One of the first things you learn from studying international relations is that economic sanctions have a pretty poor success record. Whether it’s the League of Nations trying to restrain Mussolini in the 1930s, or Jimmy Carter’s United States trying to punish the Soviet Union for the invasion of Afghanistan, there’s a long history of sanctions that have comprehensively failed to achieve their purpose.
So it’s been with the United States economic boycott of Cuba, in place since before Barack Obama was born. Most observers think it has helped rather than hindered the communist regime in its quest to stay in power: the public relations benefit of having the US there as a bogeyman has outweighed the economic cost.
Obama seems to have always been a sceptic about the embargo, and from the start of his presidency made moves towards normalisation. By the beginning of this year there were clear signs that change was on the way. Finally this week came the announcement, simultaneously in Washington and Havana, that diplomatic relations would be resumed.
But a big part of the boycott has always been to do with American domestic policy – administrations on both sides felt unable to move for fear of the wrath of the right-wing Cuban-American community in Florida, a key swinging state. For the Republican party, that political imperative shades seamlessly into its desire to demonise everything Obama is and does. Leading Republicans, including especially Senator Marco Rubio (himself of Cuban descent), have accordingly condemned the president’s move and any move to dismantle the embargo by legislation will have a difficult time in the Republican-controlled Congress.
And just as the failure of one set of sanctions is being conceded, another set, surprisingly enough, seems to be working. The Russian economy this week is teetering due to the combined effect of falling oil prices and economic sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union in the wake of its annexation of Crimea.
It does happen: sanctions that are properly thought out and properly targeted can be effective. Western sanctions against South Africa, for example, were widely credited with hastening the end of apartheid.
Still, when sanctions against Russia were first announced, no-one entertained much hope that they would force a Russian change of heart. But Vladimir Putin’s strategy for going it alone economically seems to have been critically dependant on continued high oil prices. When that support fell away – mostly due to Saudi Arabian increases in production, which may or may not have been politically driven – Russia was in trouble.
That doesn’t mean that Putin’s Ukraine policy is about to go into reverse. But it means he may be more open to compromise than would have been the case a couple of months ago.
It also means that the western pundits, mostly but not exclusively on the right, who earlier in the year were looking enviously towards Putin as a dynamic man of action and strategic mastermind, now seem rather foolish. Jon Chait this week took the opportunity to have another shot at what he calls “conservative dictator-envy”:
The ongoing Russian crisis has given American conservatives the chance to reprise in miniature their mistaken overestimation of communism’s power. When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, the right lamented Barack Obama’s slow, contemplative diplomacy, which was no match for Vladimir Putin’s autocratic will. Rudy Giuliani practically lusted after the Russian dictator. “Putin decides what he wants to do, and he does it in half a day. Right? He decided he had to go to their parliament, he went to their parliament, he got permission in fifteen minutes,” swooned the admired foreign-policy strategist.
Chait draws on the classic exposition of alleged western “weakness” in the face of the Soviet Union, Jean-François Revel’s How Democracies Perish, and links that attitude to the more recent American embrace of torture. So do yourself a favor and go back and read Michael Kinsley’s response to Revel, almost 30 years old but as relevant as ever:
Some conservatives speak almost wistfully of the advantages enjoyed by ruthless totalitarians on the one hand and medieval religious zealots on the other, compared to the fluttery, distracted, secular, civilized societies of the West. We are caught, it seems, at a tragically vulnerable stage in political evolution, at the mercy of both the pre-civilized passions of Islamic fundamentalism and the post-civilized machinations of the Soviet Union.
Le plus ça change ….