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Do sanctions work in a globalized world?

Written by André Ken Jakobsson, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

Reaching out to Western decision makers under the title "It’s Time to Kill the Feel-Good Myth of Sanctions", Suzanne Nossel from PEN America argues against the use of all-encompassing sanctions and isolation as useful tools for furthering grand political agendas in a globalized world. In the aftermath of the weekend's G7 meeting, where US president Obama gained backing for continued sanctions on Russia, it is time to step back and assess the viability of this policy.


While the US has come to see the use of sanctions against misbehaving states as a stable of their foreign policy options, the use of isolation depends increasingly on the cooperation of other states. And in a globalized economy the costs of imposing sanctions on a particular state will be unevenly spread while the benefits and interests served might be quite abstract. The case in point is Russia's unchanged behavior and even while the sanctions are eating away at the Russian economy, the decrease in trade is creating a testing backlash against already troubled European economies. Also, the great non-Western powers of China, India and Brazil did never back up the Western initiated sanctions regime and offer an alternative to the Western trade route.

Against a great power like Russia, there are simply too many conflicting interests at play for the sanctions to really assume an isolating effect. Instead Nossel argues for a more realistic approach that recognizes the necessity of great power cooperation on pressing issues such as ISIS and the Iranian nuclear program: 

"Western leaders should offer a hard-headed, compartmentalized relationship where, issue-by-issue, the West and Russia will cooperate where possible and confront one another where necessary — an isolation that is more tactical than principled, in which the rules will be reworked in accordance with their own interests. This will help avoid the Catch-22 of trying to diplomatically isolate a country essential to some of America’s and the EU’s most pressing diplomatic objectives. This also can help avoid a scenario where every concession to necessity can be cast as capitulation and retreat."

Nossel's insightful analysis puts an uncomfortable spotlight on the underlying implication that the West has deposited a great deal of its political leverage in the sphere of economics, simply hoping that even challenges to the international order such as Russia's blatant aggressive invasion, can be handled through measures of budgets, trade contracts and exchange rates. Nossel's advice aims more at reviving real political handling and as such shows more promise than the ever more fragile sanctions regime.

Enjoy the full read here.

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