Re-Thinking Trade Sanctions

The US Congress has voted almost unanimously (418 to 2 in the House of Representatives and 94 to 1 in the Senate) to tighten trade and financial sanctions against Myanmar, whose despotic regime harasses and repeatedly imprisons the country's rightful leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. She won the presidential election in 1990 but the military prevented her from taking power.

But sanctions are the wrong approach, for international marginalization hurts ordinary citizens far more than it hurts dictatorial regimes. It's time to curtail the use of economic sanctions and to make them better targeted at despots.

The most famous sanctions in recent history were those imposed on South Africa during the apartheid era. Much of the world community stopped trading with South Africa, and stopped making investments in South African-based enterprises. Those sanctions did, it seems, help speed the demise of that barbaric system. But one great success does not negate the many failures. Moreover, it is quite possible that the world community could have supported the overthrow of apartheid in other ways.

Of course, sanctions can be effective in hurting the economy of the target country. Economic development in today's global economy depends on each country being integrated into the worldwide network of production, trade, and investment. A national economy that is excluded by sanctions is likely to stagnate or even collapse.