In Defense of Sanctions

Open war must necessarily be a measure of last resort. The treasure of a free nation is too precious to spend frivolously on overseas adventures, and the blood of a free nation’s soldiers even more so. Respecting man’s rights is a given, not an option. As such, no rational man can deny that free nations possess the right to depose statist regimes wherever they may exist. Even so, such action is not the purpose of free governments, nor is it inherently in their self-interests.

Force, however, must be met with force. Those tyrants who reject reason cannot be swayed by reason – force is the only language they understand. By ceding much of central Europe to Hitler to avoid war in the 1930s, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s assertion that his diplomatic actions had achieved “peace for our time” collapsed as German tanks rolled into Poland, leading to the most destructive war in the history of the world. When the West raised no objections as the Soviets erected puppet governments in Eastern Europe in the hopes of avoiding further bloodshed, they condemned millions to death by hard labor in Soviet Gulags or by simple starvation while permitting the largest statist empire the world has ever known to strengthen militarily for decades without answer. Those who initiate force must be confronted by retaliatory force.

But countries like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are not typical cases of statist governance. Most of the world’s dictators are of little consequence to free nations and do little to hinder their affairs – most are content with rattling their comparably small sabers and haranguing philosophically pathetic organizations like the United Nations into making diplomatic concessions. Regardless, small-time tyrants are still tyrants and should be treated as such. While the Syrian regime of al-Assad may have little intention of invading or restricting the trade of freer nations like Turkey or Israel, its very status as a primarily statist government precludes it from being a “member in good standing” within the international community. Thus, punition is required.

Without detracting from the central theme of this essay – the morality of diplomatic sanctions – take the Syrian regime as an example. There is no question that the government in Syria lacks any moral defense for its continued existence. Despite the fact that the largely Islamist forces which oppose it have an equally illegitimate claim to power, al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party regime has trampled individual rights since it seized power in 1963. The very motto of the Syrian Ba’ath Party – “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” – contradictory though it may be, enshrines the very collectivist subservience to the state which the Ba’athists have practiced throughout their existence. Violence, oppression, and force have been the staples of Ba’athist rule for nearly fifty years, though it has only garnered international attention recently. Syria’s peculiar alliance with Islamist Iran only further demonstrates its stance against western principles and individual liberty.

However evil the Ba’ath Party may be, it does not warrant the militaristic intervention of free nations. Syria poses no direct threat to the West – overt or subversive – and the expenditure of resources to oust the Assad regime would likely turn into a drawn-out nation-building experiment, the likes of which Americans have rightfully grown tired of. Bringing democracy to a region which has no conception of individual rights is a largely fruitless endeavor, and only when, by nature of the enemy, a nation is gripped by not only a statist ideology but also an expansionist one (as with Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan or, in the modern world, Islamist Iran) does prolonged military occupation become a generally beneficial – not to mention necessary – part of war. Such ideologies must be crippled both politically and intellectually by separating them from the two things which give them efficacy: the state and the schools. The economic power of modern Germany and Japan are a testament to the success of these policies on the part of the Allied Powers following World War II, but the level of devotion to such occupations and the total war which must necessarily precede them is often beyond the realm of that which is rationally self-interested, as simpler forms of military strikes often are as well.

The alternative to military action against statist regimes is diplomatic sanctions. If a nation continually violates the rights of its own citizens, even in the absence of direct force against the citizens of free nations which would demand more stringent retaliation, then preventing that nation’s participation in the global economy or political community is a viable solution. “Because these nations deprive their citizens of their individual liberty, i.e., individual sovereignty, even if a majority of citizens agrees to this deprivation, the governments over these citizens forfeit their own sovereignty [and all associated privileges].” The privilege of participating in mutually beneficial treaties between free nations or participating in free trade on the global economy is forwent when a nation deprives its citizens of their rights, and it is a privilege that free nations should deny.

Contrary to the belief of the Obama Administration, sanctions do not need the approval of the United Nations or even the global community at large. They can be unilateral, as can war if necessary, though the more countries that agree to a given set of sanctions, the better. As more nations agree to take part in cutting off trade or diplomatic ties to a statist nation, the lower the cost becomes to each individual free nation. Some nations may reject the sanctions (Putin’s Russia and Communist China often do), but such obstinacy should not dissuade free nations from enacting their sanctions. In fact, even nations who do not agree to the sanctions should be compelled to abide by them, provided that enough of the international community takes part in the sanctions such that the others can also be prevented from doing so. Just as an accessory to murder is equally culpable for a committed murder, so too are nations who are complicit with statist regimes equally culpable for the crimes of those statist regimes. Though the latter may not be immediately deserving of sanctions themselves, they certainly should not be allowed to violate the sanctions against totalitarian regimes.

Simple though this may seem to some, there are actually a surprising number of opponents to sanctions from virtually everywhere on the political spectrum. Liberals decry that they only hurt civilians, libertarians call them acts of war and initiations of force, and conservatives point out that sanctions rarely lead to regime change or even to a change in policy by statist governments. Though none of these arguments are universally proffered by any of their respective political groups, all are fundamentally flawed in their premises.

