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War, Sanctions, and Sanity: A Purely Hypothetical Inquiry

Dealing with specific geopolitical circumstances can be messy. We may disagree on the facts and on which sources are reliable, making it hard to make any headway in a discussion. This may be further compounded by extreme emotions we may have about that situation. The advantage of purely theoretical inquiry is that we can stipulate the facts so as to make the analysis as simple as possible, and avoid much of the emotional baggage that stymies understanding.

Once we understand the underlying logic of something in its idealized form, we may find it much easier to understand the actual version of it. Of course, often the real-life application of theory will involve a lot of unexpected complications, so pure theory is never perfectly applicable, but it does help.

There is an important topic right now on which some good underlying theory would be highly useful. In the interests of improving that theory, let’s consider two hypothetical actions that one might advocate one’s government take in response to an expansionist nuclear power. They are the two most obvious and commonly proposed options. They are: war and sanctions.


One option is to send your military to engage with the expansionist nuclear power. The problem is that this has the vexing possibility of leading to a nuclear war. I will assume that you, the reader, are a noninsane person and so you consider this outcome undesirable.

That is all. Moving on to the next one.


The most popular alternative to war is to enact economic sanctions against the expansionist nuclear power. An economic sanction is a restriction on trade between the people of your country and the people of the target country. The justification for this is that it will hurt the economy of the offending nation, thus punishing them.

The obvious question then is how that helps anything. After all, it is not the economy of the nation whose international expansion we are worried about, it is the country’s government—specifically its military. The sanctions will harm the economic prospects of all the people living in the offending country, most of whom have nothing to do with the expansionist practices of the government that rules over them.

The answer usually given is that if their economy is harmed, their people may depose their current government and replace it with one which does not have such expansionist intentions. Since this possibility is known to their current government, their current government may decide to cease their expansionist tendencies in order to avoid being deposed.

However, this is unlikely to work. Many populations have shown that they will not depose their government, even when starving to death. The clearest examples of this are the communist experiments in Russia and China. There are many theories about what causes populations to revolt, but these examples show that mere economic condition alone is insufficient. The Russian collapse didn’t come until after they started to be less tyrannical, indicating that dire economic conditions may actually make the populace rally around the government more in some circumstances.

Another possible argument for sanctions is that rather than the people revolting, the leaders will cave to the pressure and halt their invasion in order to have the sanctions lifted because they would rather rule a rich country than a poor one. The first issue with this is that it would require that they believe that your government will actually roll back the sanctions if they comply. Governments tend not to be particularly trustworthy, and so this may be a tough sell. Even barring that issue however, you also have the problem that many leaders are perfectly willing to be supreme rulers of a poverty stricken hellhole. Again, this is evidenced by the communist phases of Russia and China.

Incidentally, if the country you have in mind for this hypothetical is similar to one of the two examples mentioned, then sanctions would be even more foolish. If a government which is literally starving its people—many of them to death—is not enough to get the population to depose their government, nor the government to change their ways, then it seems all the more unlikely that the economic harm caused by your government’s sanctions will be.

Finally, sanctions also harm the people of your own country. The people of your country trade with the people of that other country because they find the products and/or prices to be preferable to those they can get elsewhere. The corollary to this is that banning them from purchasing those products will mean they will have to get worse products, or less of them. That is the same thing that happens when you get poorer—you have to get worse products or less of them—so in effect, the sanctions are making the people of your own country poorer.

So, to sum up, sanctions harm innocent people in your country as well as innocent people in the other country, and there is no good reason to expect them to achieve anything anyway.

Sanctions Are Not Just “Refusing to Trade”

It is common among defenders of sanctions to describe them as just “refusing to trade” with the offending nation. Considered this way, it sounds downright reasonable. If you found that your mechanic was attacking violently attacking people (barging into their property, killing and looting as he goes), then taking your business elsewhere next time you need your car fixed would be the very least you could do!

However, this is not a fair analogy to an economic sanction in two ways.

First, sanctions don’t just mean that your government will refuse to trade with the foreign nation, they mean that your government is threatening to fine or jail anyone in your own country who engages in trade with that foreign nation. This is less like refusing to do business with that violent mechanic, and more like threatening to attack anyone who does do business with him.

Second, economic sanctions are enforced against entire nations—not just the offending government. Many of the people in the nation that your sanctions affect will not support the actions of that nation’s government, but your sanctions will harm them just the same. So, really this is less like threatening to attack anyone who does business with the violent mechanic, and more like threatening to attack anyone who does business with any of the mechanic’s neighbors.

Describing economic sanctions as “refusing to do business with the attacker” is not just wrong in some kind of pedantic, technical sense. It intentionally obscures the horrendous evil that sanctions represent.

So, What Do We Do?

The correct strategy to take when dealing with an expansionist nuclear power is to negotiate. They do not want to get into a nuclear war either, so you should try to figure out what factors are making them take actions which could risk one, and if your government is involved producing those factors, stop doing that. You should also try to understand what sort of concessions they would be willing to accept in order to achieve peace.

What about Perverse Incentives?

The obvious retort is that in appeasing one or more of their demands your government would thereby incentivize them, and other nuclear powers, to invade small countries in order to gain concessions from your country. This is a real risk. It can be mitigated to some degree by restricting the concessions to things your government ought to have been doing anyway. A purely hypothetical example might be, if your government is expanding its entangling military alliances ever closer to the borders of the offending nation, making them think they need to use drastic means to sure up ambiguously aligned countries surrounding them, then your government could consider not doing that. Whatever the specific situation though, governments are always doing something they shouldn’t. There are likely to be concessions that your government can make to the foreign power, which consist only of no longer doing things they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.

This will reduce the incentive for invasion that any concession to an expansionist power might risk producing, but it does not eliminate the risk entirely. You must therefore weigh up two bad options. On one hand, there is the (mitigated) risk of perverse incentives. On the other, there is the direct economic harm to innocent people on both sides, posed by the sanctions, military action, or other acts of war that you are proposing, plus the risk of nuclear war that you would be creating, adjusted for the very likely possibility that your actions (especially the sanctions) fail to accomplish anything productive anyway. The actual details of whichever real-world event you are applying this reasoning to must be taken into account, but it does seem a priori as though negotiation is likely to be the only noninsane option here.

Is That All?

You might wonder if this is really all we should advocate for in the face of such a terrible situation for the citizens of the invaded country.

First, we should remind ourselves that we’ve been talking about what the nuclear-armed government of your country should do. As an individual, if you believe that a foreign country really is worth risking your life over, then perhaps you should go join their army and fight the invading power. As a private individual, you are not likely to trigger the start of a nuclear war by engaging with the nuclear-armed government.

Beyond that, there is one more thing that it makes sense for the government of your country to do to help those attacked by the foreign nation: accept refugees.

If you believe that innocent people of one nation are being attacked by the warmongering government of another (a highly plausible scenario, given the history of governments) then you should advocate that your government remove all immigration restrictions on the people of the victim nation. Anyone with a passport of the attacked country should be allowed in, no questions asked.

Whatever the costs you believe are associated with accepting refugees, they are surely outweighed by the harm of sanctions and the risk of war. In fact, if you are not willing to advocate for the acceptance of any and all refugees from the attacked nation, but you are willing to advocate for sanctions or even direct military action, then any claim that you are motivated by compassion for the innocent is cast into serious doubt. In that case, we must begin to consider other reasons you might be advocating for sanctions, or war. Purely hypothetically, of course.

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