In 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter came up with a way to retaliate: stopping grain sales to Moscow. The boycott, said Commerce Secretary Philip Klutznick, would prove to the world that "aggression is costly" and induce the Soviets to "halt their aggression."
The Soviets did halt their aggression and pull out of Afghanistan. But that didn't happen until nine years later, and it had nothing to do with the grain embargo. American farmers suffered because their prices dropped, but the Kremlin managed to buy grain elsewhere. So the following year, President Ronald Reagan lifted the ban.
The fact that those sanctions proved useless has not stopped President Barack Obama or congressional Republicans from proposing new ones. On Thursday, the president announced he would deny visas and possibly freeze the assets of Russian officials and entities deemed complicit in the invasion of Ukraine.
The measures would prevent American companies from doing business with those individuals and firms. An administration official told The Hill, in words that could have been beamed straight from 1980, that this response would "send a strong message" and "impose costs on Russia."
The real message is different: We have no desire to take military action and don't really expect economic punishment to work, but we have to do something, however pointless. In international relations, governments would rather engage in empty symbolic action than no action at all.
Economic sanctions exert a perennial appeal during geopolitical crises because they spill no blood and cost little money, at least compared to the toll of war. These virtues are enough to make everyone forget that they rarely accomplish anything beyond allowing our leaders to posture.
A revealing example is the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, which was imposed in 1960 with the goal of driving Fidel Castro's communist government from power. The boycott is still in place, more than a half-century later, and so is the regime.
We also tried tightening the economic screws on Iraq before our first war with Saddam Hussein, starting in 1990, and it was highly effective -- if the goal was to torment ordinary Iraqis who had no control over the government. Upward of half a million children died as a result of malnutrition and disease brought on by the embargo. The tyrant we were straining to dislodge, however, stayed in power until the U.S. invasion of 2003.