Why do US sanctions fail? Because a platypus isn’t a bird

Sanctions mostly cause humanitarian crises, not democratisation. The answer lies in biology.

Democracy is under threat around the world. One of the most elaborate multidimensional measures of democracy, the V-Dem Institute in Sweden, notes that today, 72 percent of the world’s population lives in autocracies and only 13 percent in liberal democracies, with 42 countries autocratising – moving farther away from democracy – in the past year.

Yet, such an approach takes a snapshot of current characteristics, fails to acknowledge the different ways in which regimes became undemocratic, and generates unrealistic attempts to nudge regimes towards democracy.

Some regimes do not respond because they are platypus.

In biology, phenetic classification presumes that we can look at different organisms and categorise them according to a snapshot of their characteristics: Birds have beaks; mammals lactate; reptiles can be venomous. Yet, the duck-billed platypus has a beak, lactates, and is venomous. Phenetic categorisation doesn’t always work.

By contrast, cladistic, or evolutionary, approaches trace the branching tree that starts with single-cell organisms and becomes contemporary birds, reptiles, and mammals. The platypus may have some characteristics of birds and reptiles, but its evolution follows the path that branched off to become mammals, so the platypus is in the mammal family.

When thinking about regimes, we would be wise to trace evolutionary paths. In particular, the branching tree to consider is the left or right heritage of different governments.

Ideal-typical left governments come from revolutionary and anti-colonial histories, achieved power with promises to redistribute wealth and lift the poor, were tied to labour and other lower-class social movements, and opposed patterns of racial, ethnic, gender and other exclusions.

Ideal-typical right governments trace their origins to colonial powers, achieved power with promises to support international capital and its local allies, were tied to business associations and landed elites, and supported dominant-group identities against minoritised populations.

Countries do not travel down one or another path randomly. The history of regimes is traced by critical junctures, decision points when social forces come together to institutionalise an option down the left or right evolutionary branch.

Countries that turn down the left path do so because groups of workers, peasants, women, indigenous and minoritised groups come together around anticolonial and transformative projects. Countries that turn down the right path do so because colonial elites, domestic elites, and dominant identity groups shift to the right evolutionary branch.Some of these governments may evolve over time and accrue similarly non-democratic features. This tempts us to characterise them as similarly undemocratic and pursue similar responses, but their split at a past critical juncture is important when thinking about how to move them away from non-democratic rule today.

For example, our increasingly precise measures tell us that countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Philippines are flawed or non-democracies, as was apartheid South Africa.

The phenetic approach observes shared characteristics, like unfair or uncompetitive elections, constraints on civil society, and attacks on the press, and might even consider them similar in their degree of being non-democratic. Yet, approaching them with similar responses would be a mistake.

I mention apartheid South Africa intentionally, as it is the case many use to support the notion that broad sanctions and international isolation can work.

Yet, broad sanctions and international isolation have done nothing to nudge Cuba towards democracy, even after more than 60 years of a brutal embargo. The US currently applies broad sanctions on more than 35 additional countries, causing dramatic humanitarian suffering but no democratisation.The reason is that apartheid South Africa traced its origins to the right evolutionary path. Sanctions isolated the regime from precisely the community that defined its evolution: Western governments and capital, domestic elites and dominant White racial groups.

By contrast, while broad sanctions destroy economies and result in unnecessary deaths in places like Cuba and Venezuela, isolation from the West has had no impact on democratisation in these countries. They may exhibit similarities to right-wing dictatorships, but their evolutionary path lies on the left branch, and policy needs to be sophisticated enough to know the difference.

Non-democracies that trace their origins to the right evolutionary path can be pushed towards greater democracy if their Western benefactors cease supporting them, but not non-democracies that trace their origins to the left.

For countries that trace their origins to the left evolutionary path, attempts by the US and other Western governments to isolate them play into the hands of leaders who use sanctions to burnish their anti-Western credentials, even if they have long ceased leading anti-colonial struggle. Further, they can point to Western isolation as the cause of economic collapse and suffering of the population, even if they have long ceased representing the poor.

Too often, the US is under the mistaken impression that the path to democratisation lies in shifting from the left evolutionary path to the right evolutionary path. Yet, a platypus will never evolve into a reptile. A non-democracy that traces its origins to the left evolutionary path will not democratise by switching to the right.

A country that has strayed from the left evolutionary path democratises by deepening its transformative project and embracing the lower class groups that put it on the left path to begin. International solidarity can support these social forces, calling out deviations from the left evolutionary path, mobilising the core supporters who are the source of legitimacy to such governments. This bolsters truly popular movements in these countries and nudges them back towards the left evolutionary path and democracy.

Unfortunately, this rarely happens for two reasons. First, part of the blame must fall on the international left, which hesitates to criticise governments that trace their origins to the left evolutionary path, even if they have strayed. Yet, the Russian invasion of Ukraine should be a lesson – the international left needs to be sophisticated enough to criticise both the US imperial project which encircled and threatened Russia and the immediately genocidal Russian imperial project which seeks to seize territory from Ukraine.

The second part of the blame lies with the US government and foreign policy establishment, which is too fearful of left popular movements and too easily seduced by potential right-wing allies.

Take Nicaragua. Once a beacon of revolutionary transformation, the Nicaraguan government has taken on the worst features of a patrimonial autocratic regime. A 2018 uprising of students, women, peasants and workers opposed attempts to constrain pension benefits and might have pushed the government back to the left and towards democracy.

Yet, the movement quickly captured the imagination of the US foreign policy establishment, which saw in the protests an opportunity to shift Nicaragua onto the right evolutionary path. As a result, the Nicaraguan government responded with repression and painted the opposition as stooges of the US empire.

The US government has a role to play in pushing governments back towards democracy, but only in regimes that emerged from the right evolutionary path. To such governments, US sanctions and pressure would remove vital support and could nudge them back towards democracy. This is what happened in South Africa; the apartheid state aligned with the US suddenly lost support from its principal benefactor. A similar pressure to democratise from the US could work in other countries already on the right evolutionary path, such as Poland, Israel and the Philippines.

Instead of ineffectively pressuring countries that have followed the left evolutionary path, and in the process causing grave humanitarian damage, the US should focus its democratisation efforts on places where its support plays a critical role, such as those countries that have followed the right path.

A platypus cannot become a bird, but it might become more like other mammals.