War isn’t what it once was. The age of bloody conquests is still upon us, but new instruments of destruction are readily deployed the world over to win territory and inflict losses. Some, like UAVs armed with RPG rounds scouting the deserts of the globe, are focused upon gaining a direct tactical advantage – facilitating the execution of existing strategy. Other tools, more strategic in focus, take a holistic view of conflict as both a militaristic and political exercise wherein groups struggle for power or control. This strategic view can often take a less tangible approach. People don’t need to be killed directly if support for their cause can be eroded, or their cause itself loses it’s sheen. Wars are easier won and less often fought when those who fight lose the hope for a better day.
One such way of accomplishing their means is through the imposition of economic weaponry – tools used to limit a regimes access to global markets to reduce economic access and potentially deter impending risks. One such form is economic sanctions, often deployed against illiberal regimes to force cooperation with international law, contain a threat to peace or condemn actions deemed not in keeping with the values of the world order. But just as a drone is designed to kill with maximum efficiency and minimal external casualties, a sanction must be designed to impede the dangerous actions of a government as effectively as possible without placing an undue burden or strain upon the populace. In other words, a targeted sanction should impede inappropriate actions with maximum efficiency and inflict minimal damages on surrounding humanitarian causes.
Sanctions come in different forms – the two standard designs are comprehensive and targeted. Comprehensive sanctions, or trade embargoes, focus on an entire economy, and create sweeping bans on trade, diplomatic relations and financial activities. Targeted sanctions impose embargoes on specific items or restrictions on peoples or groups, and are more strategic in their design. While each has it’s place, full-scale embargoes are often more effective in toppling regimes or containing military targets. However, they are less readily used given that a full embargo upon an entire national economy requires coordination, and traditional thought dictates that the relative effectiveness of comprehensive sanctions has been eroded by globalization and a world of interconnection. While this is not completely true, such interdependence has made it easier for states to evade sanctions by working under the table with others. Therefore, the trend in recent years has been towards “smart sanctions”, or more targeted approaches to handicapping an opponent.
A 2012 study from the Graduate Institute in Geneva found that only 31% of UN targeted sanctions are deemed “effective” in meeting their objectives, with the deployment of sanctions being more effective in signalling or constraining a set target than actually fueling behavioral change. In fact, sanctions focused on coercement were only shown to be effective 13% of the time, with sanctions focused on targeting key sectors to slow industrial development achieving a 43% success rate. Additionally, secondary sanctions, which focus on the actions of non-native citizens interacting outside of national jurisdiction, have also been shown to be highly effective, but require greater governmental cooperation, as a Chinese citizen doing business with North Korea’s energy sector must now have their whereabouts tracked by American intelligence operatives, requiring the barrier of coordination between Beijing and Washington.
Despite the differentiation of types, the desired impacts of a sanction remain the same: inflict maximum pain with minimal casualties. But as seen above, the impact of just sanctions is limited. Often, pairing embargoes with positive inducements (trade deals or financial support) has a higher success rate, notably in the area of nuclear weapons proliferation and most publicized within the Iran Nuclear deal framework. The removal of sanctions, despite it’s political unpopularity, assured a higher chance of compliance between Iran and the UN Security Council members, a trade-off deemed necessary to achieve the ultimate objective of slowing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
This means a great deal of thought must go into the design of sanctions themselves – What constitutes compliance? What is the current baseline of conditions, and what are the desired changes made explicit to all parties? What will the humanitarian impacts and functional consequences of the embargoes be? In this, multiple UN assessment tools exist to determine the exact impacts of any given sanction, and numerous methodologies speak to how they should be derived. But no tool offers the answers the question of just how much damage is acceptable to inflict upon a population if it increases the likelihood of success or topples an enemy regime.
If sanctions are viewed as a tool in arsenal of militaristic or economic weaponry, this answer will drastically differ from one where sanctions are viewed as a pre-combat mechanism to reduce geopolitical tension. But the categorization of the sanction does not change the fact that sanctions themselves are designed using the same methodology drones are. And the mindset of the designer, regardless of the nobility of their intention, is reflected in the strategic approach taken to the new-era of combat. It just so happens our battlefields have shifted to now include boardrooms as well as bombs.