The sanctions paradox

My FP colleague Dan Drezner looks at recent poll data showing that America’s image around the world has improved (how could it have gotten worse?) and makes an intriguing point: Consider the ability of the U.S. to enact multilateral economic sanctions. The Bush administration, at the depths of its unpopularity, was still able to get ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

My FP colleague Dan Drezner looks at recent poll data showing that America's image around the world has improved (how could it have gotten worse?) and makes an intriguing point:

Consider the ability of the U.S. to enact multilateral economic sanctions. The Bush administration, at the depths of its unpopularity, was still able to get the U.N. Security Council to pass three rounds of sanctions against Iran, as well as measures against North Korea. The Obama administration, despite a serious effort to open a dialogue with Iran, is encountering resistance from China, Brazil, and Turkey in its efforts to craft another round of sanctions."

Dan knows more than I do about the intricacies of economic sanctions, but I can think of two obvious explanations for this apparent paradox. First, as I noted a few days ago, countries like China have little interest in sanctioning Iran, no interest in war, and some interest in prolonging the U.S.-Iranian imbroglio. So they'll drag their feet no matter how popular or unpopular the United States is. Second, we've been down the sanctions road for some time now, and (as one would expect), it's not having any appreciable effect on Iranian behavior. Maybe other states are figuring this out: Why take some costly and inconvenient action when it won't do much good? Obama and the United States may be more popular, but that doesn't make sanctions more effective and therefore international enthusiasm for more of them isn't forthcoming.

My FP colleague Dan Drezner looks at recent poll data showing that America’s image around the world has improved (how could it have gotten worse?) and makes an intriguing point:

Consider the ability of the U.S. to enact multilateral economic sanctions. The Bush administration, at the depths of its unpopularity, was still able to get the U.N. Security Council to pass three rounds of sanctions against Iran, as well as measures against North Korea. The Obama administration, despite a serious effort to open a dialogue with Iran, is encountering resistance from China, Brazil, and Turkey in its efforts to craft another round of sanctions."

Dan knows more than I do about the intricacies of economic sanctions, but I can think of two obvious explanations for this apparent paradox. First, as I noted a few days ago, countries like China have little interest in sanctioning Iran, no interest in war, and some interest in prolonging the U.S.-Iranian imbroglio. So they’ll drag their feet no matter how popular or unpopular the United States is. Second, we’ve been down the sanctions road for some time now, and (as one would expect), it’s not having any appreciable effect on Iranian behavior. Maybe other states are figuring this out: Why take some costly and inconvenient action when it won’t do much good? Obama and the United States may be more popular, but that doesn’t make sanctions more effective and therefore international enthusiasm for more of them isn’t forthcoming.

NOTE: I will be on the road for the rest of the week, giving a guest lecture at Wesleyan University and attending a conference at Notre Dame, so posting will be dependent on the vagaries of travel and internet access.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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