An Observer Case Study

Economic Sanctions and Ethics

A Just War Issue

Part One of Two

By Andrew Kotowski, Senior Religious Studies Major


Over the course of the last three decades, the global community has noticed a dramatic increase in the use of economic warfare as a policy in international affairs. Even more so in the post-cold war era, economic sanctions have offered political leaders a seemingly effective alternative to military force when negotiating foreign policy. Fulfilling the 200-year-old prophecies of Immaneul Kant, the marketplace and the economy have become the battlegrounds of today's world. Les Aspin, former secretary of defense, said,

Sanctions, according to Edward Pound, are the "tool of choice for governments bent on bringing international miscreants to heel. From Haiti to Iraq to Bosnia to North Korea, economic sanctions have been the weapon of choice, a low-risk, high-profile response to trouble." Woodrow Wilson, speaking on the importance of economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy, said, These measures have been approved with applause by the great majority of citizens, and even called for by religious leaders as a peaceful solution to world problems. A nation haunted by the painful memories of the Vietnam War, the United States has used sanctions on many occasions, preferring to avoid military intervention at all costs. Anything would be better, it seems, than having our sons and daughters coming home in body bags. At first glance, economic sanctions appear to be the answer to every politician's prayer. Despite their widespread popularity, surprisingly little has been written on the ethical and moral implications of economic sanctions and their application to the just war tradition of jus ad bellum and jus in bellum. I propose to examine the use of sanctions in light of the moral principles of war as found in Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars and determine whether or not the accompanying collateral damage is proportionate to the good achieved.

Before entering into the "fog of sanctions," a working definition of the subject must be formulated. Hufbauer defines economic sanctions as "the deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of customary trade or financial relations. This would include all actions ranging from removal of Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status to a complete boycott of the target country. Hufbauer also includes the use of blockades as a form of economic sanction. There is, however, some debate as to whether or not the threat of withdrawal of trade constitutes a valid sanction. Although threats are considered a form of deterrence, it is not an actual aggression until the sanction is implemented. An example would be the United States' stance toward China over human rights violations and the Tienanmen Square incident. A threat was made to remove the title of MFN from China's trading status, but there was no real intention of supporting it. I do not think this should be considered an act of aggression, especially considering the possibility of nuclear weapons as a threat during the Cold War years.

There has also been much speculation over whether or not economic sanctions are considered a weapon of war. This distinction is an integral part of our discussion because it determines whether or not the rules of the War Convention apply. In much of the rhetoric today, there is a misconception that sanctions are a peaceful alternative to military intervention. On the contrary, the preponderance of evidence proves otherwise. The goal of economic sanctions, according to Tor Egil Forland, is simple:

Depending on the severity of the sanctions imposed, the target state can either receive an economic slap on the wrist or be completely devastated as the societal infrastructure slowly collapses. Sanctions clearly have the capacity to be an offensive weapon.

The just use of economic sanctions, then, must conform to the understood rules of the war convention. I will begin with an examination of the jus in bellum criteria. Although jus ad bello is normally addressed first, I believe that knowing the effects of sanctions and their intended targets is essential to the arguments regarding proportionality and the probability of success.

The primary concern of the just war theory is identifying exactly which people are legitimate targets of aggression and which are labeled as innocents. This concept is better known in the military community as the principle of discrimination. Key to this argument is that the battle being fought is not being fought against the civilian population; it is being fought soldier against soldier. Noncombatants should only become involved because their presence is unavoidable. Walzer continually argues for the immunity of such noncombatants and even pleads his case for soldiers in different situations. As seen earlier in Forland's definition of the objective of economic warfare, it is clearly evident that economic sanctions are a non-discriminatory weapon. Due to their nature, sanctions are not precise instruments but blunt tools of warfare used in an attempt to achieve policy goals. In fact, one may argue that their intent is to blatantly attack the noncombatant community in an attempt to diminish morale, while doing little damage to the military structure itself. Many military strategists are not troubled by this observation, believing that civilian deaths in times of war are an inevitability. Walzer also notes this reality in his book, proposing the theories of military necessity and double effect as a standard in judging the morality of an action that will knowingly lead to noncombatant fatalities.

