The Cost of Nonviolent Sanctions

How did the Chinese Pro-Democracy Movement compare in price to guerrilla warfare?
Christopher Kruegler is President of the Albert Einstein Institution, an organization that Gene Sharp founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It supports research on nonviolent sanctions.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

Metta Spencer: What are nonviolent sanctions?

Christopher Kruegler: Things like strikes, boycotts, the creation of parallel government institutions. These sanctions impose a cost on opponents and may change their behavior, but they do not threaten human lives or cause physical injury. We distinguish these sanctions from the philosophical commitment to nonviolence as an ethic. People who engage in a general strike, or an educational boycott, or a rent strike, say, don't usually do so because they've suddenly converted to loving their enemies, but because such behaviors are cost effective and help achieve their objectives without risking the maximum repression. Nonviolent sanctions sometimes make an enormous contribution, even in extreme circumstances. For example, we are often asked what nonviolent sanctions could have done against Hitler. We point out that, in actual fact, they did a lot against Hitler. Throughout the Nazi occupations, one of the most useful things populations did was to resist nonviolently. In Denmark, for example, virtually the entire Jewish population was rescued from the camps strictly through nonviolent direct action by bureaucrats and citizens who hid them and helped them escape. Moreover, the harsher aspects of martial law were withdrawn in '44 in response to a general strike in Copenhagen.

Another example is the Iranian Revolution. Because it became violent after the fall of the Shah, we tend to forget that the Shah's regime was largely dismantled by mass nonviolent demonstrations of civilian Iranians. The advance work to those mass mobilizations was done through clandestine cassette tapes disseminated from Khomeini's operation in Paris to local communities in Iran. Khomeini's speeches roused the population to mass resistance. There are plenty of other examples. Nobody anticipated that civil society would be restored in Eastern Europe through nonviolent means-until it was.

Spencer: Are economic sanctions the most effective nonviolent tactic?

Kruegler: They are one arrow in a quiver; the question is whether they are the right arrow for a particular target. In certain cases international economic sanctions are powerful, but they are a two-edged sword. When you use economic sanctions, you may be imposing a cost on an opponent, you are also bearing a cost yourself, and you may be imposing a cost on innocent bystanders. If you do a full international embargo, other people suffer before your target regime.

Spencer: That certainly applied to the situation in Iraq.

Kruegler: Right. During the first five months of the conflict in the Gulf, there were the most comprehensive international economic sanctions that have ever been ranged against an opponent. Moreover, Iraq had serious dependency relationships with some of the coalition partners. We cannot agree with the Bush administration that sanctions were not going to work. They were preempted after five-and-a-half months, whereas at best these sanctions take six to twelve months to start imposing the kinds of costs that influence an adversary. The preemption of economic sanctions was a mistake if the objective was to effect the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait. The decision was made, not because the administration feared that they wouldn't work, but because they feared that the sanctions would work.

Spencer: Why do you say that?

Kruegler: The U.S. objective went well beyond the U.N. coalition objectives: namely, the U.S. wanted to smash the military power of Hussein's regime. Economic sanctions were a good tool for changing the cost/benefit equation with respect to Kuwait, but you cannot smash a sophisticated modern army (which incidentally we had spent the previous decade supplying) with economic sanctions. That was not the right tool for the ultimate objective. Bush saw a military opportunity to do more than the coalition partners originally bargained for.

Spencer: Economic sanctions cut both directions. Was there reason to expect unintended consequences that the coalition could not support?

Kruegler: Yes, but you have to put that in the hopper with all the other unintended consequences. What are the unintended consequences of 200,000 people in Iraq dying from disease and starvation after the effects of our bombardment? What are the unintended consequences to the Arab military institutions of the region, when they see how we pursued and destroyed a retreating force? What kind of credibility is that going to buy for us? We have won the battle but we may still lose the region because we did not have a good diplomatic program. And we still have Saddam Hussein, plus the burning oil wells. We don't know what the total environmental cost will be.