Examine that which is argued primarily by libertarians: sanctions on the part of free nations against statist nations are acts of war and initiations of force against the statist nations who ultimately have the right to their own political “self-determination.” First, economic sanctions are not acts of war. Though sanctions may require the use of military force in order to function properly, such as the deployment of naval forces to prevent merchant vessels from docking in the sanctioned country, war is more than the forcible halt of resources from entering and leaving a country (not that it matters, as explained below).

For those who consider sanctions an initiation of force, I quote from “‘No Right to Exist’ – Understanding the Sovereignty of Nations”: “A moral government allots to its citizens the full range of action permitted to them by their inalienable rights while simultaneously defending those same citizens from internal and external violations of said rights. When it does this, it too possesses the full range of action permitted to it by the privileges inherent in any moral government – to raise armies and navies, to technologically advance said armies and navies, to enter into treaties with other nations, to defend its citizens from initiated force (including the right of its citizens to trade freely with any other moral individuals as they so choose), and to take all just measures to halt initiations of force. Governments which violate their own moral mandate for existence forgo these privileges, while free nations retain  the authority to intervene on behalf of their own citizens and the subjected classes of statist regimes.” In sum, statist nations are the initiators, not the free nations who impose sanctions upon them.

In this sense, whether or not sanctions are an “act of war” is ultimately irrelevant – it is the right of free nations to enact retaliatory force against statist nations. Sanctions are not acts of war, but regardless, they are uses of force. When a free nation deploys retaliatory force against statist nations, the size and scope of that retaliatory force should be directly attached to the rational self-interests of the free nation. Ergo, retaliatory force is necessarily in the best interests of free nations – the only variant is the magnitude of that retaliatory force, regardless of what it is called.

As for the argument that sanctions often do not halt statist policies or change statist regimes, there is some level of legitimacy in that statement. Sanctions do not often attain the aforementioned goals, but that does not mean free nations should end sanctions on statist nations, nor does it mean sanctions are a waste of time and resources. If sanctions should be dropped simply because they do not always produce changes in the actions, then America also should stop imprisoning sex criminals on the grounds that most become repeat offenders, necessarily demonstrating the ineffectiveness of imprisonment. Justice requires retribution for violations of individual rights, regardless of if those violations continue in spite of that retribution. Moreover, it is impermissible that free nations assist in the perpetuation of statist regimes, as necessarily occurs when they trade with them.

By allowing the free flow of trade between free nations and statist ones, statist nations are given an influx of tax revenue, technology, and raw materials which they can use to further oppress their own citizens or to potentially expand their military ambitions.  Such a prospect is unacceptable, and free nations, to be truly free of guilt, should withhold their resources and products from statist nations such that they cannot be used against the citizens of statist nations or other free nations. Though the citizens of free nations would otherwise have the right to trade with anyone they wish, trading where it will benefit a statist regime is not a right – instead, it is aiding and abetting the violation of rights by logical extensions.

The final point of contention is that sanctions only hurt the civilians of statist nations, not just the governments exclusively (not to mention those traders of free nations who would like to trade with the innocent civilians in statist nations). As such, argue these individuals, our use of sanctions causes an unjust detriment to civilians and we should try other avenues of reaching a resolution (often those same avenues which were tried and failed in the years of Neville Chamberlain). It is true that sanctions will have detrimental effects on civilian populations, including those who would otherwise oppose the statist regime. However, the blame for such injuries falls squarely on the statist government, not the free nations imposing the sanctions.

As with civilian casualties in war, so too with civilian injuries through sanctions. The policies of statist governments are reprehensible and require some answer. If there are innocent individuals who are injured in the process of responding to those policies, then that too is the fault of the initiator, not the responder. If a police officer breaks down a door to stop a robbery, does the moral blame fall on the robber or the police officer for the destruction of the homeowner’s door? Or if an armed robber is fleeing in a vehicle and a police pit maneuver, though it stops the robber, also injures or kills an innocent motorist, on whom does the blame fall? The robber which required such retaliatory force to stop him, or the police who used the retaliatory force? The same principle applies on the international level.

Liberty requires justice. When arrogations of individual liberty go unpunished, individual liberty cannot be said to exist at all. Individual rights, however, do not end at any transnational border, and the violation of those rights requires retribution no matter the origin of those abuses. Directly bringing the violators to justice is not always possible, and oftentimes doing so would be altruistic on the part of nations who are facing no initiation of force themselves. This does not abnegate the necessity for justice. Instead, it only changes the manner in which justice is fulfilled. However slight it might be, the punishment achieved through international sanctions provides a precious sliver of justice for those suffering from statist policies. Even more than that, it consistently separates free nations from the crimes committed by statist nations. There is no reason for which the wealth of free nations should be permitted to fund the tyrants and warlords who still maintain their unrelenting grip across much of the globe. So long as those Attila’s still exist on the globe, free nations should trade nothing with them lest they become accessories to the crimes committed by those statist regimes – not one dime.

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