WASHINGTON — Confusion about sanctions--what they mean and what they should accomplish--reigns supreme, particularly in Washington.
The modern concept of sanctions was first devised by the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty; Article 16 provided for joint "facultative" military and compulsory economic and financial actions against League of Nations' members who might violate their noble, peace-seeking commitments. For the next 67 years, international sanctions have proved to be a fiasco, both under the league and under the United Nations, even though they were renamed "effective collective measures" to convey a more high-sounding purpose.
The league's greatest failure came in 1935, when Britain and France did not honor sanctions ordered against Benito Mussolini for invading Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), an aggression that went unpunished.
The United Nations' two attempts at collective sanctions were a Security Council trade embargo against the People's Republic of China during the Korean War in 1951 and an embargo against Southern Rhodesia in response to its unilateral declaration of independence in the 1960s; neither effort made the slightest political difference.
Having given up on U.N. actions, the United States has become the world's leading proponent and organizer of international or unilateral sanctions, applied where America is displeased with the behavior or rhetoric of a foreign government.
But in an "Alice in Wonderland" approach to international law, the Reagan Administration also opposes sanctions where America finds they do not suit the geopolitical purpose. The result is a chaos of definition as well as the disappearance of logical or ethical standards (simple double standards look in retrospect like a blessing) as the Administration consistently confuses sanctions (in their original meaning) with reprisals, a wholly different set of actions in foreign policy and international law. In the process, adversaries often find themselves rewarded (consider the new U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union) while friends find themselves shoved or insulted (consider Western Europe this month after the American push for collective sanctions against Libya).
Now the Administration must decide whether to apply congressionally instigated sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime or veto the legislation before October adjournment on Capitol Hill. Chances are that the White House, which dislikes these sanctions, will produce some odd compromise to escape electoral damage in November. It must also decide whether Poland--subjected to unilateral American sanctions in December, 1981, after the destruction of the Solidarity free trade-union movement--may regain full relations with the United States now that political prisoners have been freed. The Soviets, sponsors of the prior Polish suppression, were not punished.
Theoretically, South Africa and Poland come roughly under the heading of "sanctions" as intended in Versailles, although Woodrow Wilson and company clearly never contemplated international sanctions applied to deal with domestic situations, however praiseworthy the motive.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a classic case of justified sanctions; President Jimmy Carter imposed them but President Ronald Reagan lifted them because American farmers were hurting. Reagan did not want to punish U.S. farmers with grain embargoes at the approach of elections. At one time, freedom for Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union was a major motivation for continuing U.S. trade with Moscow, but by this summer emigration was at a second all-time low, with only 31 departures.
South Africa is the toughest test because it fits the historic notion of sanctions: The crisis there may soon plausibly pose a danger to international peace in the sense of the U.N. charter, requiring collective measures of some type. But whether sanctions, as currently proposed by the U.S. Congress and some members of the European Economic Community, are the way of ending apartheid is, unhappily, a debatable proposition.
Rhodesia (now independent Zimbabwe) was the most recent example of a ruling white majority impervious to sanctions, especially when many outside parties cheated or ignored the collective punishment. There is no likelihood that the Afrikaners will forsake their racist philosophy in the face of sanctions against South Africa. Reagan himself has admitted that earlier, mild U.S. sanctions have not worked. Perhaps more to the point, radical African nations have refused to participate in collective sanctions for fear of Pretoria's economic retaliation.