And no matter how tempting it is to call Obama, Carter II, the Carter sanctions had some actual teeth in them. The Obama sanctions are a punchline.
In 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter came up with a way to retaliate: stopping grain sales to Moscow. The boycott, said Commerce Secretary Philip Klutznick, would prove to the world that “aggression is costly” and induce the Soviets to “halt their aggression.”
The Soviets did halt their aggression and pull out of Afghanistan. But that didn’t happen until nine years later, and it had nothing to do with the grain embargo. American farmers suffered because their prices dropped, but the Kremlin managed to buy grain elsewhere. So the following year, President Ronald Reagan lifted the ban.
The fact that those sanctions proved useless has not stopped President Barack Obama or congressional Republicans from proposing new ones. On Thursday, the president announced he would deny visas and possibly freeze the assets of Russian officials and entities deemed complicit in the invasion of Ukraine.
The measures would prevent American companies from doing business with those individuals and firms. An administration official told The Hill, in words that could have been beamed straight from 1980, that this response would “send a strong message” and “impose costs on Russia.”
The real message is different: We have no desire to take military action and don’t really expect economic punishment to work, but we have to do something, however pointless. In international relations, governments would rather engage in empty symbolic action than no action at all.
Sanctions can work on states that are basically democratic and want relations with the rest of the world. They don’t work on totalitarian oligarchies that are expert at black market tactics and whose elites actually end up profiting from them, the way that Saddam did.
Experts on the subject are divided into two groups: those who think sanctions usually fail and those who think they almost always fail. Gary Hufbauer, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, says sanctions have been effective in about 30 percent of the cases they’ve been used. But he doubts the steps taken by Obama — what he calls “light” sanctions — will make any difference in Ukraine.
“The success rates for symbolic or ‘light’ sanctions, for sanctions against autocratic governments, and for sanctions seeking territorial concessions are lower,” he said by email. For anyone hoping to get the Russians out of Crimea, he said, “these findings are not auspicious.”
Pessimists are even gloomier. University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape calculates that sanctions have worked less than 5 percent of the time. The intractable obstacle, he has written, is that modern governments are “willing to endure considerable punishment rather than abandon what are seen as the interests of the nation.”
So the odds are not on Obama’s side.