Do Economic Sanctions Really Work?

Do Economic Sanctions Really Work?

Economic Sanctions are buzzwords in democratic diplomacy. They the first step against a ‘rogue state’ and they are the weapon of choice. And they don’t work.

From the very beginnings of the United States, various administrations have sought to punish other nation-states with economic sanctions. Sanctions can be defined as “economic, diplomatic and coercive military force for the enforcement or an international policy or another state’s policy” (Mingst, 322). Sanctions can be both positive (incentives) or negative (punishments). Normally, the term applies to economic and diplomatic punishments (Mingst, 116). These might include suspension of diplomatic relationships, closing embassies, curtailing trade, freezing assets as well as divestment.

Between 1807 and 1812, the United States passed a series of five nonintercourse acts against Britain between 1807 and 1812 (US State Dept, ¶4-7). The sanctions did not deter British (or French) policy toward the United States and ultimately, the US responded by declaring war.

One hundred and twenty-six years later, the US again used economic sanctions against a nation-state whose actions displeased the United States. This time the US applied sanctions against Japan. In 1938, there was a voluntary ban on private trade, then in 1940, there was a mandatory ban on war materials. Finally, in 1940 the US banned all oil sales to Japan and froze all Japanese assets in the US on July 25, 1941. The result? Less than five months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Not only did economic sanctions not stop Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia as they were intended, but “Historians agree that the freeze order was the final straw causing Japan to attack Pearl Harbor” (Bartlett, ¶4).

Of course, there are as many examples of the failures of sanctions are there are examples of the sanctions themselves. From 1949-1970, the US levied sanctions against China for its assistance to North Korea. From 1950 to today, the US has had sanctions on North Korea. From 1954-1994 the US used sanctions to try to undermine communism in Vietnam. Since 1960, the US has had sanctions in place against Cuba. And since, 1980, the US has had economic sanctions against Iran (US State Dept). None have worked.

From 1990-2003, the UN had sanctions against Iraq. Furthermore, the American and British governments blocked any attempt to end sanctions until Saddam Hussein was out of power ( After thirteen years, it was only the US military invasion of Iraq that ended Hussein’s power and the sanctions. During the period of sanctions, it was the children of Iraq that were hurt, not Hussein or his Baath Party loyalists ( The UN humanitarian aid coordinator to Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, calls the sanctions against Iraq a complete failure (

After all these negative experiences, nation-states still try to use sanctions against other nation-states. Today, the world community slowly attempts to persuade and cajole Sudan into ending the genocide in Darfur. In a carrot and stick approach, economic sanctions are used as the ‘stick.’ Again, the use of economic penalties is an attempt to avoid decision making and to side-step action. The recent decision by the US government is even more passive-aggressive: under the terms of the 2002 Sudan Peace Act, every six months the US president will look into possibly applying sanctions ( Two years later, the UN has threatened the use of sanctions ( while innocent people die in Darfur. The EU also threatens sanctions, but none of these economic penalties have had an effect on the situation in Darfur ( Just as Slobanon Milosevic sought to stall NATO action while he completed his genocide in Kosovo, so do the rhetorical attacks and slow response aid the perpetrators of the genocide in Darfur.

Some sanctions were implemented in 1997 against Sudan ( and the situation has only worsened.

North Korea

Sanctions against North Korea have included suspension of rice shipments, a ban on remittances, suspending cultural and sports exchange programs as well as travel and trade bans (Rennack, pg7).

Just recently, the UN Security Council voted to impose sanctions on North Korea for its recent missile firing ( The problem is that this resolution is merely the most recent in a list of economic sanctions against North Korea. Resolution 825 (1993) and Resolution 1540 (2004) also imposed sanctions. Unfortunately, these sanctions are weakened by the veto power of North Korea’s ally, China, as well as North Korea’s expansive black market. In addition, nation-states fear that a critical mass of sanctions may spur an unwelcome response from North Korea such as an invasion of South Korea or a terrorist-like attack on the US. North Korea hints about its response to certain sanctions by calling them “declarations of war” ( The relatively weak sanctions, such as suspending sporting competitions, also puts threats against North Korea into the same category as allegations by the Boy Who Cried Wolf: no one takes them seriously. Since the US does not have significant trade with North Korea, it is also hard to use trade as a stick [In fact, the US is in the untenable position of trying to convince states that do trade –China, Japan and South Korea- to impose sanctions. Ironically, the US wants to punish states for not participating in its sanctions, yet when other nation-states exercised their rights to sanction countries, the US “passed legislation to punish compliance with the boycotts” (Slomanson, 374]. On the other hand, the US does not want to be in the position of using trade as a carrot, for fear of being accused of rewarding rogue nations (Martin, 52). However, North Korea has a history of successfully manipulating the oscillating trade relations with the US. In 2000, many of the sanctions were relaxed in exchange for North Korean commitments to curtail its nuclear weapons development. Six years later, the weapons program is not satisfactorily curtailed and yet the sanctions are shabby –yet controversially- reapplied (

Sanctions not used consistently. For example, there are no sanctions against Russia for its ongoing operations in Chechnya. Why? Because Russia has veto power on the UN Security Council and is a nuclear power that the US would rather not confront. Accordingly, there are only twelve countries in the world that the US does maintain sanctions against (US Treasury). They are the Balkans States, Belarus, Burma, Cote D’Ivoire, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Liberia, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe. While none of these states are known as models of utopia, it is also worth pointing out that none are permanent members of the Security Council, none are members of NATO, none project a wide sphere of influence and, with the notable exception of North Korea, none have nuclear weapons.

