By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 02/07/08):
The supermarket group Tesco has decided to stop buying produce from Zimbabwe, “while the political crisis exists”. Its competitor, Waitrose, has decided not to stop buying from Zimbabwe. It believes withdrawal would devastate “the workers and their extended families”. They cannot both be right. They are not. Waitrose is right.
Economic sanctions are a coward’s war. They do not work but are a way in which rich elites feel they are “committed” to some distant struggle. They enjoy lasting appeal to politicians because they cost them nothing and are rhetorically macho. They embody the spirit of “something must be done”, the last refuge of stupidity in foreign policy.
Tesco’s decision followed a flurry of publicity about an Anglo American platinum mine, the cancellation of which would throw hundreds of families into abject poverty, and about the shareholdings of some Tory MPs in Zimbabwe-based companies. The minister for Africa, Lord Malloch Brown, told these companies at the weekend to “look very carefully at their investment portfolio” as “the game is changing”. Sanctions should be upgraded.
The African, Commonwealth and international communities have bolstered and cosseted Robert Mugabe’s one-party state for 25 years. Only now the dictatorship has become blatant does this cosseting look tasteless.
Tesco will stop buying from Zimbabwe, “while the political crisis exists”. The misnomer is instructive. A crisis is a moment, not a continuum. Zimbabwe is a long continuum and Tesco is abusing language. It is an accessory after the fact of Mugabe’s selective impoverishment of his people. The idea that such gestures will make him and his henchmen suddenly see the error of their ways is ludicrous. But Tesco is concerned for its image, not for Zimbabwe.
Champions of economic sanctions can find hardly a shred of evidence in their favour, as indicated in the celebrated 1999 Congressional evidence of Richard Haass of Brookings. He was reduced to admitting they were a “blunt instrument that often produces unintentional and undesirable consequences”.
Their first use in modern times, against Italy over Abyssinia in 1935, crashed the lira but did not free the Abyssinians. The US’s most ferocious sanctions drove Cuba into the arms of Russia and came near to precipitating a nuclear war – and cemented Castro in power.
The same futility was seen in action against Russia, Poland, Rhodesia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Iraq and Iran. Subjecting a political economy to siege leads to consequences. It enforces a command economy, in which the rulers keep what they want for themselves, skimming every deal and corrupting every transaction. It made Saddam Hussein the sixth richest man in the world, as it enriched the Taliban warlords, the Burmese generals and Robert Mugabe.
Sanctions over time destroy the mercantile, managerial and professional classes, the rootstock of opposition to totalitarian government. They push power into the hands of brute force. The withdrawal of trade closes factories, farms and mines, and debilitates the political effectiveness of those dependent on them. More people must rely on state handouts – that is, on the regime.
Disinvestment transfers local assets to the ruler’s cronies and prevents foreign traders ameliorating the condition of the people. In South Africa, sanctions tore up the international code of practice enjoined on foreign firms. The recent evolution of “smart sanctions”, supposedly aimed at the rich, indicates the absurdity of “dumb” ones.
Rhodesian sanctions created a command economy that supported the white regime for a decade. This was after Harold Wilson, the British prime minister, predicted the rebel downfall in “weeks not months”.
Enthusiasts regularly cite South Africa, for the reason that it was subject to sanctions and its government eventually fell, as if the one led to the other. I reported this process during the 80s and found the embargos counter-productive. I was guided by such anti-apartheid activists as Desmond Tutu and Helen Suzman, who dismissed sanctions as a liberal feelgood gesture that was merely putting people out of jobs. (Tutu later changed his mind under pressure from US sanctions lobbyists.)
South African sanctions, starting with that most fatuous of gestures, a sports boycott, led to a burst of white entrepreneurship and import substitution. The arms manufacturer Armscor had to direct its investment to counter-insurgency and fast became a world leader in the (illegal) export of field weapons. Indeed, the best thing to be said for sanctions was that they postponed majority rule while a new generation of black people was educated and advanced, as firms realised apartheid was coming to an end.
Those Anglicans, including the Archbishop of York, who call for such economic aggression, cannot be aware of the implications. They seem to regard it as clean and anti-capitalist, a phantom revolution, a pacifist path to political change.
In almost every case sanctions make the evil richer and more secure, and the poor poorer. What have they done for the Burmese or the Cubans? It was war that brought change, albeit chaos, to Iraq and Afghanistan after sanctions had failed. South Africa was transformed not by sanctions but by the collapse of the moral coherence of Afrikanerdom, leading to an orderly transfer of power. It is arrogant for outsiders to claim any part in that remarkable process.
The only clearcut case of a sanction working was the US’s sabotage of sterling during the 1956 Suez crisis. It was effective because Britain was a democracy whose government knew it could not survive a collapsing currency. This is the true paradox: to be susceptible to such pressure a state must have a responsive government, but then such a government should not need sanctioning.
The dictionary definition of the word is “a specific penalty enacted in order to enforce obedience to the law”. It is fine for Malloch Brown to sit in a London TV studio and talk the pseudo-enforcement talk of “the game is changing” and “upping the repertoire of sanctions”. This will not enforce obedience to any law.
Only invasion would do that. But invasion, in this post-Iraq age, is rightly considered a step too far. So instead we pretend. We toss gestures that will not bring about Mugabe’s downfall, only make the poor less able to resist his thugs. And all so that Tesco can feel better for a day.