Economic sanctions: The triumph of hope over experience

The international community has turned to economic sanctions as a tool to force policy and even regime change. But they rarely work. So, is there an alternative?


Governments are growing increasingly reluctant to use military force to achieve strategic objectives.  The domestic appetite for absorbing the enormous human, political and financial costs of armed interventions or conflicts discourages governments, even the most powerful like the U.S., from resorting to force in resolving international crises. As a result, with growing frequency, nations and multilateral organizations are opting for political pressure and economic sanctions as a means of forcing pariah regimes to capitulate to international demands.  But do they work?

Economic sanctions—unilateral and multilateral—refer to the imposition of import restrictions or some form of financial sanction, such as freezing of government or individual assets, to coerce, deter or punish targeted pariah governments or specific public officials for threatening international norms or a country’s national security interests.  More extreme forms of economic pressure, such as embargoes, are much more comprehensive in that they seek to close off the target country from any commercial, financial or economic contact with a single sender country or the international community.

Many of these sanctions, such as those targeting North Korea and Venezuela, have as their objective either a change in policy behavior or the destabilization or overthrow of the targeted regime.

But economic sanctions don’t have a good track record.  Recent economic and political sanctions on both North Korea and Venezuela have failed to modify the behavior of the governments.

The historical record is no better. Economic sanctions have largely failed when they have sought to compel the target country to take actions that threaten the regime’s survival.  For example, North Korea and Cuba have been among the most sanctioned countries in the world since the Cold War and have two of the most isolated and disastrous economies in the world, yet sanctions have neither forced a course correction of government policy nor provided their long-suffering citizens a reason to rise up to improve their conditions. In other cases, such as in former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya in the 1990s, sanctions never succeeded in nudging those regimes to meet the conditions for lifting sanctions.  In the end, it took U.S. military intervention to bring the end of the brutal regimes and leaders.

Also, there has been no evidence in these cases that imposing economic hardship on society will trigger and unify domestic opposition to bring a broad, popular uprising against the government.  In fact, the evidence demonstrates quite the opposite: sanctions often allow regimes to increase isolation, stoke nationalism, increase their own wealth, and tighten their grip, while blaming economic privation on the sanctions rather than on the government’s corruption and economic mismanagement.

The definition of insanity?

So, if sanctions have a long track record of not achieving policy goals (and often necessitating or leading to military intervention to achieve their original goals), why does the United States and the broader international community continue to resort to economic sanctions when they haven’t worked?

The answer is twofold.   Economic sanctions serve foreign-policy functions, but in many cases domestic political goals have been the driving factor behind enacting this particular tool.  In some cases, sanctions are imposed to satisfy outraged observers who demand that leaders “do something.”  No president can afford being accused of being “soft” in the face of a regime’s violations of certain international norms, such as human rights violations or a United Nations resolution.  As economic sanctions expert Gary Clyde Hufbauer (2009) noted, sanctions are imposed “because the costs of inaction—in terms of lost confidence at home and abroad in the ability or willingness of the U.S. to act—is seen as greater than the costs of sanctions.”  In other words appearance is more important than impact and efficacy.

The second reason why the U.S. and the U.N. often turn to sanctions as the policy of first resort is the intended demonstration effect on pariah regimes.  In this case their purpose is to dramatize the senders’ opposition to pariah regimes (and even their mere existence) in the hope that the leaders of those regimes will yield to demands before the crisis escalates and more painful sanctions, or military intervention, are needed.  The demonstration effect is also intended to generate international attention on the misbehaving regime and raise the stakes to encourage other states or multilateral organizations to get more involved in pressuring the targeted regime to comply.

The secret of their success

So when do sanctions then work? Generally speaking, economic sanctions are effective when certain conditions are in place.  First, if the targeted regime perceives the goals of the sender to be relatively modest in relation to the political and economic costs of sanctions, the beleaguered party is more likely to negotiate and submit to at least some of the demands.  In other words, they work when the survival of the regime and its leaders are not seen as the ultimate or only goal. Successes in these cases have been when the U.S. threatens limited sanctions against countries viewed to be not complying with U.S. drug enforcement or human rights legislation or policies.  Second, sanctions are likely to work when they are multinational and comprehensive, as they were with apartheid South Africa and more recently in Iran over nuclear weapons.