Who has the right to implement sanctions? The UN, as well as regional organizations, has the power to impose sanctions multilaterally. This legal right comes from the United Nations Charter, which is binding International Law on all member states, and states the UN can impose economic sanctions in order to “maintain or restore international peace and security” (Articles 39 and 41). Ironically, “such action is not supposed to be unilaterally inflicted in the absence or organizational endorsement” (Slomanson, 471). That is, unilateral sanctions, like the American embargo of Cuba, are illegal.
Although the UN has the authority to impose sanctions, for forty-five years sanctions were only imposed twice, against Rhodesia (1966) and South Africa (1977). In the past sixteen years, however, there has been an explosion in international sanctions. (Weiss, 499).
Can sanctions be immoral? Hurts the wrong people. In South Africa, the black South Africans were being hurt the most and yet wanted the sanctions left in place to provoke regime change.

The only cases in which one can argue sanctions were successful were South Africa and Libya.

South Africa

Libya is not a good example of the effectiveness of economic sanctions for several reasons. First, the result was limited: it brought only the turning over of two intelligence officers and later an admission of guilt (which was then retracted [Thompson, ¶1]). No repercussions were made against Qaddafi and he was the man responsible for the decision to blow up PanAm 103. Secondly, there are some who believe Libya relented because of the increasing fear that the US would invade his country. In 2001, President Bush uttered his famous warning, “You’re either with us or against us” at a Joint Session of Congress ( One month later, the United States invaded Afghanistan. President Bush later declared that there was an “axis of Evil” that the US would oppose ( and two months later the US invaded Iraq in 2003. With concurrent saber-rattling against Iran and Syria, it is possible Qaddafi thought an attack against him was imminent. Certainly, he remembered Operation El Dorado Canyon and the attack against his compound in 1986.

Thirdly, there is little doubt Qaddafi is a war criminal and could face numerous charges under any Ad-hoc War Crimes Tribunal (though not the ICC which can only hear cases since July 1, 2002). Qaddafi, in power since 1969, is believed to have financially backed the “Black September Movement” which perpetrated the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre as well as have been the principle financier of Arab terrorism in the early 1980s. Also in 1980, Libya began sending death squads abroad to eliminate Libyan dissidents. This policy amounts to murder and solicitation for murder. Perhaps Qaddafi’s most infamous responsibility was ordering the bombing of a German nightclub that wounded more than eighty U.S. Servicemen in 1986. Qaddafi has been behind several kidnappings of Saudi Arabian and Iranian oil ministers (Abu Jibril, ¶12). In addition, Qaddafi and or Libya have been implicated in the murder of British police officer Yvonne Fletcher, smuggling arms to the IRA terrorist organization via the Libyan ship Eksund, and clashes between Libya and US naval forces in the Gulf of Sidra (over it was Libyan or international waters). Thus, the economic sanctions that were imposed were a failure: did they bring compensation for the victims and relatives of the discothèque bombing? Or the four thousand casualties from the Troubles in Ireland? Without a legal inquiry into Qaddafi’s participation in arming terrorists, how can one access his responsibility?

Finally, even if one was comfortable claiming the US economic sanctions against Libya were successful, then there is the issue of time. Sanctions were imposed in March of 1982 for Libya’s support of Iran and terrorist organizations, yet the US did not normalize relations with Libya until 2006 ( Twenty-four years. Is that considered success?


So what is the purpose of Economic Sanctions? Liberal Western Democracies do not like to go to war. However, when these nation-states clash with other nation-states, the leaders of liberal democracies need to act. Therefore, without the ‘ability’ to respond militarily, leaders of liberal democracies respond with economic sanctions so they appear to be decisive and strong, yet don’t put soldiers’ (or voters’) lives on the line (Slomanson, 374). One could argue that unilateral sanctions are a step in the escalation of conflict (Slomanson, 471) and multilateral sanctions are often watered-down. The only sanctions that appear to have some merit are targeted, individual sanctions against the leaders of nation-states and not the broad sanction packages of the past (Doxey, pg 160).


Bartlett, Bruce. (1985) “What’s Wrong with trade Sanctions?” CATO Institute. December 23, 1985. Retrieved from on 30 July 2006.

Cortright , David and George A. Lopez. (1999) “Are Sanctions Just? The Problematic Case of Iraq.” Journal of International Affairs. Vol. 52, 1999.

Doxey, Margaret. (2000) “Do Sanctions Work?” International Studies Review. Vol. 2: No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 160-162.

Kaempfer, William H. and James A. Lehman and Anton D. Lowenberg. (1987) “Divestment, Investment Sanctions, and Disinvestment: An Evaluation of Anti-Apartheid Policy Instruments.” International Organization, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Summer, 1987) , pp. 457-473.

Klaas Woldring. (1979) “Review of Anti-Apartheid: Transnational Conflict and Western Policy in the Liberation of South Africa by George W. Shepherd Jr.” Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Mar., 1979) , pp. 162-164.

Martin, Curtis H. (2002) “Rewarding North Korea: Theoretical Perspectives on the 1994 Agreed Framework.” Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 39: No.1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 51-68.

Mingst, Karen A. (2004). Essential of International Relations. New York: W.W. Norton.

Rennack, Dianne E. (2003) “North Korea: Economic Sanctions.” 23 January 2003. Retrieved from on 30 July 2006.

Slomanson, William R. (2003). Fundamental Perspectives on International Law. Belmont (CA): Wadsworth.

Weiss, Thomas. (1999) “Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool: Weighing Humanitarian Impulses.” Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 36: No.5 (September, 1999), pp. 499-509.


Thompson, Mike

Abu Jibril

US State Det. (1997) “Chronology of Foreign Policy-Related U.S. Trade Actions.” Retrieved from on 30 July 2006.

US Treasury Dept. (2006) “Office of Foreign Assets Control.” Last updated 21 July 2006. Retrieved from on 30 July 2006.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s