Economic sanctions are increasingly being utilized as an international relations tool. Even for countries like the United States, which has traditionally utilized military intervention in an effort to control the world around it, economic sanctions are becoming a popular policy alternative. Some international relations and economics scholars have praised sanctions, noting that they are a sharp new tool for effectuating the kind of change that countries are looking for. Others are more muted on the subject, noting that economic sanctions, while drawing tremendous acclaim, are not necessarily the best option depending upon the goals of the nations imposing those sanctions. Depending upon how one defines economic sanctions, and especially depending upon how one chooses to define “success,” it could certainly be argued that economic sanctions are an effective tool.
In order to frame this debate, one must first define its terms. Economic sanctions can be defined and interpreted in a number of different ways, but they are generally understood to be choices made by one government to inflict economic pressure on another government in order to try and coerce some kind of policy change in that second government. As David Baldwin writes, economic sanctions might fall under a definition by which a government chooses to weaken its enemy economically in order to bring about an easier time militarily – an idea Baldwin calls “economic warfare” – but typically, this falls into a category of statecraft rather than just economic sanctions (Baldwin & Pape). In the traditional sense, economic sanctions can come in many forms, but they share a similar goal – getting the target government to make some sort of tangible change in policy. With that in mind, success of economic sanctions will be largely dependent upon whether or not the target government actually makes the changes that the sanctioning government is looking for. This is not a black and white analysis, of course. It possible for there to be shades of grey by which economic sanctions push a target government into some form of action that is not quite what the sanctioning government was looking for. In conducting an analysis on whether economic sanctions can be a tool for peace – and whether they can encourage a host government to take one action or another – it is important to recognize these critical gradients.
There are many reasons why economic sanctions can fail, and these things stand as a testament to what must happen in order for them to work. Over the course of history, many sanctions have been levied by countries that lack the relationship with the target nation to actually ensure effectiveness of the sanction. Take, for instance, the Canadian embargo against South Africa when Apartheid was taking place. During this particular period, no planes from South Africa were allowed to land in Canada at all (Pape). This could be seen as the quintessential type of sanction. It effectively barred movement from one country to another, and after the sanction, not a single plane from South Africa landed in Canada. The problem, of course, was that no planes had landed in Canada from South Africa in the years before the sanctions, either. What was the effect of the sanction? There was no tangible economic effect, and as a result, Canada’s action was little more than a political tool to show that it was against Apartheid. This is one of the primary reasons why sanctions so often fail. The relationship between Canada and South Africa was of such a nature that Canada did not have the ability to bring about changes in South African policy. As Baldwin and Pape note, this is one of the primary reasons why sanctions so often do not have the intended impact. They are just political tools that send a message without truly effectuating consequences on the target nation.
For this reason, researchers have noted that in order for sanctions to be effective, there must be a tangible relationship of trade between the two countries involved. Typically, this can be measured as a function of GDP. When the GDP of the target country is less than ten-percent predicated on trade with the country imposing the sanctions, then it is likely that the sanctions will not have the intended effect. From this evidence, one can conclude, quite simply, that one of the most important keys to ensuring that sanctions work is that there is enough leverage on the part of the sanctioning country. This suggests that the answer to whether sanctions are effective or not is that “it depends.” In some cases, sanctions can work, but in many cases, they are simply not designed in a way that is going to make the target nation change its behavior in any legitimate way.
Another reason why sanctions sometimes do not work has to do with the realities of levying sanctions. Given the international law that is involved and how most countries operate today, levying sanctions is something that requires much discussion and a drawn-out process. Likewise, in most cases, sanctions are imposed on a multi-lateral basis, so many different nations will be involved in ensuring that sanctions are levied and respected. What this all means from a practical perspective is that sanctions, as carried out in the real world, give the target nation plenty of time to make the appropriate preparations (Hufbauer, Schott, Elliot). The entire idea behind sanctions is that they are supposed to drain the resources of target nations in such a way that those target nations have to respond in order to survive. If target nations are given time to prepare, then they can make agreements with nations that are not a part of the sanctioning body. They can tap into any resource reserves that they might have. What this example suggests is that sanctions, as a policy tool, have too many logistical hurdles to climb over in order to be effective. While they might be a good idea in theory, they are much more difficult to apply in practice because target nations are not required to operate in a vacuum. Quite often, it is not the entire international world that is levying sanctions. This means that, in the increasingly globalized arrangement that the world currently utilizes, target nations can very easily make agreements with other nations to mitigate the effect of sanctions.
