Will Biden’s Sanctions Help Restore Democracy in Myanmar?

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Will Biden’s Sanctions Help Restore Democracy in Myanmar?

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On January 31st, generals in Myanmar seized power, after their political allies lost an election in a landslide to the National League for Democracy, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi. She was detained, along with other party leaders, and remains under house arrest. Since then, Suu Kyi’s supporters have poured into the streets to demand the restoration of democracy, and civil servants and workers across the country have walked off their jobs. “If we stop going to work, the economic sector will stop working,” a bank employee named Daw Thandar Kyaw told the Times. “The military dictators care about the economy because they love money.” If enough strikers disrupt the economy, he added, “I strongly believe that we can bring down the dictators.”

President Joe Biden has acted on a similar hypothesis: on February 10th, his Administration imposed sanctions on Myanmar, freezing a billion dollars in government assets in the United States and restricting exports to the military. “A strong and unified message emerging from the United States has been essential, in our view, to encouraging other countries to join us in pressing for an immediate return to democracy,” Biden said. Last week, Canada and Britain also enacted asset freezes in response to the coup.

The sanctions announcements had a familiar, push-button quality. Indeed, promoting democracy and seeking regime change in autocracies has been the most common goal of economic sanctions since early in the twentieth century, according to research by Manuel Oechslin, a Swiss economist. Such cases account for just under half of economic-sanctions episodes between 1914 and 2000. Yet sanctions haven’t been especially effective, whether they have sought to topple autocrats, prevent nuclear proliferation, or coerce coöperation against drug trafficking. In fact, they work only about a third of the time, and perhaps much less often, depending on whose interpretive academic research you prefer.

Other research has repeatedly found that, when the goal in the targeted country is to promote democracy, economic sanctions tend to make things worse, because they create a “rally round the flag” effect that dictators can exploit to strengthen their grip. Also, when sanctions destabilize and delegitimize despots such as Myanmar’s generals, those targeted may feel an increased sense of vulnerability and crack down even harder on the domestic politicians, journalists, and civil-society activists who threaten them. “Even targeted sanctions—whether they’re in the form of financial sanctions, asset freezes, and travel restrictions—those sanctions put enough pressure” on autocrats to cause them to repress opponents harder, Dursun Peksen, a political scientist at the University of Memphis and a longtime sanctions researcher, told me.

This evidence about sanctions’ poor track record and boomerang effects has been around for years, and yet Presidents often seem at a loss to do anything but roll out more every time there is an event like the coup in Myanmar. One reason, David Baldwin, a Princeton political scientist and the author of the influential book “Economic Statecraft,” argues, is that, in many cases, the only realistic alternatives to imposing sanctions are to threaten military force or do nothing. In the case of Myanmar, for example, the Biden Administration faced a specific choice: it could allow the generals to access the U.S.-held assets, which might then be used to consolidate the generals’ power and marginalize advocates for democracy, or it could not. “The alternative is often business as usual,” Baldwin told me. “How do you justify doing business as usual with a regime like that?”

The spreading use of “targeted” or “smart” sanctions has also made it easier to push the sanctions button, because policymakers can argue that they are not hurting innocent populations—as happened in Iraq during the nineteen-nineties—but are, instead, directly aiming tailored sanctions at bad actors, often individuals who are singled out by name. But the idea that targeted sanctions have only narrow effects may also be an illusion. These days, the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list is more than fifteen hundred pages long. More broadly, sanctions skeptics, such as Joy Gordon, a philosopher and ethicist at Loyola University Chicago, say that the use of American power in global banking and finance to pressure rogue regimes in supposedly narrow ways can nonetheless have devastating humanitarian effects. Complying with even fine-tuned sanctions can be complicated, and risk-averse banks and corporations will sometimes shut down all dealings with a targeted country in order to avoid exposure to prosecution and penalties—such as a penalty of nearly nine billion dollars that BNP Paribas was required to pay, because it facilitated prohibited financial transactions on behalf of Iranian, Cuban, and Sudanese entities subject to U.S. economic sanctions.

“This kind of moment is so familiar to us,” Gordon told me, referring to the military takeover in Myanmar. “There are terrible things going on. These are terrible people. We have some of their money. Should we do nothing? I think it’s often framed that way, as if the morality is obvious—as though things won’t have secondary or tertiary complications,” such as suddenly stripping a low-income country of banking services and capital.

What works? There is “some consensus” in social-science literature “that multilateral sanctions tend to work better than unilateral sanctions,” Peksen said. (Partly because of the dollar’s role as a global reserve currency, and the related power of the U.S. banking system, the U.S. has resorted to unilateral sanctions far more than any other country, and, according to the Treasury Department, it maintains active sanctions programs related to more than twenty countries, from Belarus to Zimbabwe.) Targeted countries are also “more likely to give in to allies than to adversaries,” Peksen added. “You don’t want to look weak in front of adversaries, which will undermine your position in domestic politics.”

It doesn’t require a political scientist’s spreadsheet to see that autocrats are ascendant across the world these days. In Russia, Belarus, and Hong Kong, for example, autocrats seem to have learned how to wait out even the boldest pro-democracy protest movements. According to last year’s annual democracy report by the V-Dem Institute, a Swedish research group, for the first time since 2001, there are more autocracies than democracies in the world. As a result, fifty-four per cent of the people on earth, living in ninety-two countries, are governed by autocrats. Yet the fuller picture is one of intensifying struggle: the share of countries with “substantial pro-democracy mass protests” also grew markedly between 2009 and 2019, from twenty-seven per cent to forty-four per cent.

If the United States is to participate successfully in this struggle, there is obviously a need for fresh thinking in Washington, deeper collaboration among democratic allies, humility, and experimentation. The Biden Administration has signalled that it wants to openly promote the protection of human rights in its foreign policy, and to be led by evidence and science on challenges ranging from climate change to the coronavirus pandemic. The logic of that outlook would be to stop automatically adopting economic sanctions that research shows don’t work, and to think harder with allies about alternative, more effective, and peaceful ways to challenge autocrats and support democracy campaigners in diverse settings—even where, as in Myanmar, the opposition is far from exemplary.

The danger is that what is often called “sanctions fatigue” seems to be acquiring a corollary of “democracy-promotion fatigue.” It is born of a recognition of past hubris and failure abroad, not least in Iraq; weariness with imperfect outcomes and flawed democratic opposition leaders in far-flung autocratic states; and the erosion of democratic norms at home, requiring the prioritization of restoration work here. Yet the United States and its democratic allies will ultimately defeat themselves if they shrink from their convictions in this time of global contest over liberalism, or if they draw back from their programmatic work aimed at helping to foster a world of pluralism and expansive individual rights.

On February 20th, security forces shot dead at least two people and wounded at least thirty others in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city. The next day, protesters were back in the streets. “This could be our last revolution,” one told the Guardian. “It depends not just on local civilian power but outside help from the U.N. and U.S.” A protester’s sign in the city of Yangon asked “How many should be dead until the UN takes action?” The pleas are painfully familiar: printed out in English for a global audience, offered by powerless people risking their lives, and utterly unlikely to be answered. Surely the minds that steward the world’s largest democracies—societies still so attractive to many across the world—can find a better way.

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