How Sanctions Become Baggage

American politicians like to show how tough they are by citing some disagreeable behavior by a disdained government and sponsoring sanctions legislation to punish that country. However, politics also make such laws hard to repeal even as circumstances change, ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

How’s this for old baggage: one of the topics Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is discussing with the Russians while in Vladivostok for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting is whether the United States will lift the 1974-vintage trade sanction known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

One of the coauthors of that legislation, Rep. Charles Vanik, left Congress in in 1981. The other coauthor, Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, died in office in 1983. The Soviet Union, which was the obvious target of the legislation even though the law was worded in general terms, died over 20 years ago, although the sanctions have continued to apply to Russia as the successor state.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sign a joint statement seeking greater cooperation on inter-regional issues on Sept. 8, 2012. (Photo credit: Department of State)

The original impetus for the legislation was opposition to restrictions the Soviets were placing on Jewish emigration in the 1970s. That situation changed long ago. Mikhail Gorbachev opened the doors for what would become large-scale emigration of Russian Jews in the 1990s. If the amendment has accomplished some other purpose related to human rights, it is hard to see what that is. The mark of a sanction that has succeeded is that it gets lifted.

Keeping Jackson-Vanik in place has at least potential economic costs to the United States. Although U.S. presidents have repeatedly issued waivers permitted under the law, keeping the law on the books violates rules of the World Trade Organization. Russia’s accession to the WTO gives it the right to retaliate against U.S. business.

This baggage demonstrates how it is far harder to remove a sanction, either a special-purpose injunction such as Jackson-Vanik or placement on a list such as the one for state sponsors of terrorism, than to impose it in the first place.

Imposition is usually a gesture of disapproval rather than a well-conceived tactic to elicit a change in behavior. Moreover, lifting of a sanction, regardless of changes in conditions that may justify lifting, gets perceived as making nice to the regime in question, and that can be a domestic political liability.

As a result, sanctions that have already demonstrated their ineffectiveness get perpetuated; any disagreeable behavior by the targeted regime, even if it has little or nothing to do with the reason the sanction was imposed, is portrayed as a reason to keep the sanction in place.

Part of the domestic U.S. backdrop to any move on Jackson-Vanik is a draft bill in Congress that is critical of the human-rights situation in Russia and is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died after being imprisoned on allegedly trumped-up charges.

President Barack Obama opposes both the Magnitsky bill and the linking of it to trade. Mitt Romney supports the bill and says he would remove trade sanctions on Russia only if the bill were enacted. All of this is a perfect example of how domestic politics works to keep an obsolete sanction in place.

The difficulty in lifting whatever is imposed ought to be carefully considered before imposing any sanction. But of course the very political dynamics that make lifting difficult also tend to discourage taking that difficulty into account to begin with.

There is no shortage of other examples besides the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Some of the oldest examples relate to Cuba. It also is a good bet that the sanctions being piled on Iran will make it difficult in the future to reset relations with Tehran, no matter what change there may be in Iranian policies and behavior.

Don’t expect even regime change to eliminate the problem; after all, there has been some regime change in Moscow since the 1970s.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

2 comments for “How Sanctions Become Baggage

  1. September 12, 2012 at 02:15

    The desire of a politician or government official to be “tough” by favoring or applying sanctions to punish a country whose government’s actions are disapproved of is not any different from the desire of a parent to be “tough” by punishing a child in a painful or humiliating manner, ostensibly for the child’s “own good”, but actually to satisfy the pride of the parent, and to assuage the fear of the parent of being or appearing “weak” or “soft” or “indulgent”. This is an instance of what the late writer and psychotherapist Alice Miller (you can google her name) referred to as “poisonous pedagogy”.

    This motivation, according to Alice Miller, is rooted in the parent or politician having been treated likewise as a child, and having repressed the childhood feelings of pain and humiliation, and thus having become emotionally numbed and insensitized. The parent or politician has an unconscious desire to repeat what was done to the person as a child, and to avenge the unconscious but still very real pain and humiliation suffered in childhood.

    My own father was often “tough” by deciding in Godlike fashion that I needed to be treated like I had committed a crime or a heinous sin, or had affronted him, when I had made an honest mistake, had honestly forgotten something, or when something did not measure up to his standards or expectations. He always made the point that what he said or did was said or done out of “love” or “for my own good”. And if I were angry or upset with him or with something he said or did, it was always a problem or something wrong with me, never with him or with what he said or did. My dad almost never admitted or seriously considered the possibility that he might be wrong; apparently he felt that by doing otherwise than what he did would be being a wimp or “soft”. And trying to talk something out with my dad would usually do very little or no good.

    Sanctions usually if not always end up hurting or punishing the wrong people, such as innocent people living in the country being targeted, or people living in the country even long after the reasons for imposing the sanctions no longer apply, and not those responsible for whatever is the reason for imposing the sanctions. And politicians or government officials do not want to be or appear to be wimps, or “soft”, by lifting sanctions or by opposing implementing them in the first place.

  2. rosemerry
    September 10, 2012 at 17:07

    How is it still possible for the USA to speak of human rights violations by any other country when it has done so much to remove any rights for its own people, let alone all those it invades?
    The USSR not only let out huge numbers of Jews (others had not this privilege), but over a million of them now infest Israel as “settlers”,making Palestinian freedom an even less likely possiblity than before the 1990s.
    The USA’s treatment of Iran, Russia and China is shameful and counterproductive. The USA cannot and should not try to rule the globe.

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