Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Prologamena to Thinking about Economic Sanctions and Free Trade

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Prologamena to Thinking about Economic Sanctions and Free Trade

Article excerpt

Much has been written about economic sanctions, and even more has been written about free trade. Before delving into the relationship between these phenomena, it is prudent to clarify some concepts, identify some common pitfalls to understanding, and place the topic in a theoretical and historical perspective. This article will focus on economic sanctions with respect to the following topics: (1) the nature of political sanctions; (2) why states use economic sanctions; (3) common pitfalls in thinking about economic sanctions; and (4) historical and theoretical perspectives on economic sanctions and free trade.


Economic sanctions are sometimes divided into two categories-"political" and "nonpolitical." The criterion for deciding which category particular sanctions exemplify is defined in terms of the motives or goals of the policymakers using the sanctions.1 When economic sanctions are used to influence another state's tariff policy or treatment of private foreign investment, for example, they are depicted as "nonpolitical" because the sanctions are being used to pursue "economic" rather than "political" goals. When economic sanctions are used to influence another state's human rights policy or to get that state to disarm or pay war reparations, however, the sanctions are categorized as "political" because they are being used to pursue "political goals."

The practice of differentiating between "political" and "nonpolitical" economic sanctions requires a criterion for distinguishing between political and nonpolitical goals. If an example of such a criterion exists, it has escaped this writer's attention. Unless such a criterion can be found, the distinction between "political" and "nonpolitical" motives (goals, purposes, or ends) is untenable.

Definitions of "politics" take two forms. One emphasizes the state. Politics, it is said, is about government.2 "Political" signifies that which relates to a state, or a society of persons . . . united for the purpose of government."3 This conception of politics cannot be used to differentiate between the political and nonpolitical goals of economic sanctions imposed by states. As activities of the state conducted in pursuit of state goals, all economic sanctions are political sanctions according to this perspective.

The second conception of politics emphasizes processes rather than institutions. According to this view, politics is about social relations involving power, rule, or authority.4 Such a view implies little or nothing about particular goals; any goal that involves power, rule, or authority would seem to qualify as political. Numerous writers have echoed this view:

As a matter of fact the field of political activity cannot be defined, a priori, by reference to particular objects.5

Our definition says virtually nothing about human motives.6

The ends of politics may be anything.7

The goals that might be pursued by nations in their foreign policy can run the whole gamut of objectives any nation has ever pursued or might possibly pursue.8

The idea that certain goals are inherently political while others are not is incompatible with the second conception of politics. Likewise, the idea that economic sanctions can be classified according to whether their goals are political or not is difficult-nay, impossible-to defend. Attempts to influence the foreign economic policy of another state are political in the same sense that attempts to change another state's human rights policy or military activities are political. This is true regardless of the means used in such influence attempts.

Thus, neither of the two most common ways of defining politics allows one to differentiate the political goals of economic sanctions from the allegedly nonpolitical goals. Those who insist on making this distinction are obliged to specify the conception of politics involved in making such judgments. …

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