[Richard Nephew, The Art of Sanctions. A View from the Field. Columbia University Press. Chichester. New York, 2018. 216 p.]
review / Emili J. Blasco
International sanctions often arouse a lively discussion between those who defend them as a legitimate instrument of state-to-state interaction and those who consider that their application has had little effect other than to increase the suffering of entire populations through no fault of their own.
To the question of whether these sanctions, which may be of various kinds but are mainly of an economic nature, are of any use, Richard Nephew answers that it depends. And this is not an evasion, but rather a defense of his own tools by a mechanic of U.S. diplomacy (Nephew was director for Iran at committee National Security and deputy coordinator for sanctions at department ): "Sanctions do not fail or succeed. Rather, sanctions help or fail to achieve the desired result end of a sanctioning state (...) Tools can only perform well when they are employed with the right strategy; you can't accuse the saw if it fails to perform the work of a screwdriver."
Nephew is not a theorist of sanctions, but a "practitioner"; the content of his book comes from experience ("A view from the field" is the subtitle of the book). This experience makes him convinced of the usefulness of these measures, provided they are applied in an appropriate manner. He basically gives the example of two cases: that of Iraq, where the sanctions did not achieve the intended goal due to a bad approach to international pressure, which finally led to war in 2003, and that of Iran, where the regime of punitive measures on the Islamic Republic had its effect and in 2015 it was possible to sign a agreement to curb the Iranian nuclear program.
An active participant in the Iran sanctions architecture, Nephew expands on the case of negotiations with Tehran, after first briefly addressing the Iraq chapter. From all this he draws conclusions and presents his own decalogues on how sanctions should be approached if they are to be effective. In the last pages he tries to advise how to conduct a new sanctions package on Iran, to control its missile program and contain its activity abroad through proxies, but without breaking the agreement reached (JCPOA) as the Trump Administration has done; how to manage the pressure on Russia in relation to Ukraine; and how to confront the attitude of North Korea. It does not address other situations that the discussion on sanctions has well in mind, such as Trump's harshness towards Cuba, in the framework of a decades-long embargo that has not produced changes on the island, or the encirclement of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
Rules for successful sanctioning
Nephew's main conclusion is that "the knowledge of one's opponent, his tolerances and his vulnerabilities, is the most important predictor of the chances of success of a strategy that focuses on sanctions (...) In fact, for sanctions to work, one really must know the enemy better than the enemy knows himself".
That is what, in his opinion, went wrong in Iraq. The sanctions were certainly effective, in that they prevented Saddam Hussein from returning to a program of weapons of mass destruction, but they did not prevent a war. subject This was because the psychology of the leader was not taken into account, who was willing to endure any kind of suffering -which he passed on to the population, without fearing that they might take power away from him- rather than admit that he did not have the powerful arsenal that supposedly made him one of the regional leaders. The international community did not understand how important it was for him to maintain this simulation, in his claim to credibility and prestige, above the pressure of any sanctions package.
There were other shortcomings in the Iraqi process, according to Nephew: maximum sanctions were applied from the beginning, with no room for an incremental policy, and over time there was a shift from goal, from wanting to prevent the rearmament of the regime to proposing a change of the regime itself (even if Saddam Hussein had accepted the conditions that were put to him, Washington would not have admitted his continuity in power).
These mistakes led to a better understanding of the mechanisms at play, which were refined at attention with Iran. Nephew points out that a good understanding of the country targeted by possible sanctions should take into account its political institutions, macroeconomic and financial system, trade relations, cultural values, recent history, demographics and the population's access to external sources of information. This will make it possible to identify the vulnerabilities and the threshold of pain that the government of the day is willing to absorb. Then both the sanctions and the assumptions themselves must be continually recalibrated, following a well-defined strategy. It is also important that the State targeted by the sanctions is clearly presented with the necessary conditions for the pressure to be lifted, at framework of a negotiation with clear terms. Finally, there must be a willingness to help the State under pressure to get out of a labyrinth whose exit it may not perceive, or even to accept lower objectives if these are also reasonable result .
The author states that the three most common causes of failure of a sanctions regime are: falling short, going too far, and confusing objectives. These labels can easily be applied to past processes, but it is not so simple to fix the steps of coercive diplomacy of this subject in ongoing conflicts or conflicts that may occur in the future.
Thus, Nephew himself would not have full guarantees of success with the sanctions he suggests for a new negotiation with Iran in order to limit its missile program and its action through groups such as Hezbollah. At odds with the Trump Administration, he would have preferred to keep the 2015 agreement on the nuclear program (known by its acronym JCPOA) and the consequent lifting of the previously implemented sanctions regime, to move on to different sanctions seeking that other goal. True, the usefulness of Trump's move remains to be seen, but it is difficult to believe that Tehran will give up these other actions for a pressure that in any case would not be so international (China and Russia only lent themselves to a front against Iran because at stake was Iran's becoming a nuclear power).