Spencer: Turning to other forms of nonviolent sanctions, besides economic ones such as boycotts, can we talk about the cost of carrying out such operations as you mentioned with regard to, say, the Nazis? Or the People Power movement against Marcos in the Philippines, or the civilian crusade that wanted to oust Noriega from Panama?

Kruegler: Typically such operations are done in economic and political contexts that have already been disrupted. Society is not experiencing business as usual, so the usual calculations aren't meaningful.

Spencer: Are such uprisings usually spontaneous?

Kruegler: I would use the word "improvised." For instance, the Chinese students' Pro-Democracy movement was not spontaneous. Over a four-year period students were organizing telephone trees and minor demonstrations which we outside didn't hear about until the big one. They were developing a culture of opposition. But once a big social mobilization such as the Chinese student movement starts, many tactics get improvised. The hunger strike, during early May, 1989 was an improvisation. When people improvise nonviolent struggles, they make off-the cuff cost/benefit judgments, sometimes intuitively, sometimes explicitly as they go along, but those are not calculated in strict economic terms. Not, what does it cost to run a demonstration of hundred thousand students? But rather, what is our likelihood of running into what level of oppression if we do it this way versus that way?

Spencer: So it would be difficult to compare the financial costs of, say, a nonviolent direct action campaign to guerrilla warfare.

Kruegler: Actually, there is more meaningful comparison to guerrilla warfare because, like civilian struggle, guerrilla warfare is labor intensive. It is more about mobilizing people, and is less about high tech and battles. So one crude comparison you can make is that civilian struggle or nonviolent sanction is cheaper economically than conventional warfare. It doesn't require equipment that runs into billions of dollars. It is not a technologically intense conflict. The costs are directly borne by those civilians who execute nonviolent sanctions and who then have to deal with the consequences.

Spencer: The cost of the photocopier and of going to jail .

Kruegler: Even in Panama and China, for example, a lot was done with accessible technology-fax machines, telephones, walkie-talkies. There is just no comparison between that and multi-division tank battles.

Spencer: And guerrilla warfare itself varies technologically-all the way from bows and arrows up.

Kruegler: That has always been the case. I think in Ché Guevara's equation, ninety percent of the activity of guerrilla warfare was to win the hearts and minds of the host population. But a considerable amount of activity does go into challenging the dominant military power in guerrilla warfare. That is done to elicit enough repression to galvanize the host population against the military, or in some cases to convince the population
that the military cannot protect them, and thus to bring their loyalty over to the opposite side. So guerrilla warfare is specifically designed to call down repression on the host population, and does so very effectively. The areas of occupied Europe which saw a lot of partisan violence during the war suffered catastrophic levels of civilian casualties-far more than were suffered where the civilian population challenged the occupation regime directly.

Spencer: Suppose societies mobilize for nonviolent defence. Will this entail disarmament?

Kruegler: To some extent, some military are already making that transition. Some small countries, such as Sweden and Lithuania, understand that they don't have a realistic military option. Sweden's defence policy prepared use of nonmilitary forms of resistance. Methods of psychological warfare, of making the society ungovernable from within, in the event of a possible challenge, those are already in a small way part of the repertoire of some national defence policies. We use the word "transarmament" because we assume no country is going to trust its security policy to an untried technique. A civilian resistance component is added to the general policies of the country, and we think that as it proves itself it will become a more significant part of people's defence thinking. The government of Lithuania has declared that in the event of a full Soviet occupation, its national policy will be direct resistance of a civilian population through primarily nonviolent means. That will be an important test case. As with sanctions in the Gulf, I hope the outcome won't be considered definitive; we now have the burden of a self-fulfilling prophecy-that we had comprehensive sanctions and they "didn't work," so next time they may not be chosen. We may opt again for a disastrous Desert Storm. Similarly, if the Lithuanians get invaded, the outcome will be case-specific. We'll learn from it, but it won't prove that that is the right or wrong course for, say, Estonia or Belorussia.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1991

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1991, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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