Stop! – Or We’ll Say Stop Again!Posted: February 12, 2013
So by now we’ve all heard the news that North Korea has conducted a third underground nuclear explosive test, and according to early indications, this one is a significant improvement in terms of yield over the first two. I won’t get into all the speculation about the type of warhead (uranium or plutonium) or its size (whether improved in miniaturization or other features). I’m sure that will be the topic of discussion over at Arms Control Wonk.
To me, what comes to mind is how this is yet another illustration of how misplaced Western governments’ trust has been and continues to be in the power of economic sanctions, whether multilateral or unilateral, to address nuclear weapons proliferation concerns. It also brings home yet again how misguided the UN Security Council’s strategy has been in dealing with both North Korea and Iran.
The empirical facts about economic sanctions, and the unlikelihood of their success in changing target state behavior in the manner desired by those applying the sanctions, is fairly well documented in existing academic literature and studies. See here, here, and in a piece I wrote about Iran a while ago.
Make no mistake, international sanctions can certainly affect the target state and its economy, and make its citizens’ life a misery. This is certainly happening in both North Korea and Iran. But that’s not the same thing as actually affecting the target state’s behavior in the manner desired, particularly in the context of high politics and security issues like nonproliferation. This is just primal, schoolyard psychology people. If a bully on the school playground orders you not to do something – or else – and if you have any backbone at all, your immediate, natural reaction is to say screw you and do it anyway. Who are you to tell me not to do it? I’ll do it just to show you I can and that you can’t stop me. And its all wrapped up in pride and saving face, and all that just primal psychological stuff that we all know well from our days on the playground and that, at the end of the day, explains so much about international relations – much moreso in my opinion than grand-looking quantitative modeling done by our friends in political science departments (I did a PoliSci MA and was never convinced of the validity of most of the quantitative explanatory work done in the field of international relations theory. Maybe more on that another time).
Rouzbeh Parsi put it well at a conference I recently attended, when he said that international economic sanctions have far more to do with the sanctioners than with the sanctionee. They serve a cathartic purpose for the sanctioning states, so that they can say themselves and to their friends and constituents, that they are doing something about the commonly perceived problem. I honestly think that most high level foreign policy makers know deep down that the sanctions programs they keep outwardly relying on in cases like North Korea and Iran aren’t going to work. They just don’t have any other politically realistic options for expressing to their various intended audiences – mostly consisting of each other and of their domestic political constituencies – that they are trying to do something, and are not allowing the target to “get away” with its bad behavior.
The problem is, of course, that the target keeps getting away with its behavior, and actually seems to do more of the behavior the sanctioners don’t like, in order to show the sanctioners that the sanctions aren’t working. Remember the kid in the schoolyard? So what do the sanctioners do? The only thing they can do – you guessed it – apply more sanctions. And the cycle repeats itself.
I’ve always thought of the UN Security Council’s handling of these two cases – Iran and North Korea – using somewhat interwoven mental analogies to the games of chess and poker. In my opinion, the UNSC’s actions in these cases have shown a really unfortunate inability to look several moves ahead, as one must do in chess, in order to think through how their moves are likely to be countered by the opposing side, and then to what exactly they will do in response at each stage in order to bring their strategy to a successful conclusion (this assumes of course that they have a strategy to begin with). The decisions by the UNSC to command Iran to cease uranium enrichment, and to command North Korea not to conduct further nuclear tests, are prime illustrations of the UNSC overplaying the hand that it originally had (there’s the poker) – i.e. the power and influence that it could predictably exert over the target of their commands – and didn’t fully think through the sequence of moves by both sides that would likely flow from this play of their hand.
The result has been, essentially, that both Iran and North Korea have called the UNSC’s bluff, and now the UNSC is just standing there saying to each one of them “Stop! – or we’ll say stop again!” Unable to withdraw their commands or roll back their sanctions without losing face, the UNSC just looks more and more foolish, and more and more impotent, and their program of action more and more miscalculated, as both targets of their solemnly declared commands and sanctions continue to do exactly what they want to do, rubbing the UNSC’s nose in its inability to stop them. It didn’t have to be this way. If only the members of the UNSC had played more chess and poker.