The intentional killing of noncombatants is rationalized under the term of military necessity. It is argued that a certain action may be justified if it "is necessary to compel the submission of the enemy with the least possible expenditure of time, life, and money." This theorem, however, does not act as a green light whenever a general deems his plan necessary for the war effort. Any action must first meet all four standards proposed by the principle of double effect to be considered morally justified.

Looking at each of Walzer's four conditions of double effect, we will determine whether or not economic sanctions can be morally justified. Walzer's first condition is that "the act is good in itself or at least indifferent, which means, for our purposes, that it is a legitimate act of war." The type of sanctions imposed on the target country determine whether this condition is met. A minority of sanctions ban the importation of military hardware and spare parts needed to continually maintain the target country's war machine. An example of this is found in U.S. sanctions against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua during 1978 and 1979. As a civil war raged against the brutal Somoza dictatorship, the Carter administration suspended all military aid and sales to Nicaragua, hoping to even the playing field for the rebel opposition. Congress continued to approve economic assistance to the country for humanitarian reasons. These military sanctions would be considered a legitimate act of war under Walzer's rule, as they do not affect the noncombatant population.

Sanctions aimed at changing minor foreign policies can often be considered morally acceptable. In 1965, President Eduardo Frei of Chile raised the price of copper in an attempt to bolster his economy. Because of the significance of Chile's role in the world's copper market, the decision sparked a global price war. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara responded by releasing 200,000 tons of copper from American stockpiles and imposing tight controls on copper exports. Suspension of economic aid to Chile and suspension of import duties were threatened as well. Like sanctions aimed at Nicaragua's war machine, U.S. action against Chile did not target civilian necessities and would thus be considered a good or indifferent act.

Severe economic sanctions aimed specifically at the marketplace are another matter. For example, Resolution 661 of the United Nations Security Council authorized a strict embargo of Iraq in retaliation for the invasion of Kuwait. This embargo included all goods except for "supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and, in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs." The UN detailed restrictions of foodstuffs, adding, "foodstuffs should be provided through the United Nations in cooperation with the Red Cross or other appropriate humanitarian agencies and distributed by them or under their supervision." In essence, UN sanctions against Iraq called for a total embargo, prohibiting the importation of food and other humanitarian items unless authorized directly by the Sanctions Committee. It is clear that full economic sanctions against a target country flunks the first condition of double effect because they are aimed specifically at the civilian class.

In order to gain a complete insight into the morality of economic sanctions, I will continue to apply Walzer's three remaining principles of double effect to the acts themselves. The second condition, that "the direct effect of the act must be morally acceptable . . . the destruction of military supplies, for example, or the killing of enemy soldiers," is very similar to the first. In the case of sanctions imposed strictly on military hardware, the desired effect will generally be the toppling of the ruling regime. This goal in itself would be deemed acceptable unless the repercussions of the desired coup d'etat were considerably worse than the continued rule of the deposed party. The desired effect of the sanctions waged against the Somoza regime fit into this category. Minor sanctions, like those in the Chilean example stated earlier, are generally concerned with changing matters of foreign policy, and the direct result would be considered morally indifferent. Full economic sanctions would have a desired effect similar to the one placed on military hardware: a revolution by the people.

Perhaps the most important of Walzer's qualifiers to determine if an action is morally justifiable is the idea of double intention. Working through this with our three test cases, we see a wide variety of results.

Successfully meeting the third of Walzer's conditions, the Nicaraguan case is a prime example of a sender country accepting additional costs to itself to compensate for the effects of sanctions imposed upon its target. As a result of stopping military aid, Somoza's government was forced to pay additional premiums for weapons and spare parts that were sold through the black market and other third world countries. In 1978, when military aid was terminated, Congress voted to increase economic aid to Nicaragua in order to alleviate some of the financial strain caused by Somoza's misappropriation of his army.

The Chilean example also meets Walzer's criteria of double intention. Foreseeing the possibility of damage to the private sector as a result of economic sanctions against Chile, McNamara's legislation to suspend tariffs on copper exports passed in Congress. Although the amount of money lost by the government was relatively insignificant in the broad picture, it was still an important gesture to the private industries involved.