This, of course, begs the need for more cooperation between various nations when it comes to levying sanctions. It might also speak to the need for more secrecy in the discussions on sanctions so that the target nation will not have such a specific idea of what it is going to be facing. This would help to make sanctions more effective. This is mostly an argument against the application of sanctions rather than the theory, but both much work in concert in order for there to be legitimate results today.
With those things being said, there are some very strong modern examples that add credence to the idea that sanctions can be a powerful force for good in international relations. These examples suggest that the world has learned from its mistakes, and it suggests that going forward, sanctions can help to bring about the kind of policy coercion that is usually intended with these kinds of initiatives.
One of the seminal cases to consider is that of Iraq with Sadaam Hussein. The United States was looking to gain some kind of military edge by flushing out Hussein from an economic standpoint. Likewise, the global community wanted to make a statement against some of the practices of the government run by Hussein. In levying sanctions against Hussein, the global community acted differently than it has in the past. Rather than waiting around, talking about sanctions for such a long period of time that the target nation had a chance to react and prepare, the global community levied sanctions in a historically significant amount of time. It took less than a week for the global community to decide to sanction Iraq (Alnasrawi). The sanctions were levied and held in place right away, which was a significant move in ensuring that they would be a success.
In addition to that, the sanctions were a multi-lateral effort like the world had not seen before. Sanctions are obviously quite easier in the modern world. Organizations like the EU, the United Nations, and even the G8 – now the G7 – all give the global community a much easier time of levying target nation sanctions in concert. When dealing with Iraq and Hussein, the global community acted with a singular force. This was made much more dramatic by the joining of Switzerland into the fray. The normally reserved and neutral country decided to join the international community. While its contribution in itself was not that significant, it was a sign of the level of cooperation on the part of various nations. With so many countries coming together, Iraq did not have the capacity to reach out to regional and global partners to alleviate some of its pain. Rather, the sanctions accomplished what they were meant to accomplish – put enough economic pressure on Iraq that it was forced to respond in a hurry in order to try to save itself. With so many nations being a part of the sanctioning body, there was enough economic leverage from a trade perspective to put a serious dent in the operations of the country.
What the Iraq case showed is that trade can be a force for peace in some instances. In this case, trade partners all came together in order to make sure that Iraq would have to change its ways. With enough pressure and the proper concerted action, the global community sent a loud message to Hussein and those running the government in Iraq – if they wanted to have any chance at prosperity whatsoever, then they would have to respond in an appropriate way, suitable to the international community.
Some argue that sanctions are becoming more and more effective as the world is shrinking. This is perhaps true because most of the logistical problems with sanctions can be cured by more cooperation among the major powers of the world. This is perhaps why, over the last couple of decades, sanctions have shown themselves to be much more successful at accomplish their stated goals. This will most certainly be tested over time, as it appears that countries like Iran and others are beginning to draw the ire of the international community. Sanctions have arisen as an alternative to other forms of more aggressive action taken by the international community, and in that regard, they have been a success. Countries like the United States are less likely now to invade countries and more likely to simple lean on countries from an economic standpoint. While the execution is crucial to the success of these plans, economic sanctions can be successful if they are done properly.
- Alnasrawi, A. (2001). Iraq: economic sanctions and consequences, 1990–2000. Third World Quarterly, 22(2), 205-218.
- Baldwin, D. A., & Pape, R. A. (1998). Evaluating economic sanctions. International Security, 23(2), 189-198.
- Hufbauer, G. C., Schott, J. J., & Elliott, K. A. (1990). Economic sanctions reconsidered: History and current policy (Vol. 2). Peterson Institute.
- Pape, R. A. (1997). Why economic sanctions do not work. International Security, 22(2), 90-136.