sanctions.
Whenever one’s logic is proven faulty, the correct response is to question the assumptions that underlie the syllogism. In the case of the repeated failure of economic sanctions, the false assumption is the beneficial nature of free trade. Sanctions intrinsically assume that trade is necessarily good for a nation in any and all circumstances, and therefore imposing sanctions that reduce the amount of trade will weaken the targeted nation.
This is a provably false assumption, as evidenced by the way in which economic sanctions have made Russia wealthier and stronger relative to its former trading partners. Economic sanctions don’t work because free trade doesn’t work.
This conclusive evidence of the failure of free trade dogma should inspire more economists to be skeptical of the claims of the comparative advantagists, but unfortunately, the history of economics suggests that it probably won’t.