In stark contrast to the preceding two examples, UN sanctions against Iraq fail to meet the third condition of the double effect. The disastrous domestic repercussions of imposing sweeping economic sanctions on Iraq is not to be considered one of the desired ends, but instead, the only desired end of U.S. policy. The results of this kind of terror campaign can be startling. Dreze reports food prices increased an average of 1,446 percent in one year, while wheat flours rising 4,431 percent. Even baby milk rose from .45 dinars to 10.00 dinars for a 450g tin. Considering the average Iraqi family with two adults makes approximately 300 dinars a month, inflation was completely unbearable. Numerous accounts have been given of families selling their heirlooms and libraries to feed their children. Another direct result of UN sanctions was threefold increase in the infant mortality rate. The International Study Team noted, "Most of the babies who lost their lives during the war period must have died from diseases related to poor nutrition, lack of clean water, and related deprivations." What is the gain form this type of economic sanctioning? In a best case scenario, the civilian community will become so dissatisfied as a result of starvation and rampant disease in its cities that it will rise up against the ruling regime and remove it. In the worst case scenario, the entire population of the country is racked by famine, with an extraordinary number of noncombatants fated to suffer a slow and agonizing death, with little or nothing to show for their tribulations. Commenting on this strategy of war, Albert C. Pierce states, "the purpose of economic sanctions is to inflict great human suffering pain, harm, and even death." As presented in America today, this type of sanction further violates the third condition of double effect by being completely selfish in motive. The Iraqi example, as with most other calls for complete sanctions, is selfish by nature; Congress would rather have 300,000 people starve to death than risk the chance of losing American lives.

Walzer concludes the principle of double effect noting, "the good effect is sufficiently good to compensate for allowing the evil effect; it must be justifiable under Sidgwick's proportionality rule." Clearly this is the case with the Nicaraguan sanctions under the Somoza regime. Although the noncombatant community was adversely affected by Somoza's attempts to get money in order to buy military hardware over the black market, the sanctions themselves did not cause any serious food shortages or health problems. The advantages in this situation definitely outweighed the disadvantages. With regard to all of Walzer's principles of double effect, the military sanctions against the Somoza government would be considered justified and morally acceptable.

The Johnson Administration's sanctions on Chile present a similar situation. Because the sanctions were aimed at a minor portion of the Chilean economy, the country was not affected apart from losses in the copper industry. In addition to financial losses, we have already noticed that some private industries would also be affected negatively. The US government attempted to compensate for these losses, resulting in a lower damage ratio. Like the Nicaraguan case, the positive effects on the world copper market greatly outweigh temporary setbacks to the Chilean economy and would pass Walzer's fourth condition, being considered justified and morally acceptable.

The UN sanctions against Iraq offer a glaring contrast to the previous examples. It is evident that the proposed good effect of removing Hussein from office is in no way proportionate to the damage and destruction caused by the means to achieve the end. The UN policy toward Iraq fails to meet the fourth condition of Walzer's rules of double effect. It can be said that intense economic sanctions on others will rarely pass any of the principles of the double effect, much less be considered moral actions by the state.

Andrew Kotowski recently graduated from Santa Clara University with a BS in religious studies. Kotowski's e-mail address is drewk@accesscom.com.


The Editor's Turn

I would like to thank Mr. Kotowski for his scholarly contribution to our humble journal. It is our intention to enrich our pages with the creative and intellectual potential of the entire student body. I found myself in agreement with Kotowski's analysis, except on one point. While considering Walzer's principle of double effect, that "the good effect is sufficiently good to compensate for allowing the evil effect," Kotowski writes that "the proposed good effect of removing Saddam Hussein from office is in no way proportionate to the damage and destruction caused by the means [economic sanctions] to achieve the end." However cogent the author may be on other sources, this seems an oversimplification. The UN also wanted Iraq to vacate Kuwait, with all its proportionate advantages. Further, Mr. Kotowski fails to consider the good, in increased political freedom and increased standards of living for the people, which might attend the downfall of Hussein's regime. These may not be sufficiently weighty goods, and perhaps some other, less damaging means could have been used, but Kotowski should have explored these issues rather than glossing over them.