Book Review: American Sanctions in the Asia‐​Pacific

March 8, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of Pacific Affairs.

American Sanctions in the Asia‐​Pacific
By Brendan Taylor
Routledge, $130, 170 pages

Brendan Taylor’s American Sanctions in the Asia‐​Pacific fills an important niche in the growing body of literature on the use of economic sanctions as a foreign policy tool. Most books on the topic are either broad treatments, often discussing the tactic on a global basis, or narrow analyses that focus on one country or a small group of countries. Taylor’s book is a rare exception that falls in the middle of that spectrum. Moreover, his analysis deals with an especially important portion of the world: the rapidly rising Asia‐​Pacific region.

He undertakes a complex task in a challenging conceptual environment. As he ably demonstrates, there is not even a consensus among scholars about what constitutes sanctions. Some analysts use such a broad definition that everything ranging from firm diplomacy to covert military action could be included. Others adopt such a narrow definition that almost no measure would clear the threshold.

In one respect, Taylor successfully avoids that pitfall by confining the application to coercive economic tactics. But in another respect, he risks fostering conceptual confusion by adopting an excessively broad definition of his own. He regards the lifting of coercive measures or offering benefits to a target country as amounting to sanctions, rather than restricting that concept to the imposition of penalties. It is more logical to argue that removing penalties or holding out the prospect of benefits for cooperative behavior should be considered incentives, not sanctions.

Some of his case studies strongly suggest that carrots are considerably more effective than sticks. That is certainly true of Washington’s removal of economic penalties against India and Pakistan that were imposed in response to the nuclear programs those countries had pursued. The improved ties with both Islamabad and New Delhi following the lifting of sanctions underscored the ineffective and even counterproductive quality of the previous approach.

In addition to the scholarly debate about the definition of sanctions, there is often a lack of clarity in the literature about what constitutes success when the tactic is employed. Taylor does a good job of providing a balanced treatment of that difficult issue. His overall conclusion that sanctions — especially narrowly targeted ones — may have a better track record than most previous scholars believe is certainly open to debate. But he acknowledges that measuring success and establishing a cause‐​effect relationship is often not easy. For example, Washington’s imposition of financial sanctions against Banco Delta Asia appeared to prod North Korea to return to the six‐​party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But other factors were also involved. Moreover, merely getting the North Koreans to resume talks has not led, at least as yet, to any meaningful substantive agreements on that dangerous nuclear proliferation problem.

Taylor’s examination of nine case studies during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush provide an informative and sophisticated analysis of contrasting sanctions policies. As Taylor shows, the Clinton administration was inclined to impose broad sanctions against offending regimes. The Bush administration preferred to use more precise sanctions that focused on causing pain to political and economic elites in the target countries, thereby minimizing the collateral damage to the general populations. While the overall success rate of either approach is not easy to establish, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that the selective approach is better. It is questionable whether that more focused approach merits the term “smart sanctions” that its advocates tout, but it is, at a minimum, less harmful than the blunt version that inevitably has the greatest impact on the innocent and largely powerless segments of society.

On balance, American Sanctions in the Asia‐​Pacific is a worthy, well researched and thoughtful addition to the literature on that option in the foreign policy tool kit. It is an especially informative and valuable contribution to knowledge about the use of sanctions in the vital Asia‐​Pacific region. Brendan Taylor has provided an important book that should benefit scholars and policy makers alike.

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