The efficacy of diplomacy and sanctions in a multi-polar world



As much as military action preoccupies many with an interest in international security, it is often not the first port of call when global norms, standards and peace are threatened. At first, states will often aim to change the behaviour of actors in the international community that may be violating human rights, waging war or endangering international peace and security through economic and political means. These include measures such as asset freezes, loan restrictions, arms and economic embargoes, travel restrictions and political backing.

In today’s globalised world, regional crises are seeing increased involvement from the international community. A current case in point is Venezuela. From years of corruption, growing debt and economic mismanagement throughout the governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s economy is now experiencing an inflation rate of over 1 million per cent, resulting in 61 per cent of Venezuelans living in extreme poverty. Since 2015, 3 million Venezuelans have taken refuge outside the country, with most being hosted in surrounding countries like Colombia and Peru.

Exacerbating the situation is a political crisis. On 23 January 2019 Juan Guaidó, President of the National Assembly and opposition leader, declared himself acting President of Venezuela in line with the country’s constitution after claiming the May 2018 elections - which saw Maduro re-elected - were rigged.

Political tensions have also translated into violence. In February 2019 violent clashes were seen as government forces attempted to stop aid coming in from Colombia and Brazil, and this month has seen a violent crackdown of protestors on the streets of the capital Caracas by security forces after Guaidó called for mass protests and the country's military to oust Maduro.

While the potential of the crisis to cause regional instability is clear, the international community’s strategy to help resolve it is less so. Looking at key international actors’ responses to events in Venezuela, their strategies and the underpinning economic and political tactics exist on a spectrum.

The United States has been the strongest proponent of opposition to Maduro’s government. Despite leaving the possibility open for military intervention, US Vice President Mike Pence has assured the US will “continue to isolate Maduro economically and diplomatically until democracy is restored”. In January 2019, the US imposed its toughest sanctions yet, including withholding proceeds from Venezuela's state-owned oil firm PDVSA. As Venezuela is an oil-dependent state, Maduro’s government relies on PDVSA for 95 per cent of its export earnings.

The EU and the Lima Group have opted for the middle ground. Most member states of both groups have thrown their support behind Guaidó and the EU has extended an arms embargo, travel bans for key officials and has had asset freezes in place since 2017. Despite these measures, the EU is working through a International Contact Group (ICG), which includes several members of the Lima Group, to “... support a peaceful, political, democratic and Venezuelan-owned resolution to the crisis, excluding the use of force, through free, transparent and credible presidential elections, in accordance with the Venezuelan Constitution.”

Both China and Russia are openly supporting Maduro. Both countries have an economic stake in his government – China is estimated to have loaned Venezuela over AUD$88bn since 2007, and Russia approximately AUD$24bn since 2006. While both countries have strongly opposed foreign military intervention in Venezuela, Russia has reportedly sent 100 military advisers to support Maduro.

As enlightening as these stances are on the geopolitical aims of the key states involved in the international response to Venezuela’s crisis, they also say something important about the economic and political tactics employed to achieve these aims.

None of the tactics have been particularly effective in making strides towards ending the crisis in Venezuela in large part due to the lack of a united strategy. The effectiveness of US and EU economic sanctions is undermined by Russia and China’s economic loans. Further, the efforts of the ICG to mediate a political solution between conflicting parties is not helped by the mounting geopolitical tensions brought into play by the US and Russia through their opposing positions on the legitimacy of Maduro’s government.

For economic and political pressures to be effective, they need to be channelled by multiple actors through a cohesive strategy, not through divergent and competing ones. Unfortunately, history does not bode well for future successes. A study into over 100 instances of sanctions since 1916 found that they only achieved their intended goals 34 per cent of the time.

Today’s multipolar world does not favour increasing this figure. The Venezuelan case adds to others such as Myanmar, where economic and political pressure has been applied with limited success. These highlight how much of a hurdle finding united fronts in tackling international and regional crises still is.

The consequence of failing coordination of economic and political measures between different actors in the international community leads to an increased likelihood of military action being taken. This is an eventuality Venezuela is beginning to confront.

Philip Taleski is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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