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The problem with sanctions

August 13, 2011


This article in the Financial Times’ print edition this morning detailed Burma’s richest man and how sanctions brought him there. In short, one timber tycoon in Rangoon has made millions, perhaps billions, all while under sanctions and unable to do business internationally. Indeed, the article points the finger at these sanctions for enabling him to gain such wealth, and also for reenforcing the concentration of wealth among an elite few in Burma. This Atlantic Monthly article from this past January also details how Burma has suffered under the sanctions, with relation to the crisis of power that was taking place in the Cote D’Ivoire this past winter.

Sanctions hurt the middle class. And as the author of the aforementioned article makes clear, weakening the middle class strengthens the powers and wealth of the despots in those states. When a country acts in a manner that defies international norms, whether for violating human rights, creating or using weapons in a threatening manner or generally actin belligerently, it’s economic sanctions that are usually the first on the table.

And it makes sense. It’s a punishment. It isolates the state. It places pressure on its leadership. It sends a message to the international community and would-be wrong-doers “hey, you’ll be cut off if you act up.”

But then think about how that’s worked out in the last ten to twenty years.

It’s happened in North Korea, and Kim Jong Il rules without mercy, and rates of poverty and malnourishment simply can’t be calculated. Cuba has been under sanctions for half a century, and has languished, but also survived, in tact. Iran is in a similar state, and pressing economic issues have plagued them. Burma, too, is under sanctions and economic growth and liberal thought and ideals have stagnated.

The common strand is economic sanctions. The common result is stasis and the calcification of the existing power structures. Just as importantly, it’s held the (potential) middle class hostage, limited their ability to thrive and grow and eventually challenge the political structure. Time and again, it’s been the middle classes that have been instrumental in effecting change. The old story goes that the French Revolution was a revolt of the peasants, of the poor. But that simply wasn’t the case: it was the middle and working classes that were responsible for activating change and advancing the state. The protesters in Tahrir Square were predominantly “middle” class, though that terms is a bit of a misnomer in Egypt. Middle classes are vital to any society; they combine high levels of education and relative wealth, as well as participation in the economy (as opposed to inherited wealth) with an interest in civil society and politics.

As long as sanctions exist for states like Burma and North Korea, the conditions that prevail in those states will largely remain intact. Opening trade opens the roads for wealth, and the government surely may prevent that wealth from being absorbed and spreading throughout society. But it’s a gamble worth taking.

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