There is also a higher rate of success when the target country/regime is more integrated into the international economic system.  Isolation and economic destitution, as in North Korea, Cuba and Haiti, does not make a country vulnerable to sanctions, especially when pressure is viewed to be about regime change.  In these cases, economic conditions for the general population can’t get any worse (see the point above about how sanctions fail to spark popular uprisings) and the elite, the intended target of the sanctions, often don’t suffer the harshest consequences.  As a result, the isolated regime is able to resist and survive.  Even when sanctions are multilateral and comprehensive, the costs are low because the regime is already in economic disarray, the population is destitute, the elite benefits from any leakages—often illicit—that exist, and the country’s economy has already been removed from globalization and the leverage that comes with it.

In the Americas, sanctions have shown to be largely ineffective.  In no small part this has been because the United States has been the primary source of the sanctions policy.  U.S. sanctions in the region have ranged from comprehensive economic sanctions—as in Cuba during much of the last five decades to targeted, limited sanctions as in Honduras in the wake of the 2009 coup. In addition to Cuba and Honduras, other examples include Panama under General Manuel Noriega (1989), the military government of Raoul Cedras in Haiti (1994) and more recently targeted sanctions in Venezuela.  In each case, sanctions did not lead to the desired policy outcome; in fact, they provoked leaders of the regimes to hunker down, often strengthening the government and its supporters’ resolve and aggressiveness.  In the end, the failure of sanctions led to an escalation of the conflict that led to frustration in Washington (and in the international community) and, ultimately, military intervention in Panama, UN-sanctioned semi-military intervention in Haiti and threats to do so in the case of Venezuela.

One of the challenges of assessing how best to use economic sanctions, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, is the difficulty in de-domesticizing the issue.  Particularly in Congress, the default approach is to punish perceived misbehavior of individual countries.  This has continued despite the failed track record of such policies.  There are few tools to express outrage or discontent and limited patience to consider other tools or strategic approaches, and sanctions provide that release valve, irrespective of their historical ineffectiveness.  Moreover, the asymmetries in power relations between the U.S. and Latin America and the long standing practice of sanctioning “misconduct” in the hemisphere, make reconsideration of the policy difficult.

Another reason for the failure of economic sanctions in the Americas is the deep reluctance in the regional community to join the U.S. and even the United Nations in imposing sanctions.  The use of coercive tools, particularly if promoted by Washington, has never been part of the repertoire of Latin American foreign policies.  In addition to a long tradition of non-intervention in other countries’ internal affairs, there are the domestic political costs to joining the “hegemon” in imposing sanctions on the most vulnerable.  Even when legal mechanisms exist, such as the Inter-American Democratic Charter, to impose sanctions through the Organization of American States, member states, for a diverse set of reasons, have not shown the courage to defend democracy and human rights.  When the U.S. acts unilaterally—as it often does—its partners in the region will not join.

The case of Honduras in the wake of the 2009 coup is illustrative of the challenges of imposing sanctions.  As soon as President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya was illegally escorted out of the country at gunpoint, the hemisphere went into action, denouncing the coup and suspending Honduras from the OAS under provisions of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.  Despite the consensus, there was not much support for economic sanctions, though the U.S. suspended assistance and the Inter-American Development Bank shut off financing.  Much of the regional community did not want to impose sanctions on the most vulnerable in the second poorest country in the hemisphere.  It took diplomatic pressure and an election five months later to gradually begin to bring the crisis to an end.

So, can sanctions work in the Americas when the conditions for effectiveness—multilateralism and comprehensiveness—are unlikely to be considered?  The answer is yes, but only if part of a larger strategic toolbox includes a patient but persistent diplomatic campaign that builds support among the targeted nation’s neighbors.  The goal is to recognize and set in place a policy that recognizes and ultimately punishes—in a clear graduated way—a pariah state’s inflexibility as it becomes an increasing threat to hemispheric interests. Such an effort would dilute the symbolism and perceived intervention of  sanctions proposed by the United States.

Sanctions will fail to gather broader regional support and consensus when they are seen to serve U.S. policy of regime change, as has been the case with Cuba and Venezuela. Even less helpful is the mention of armed intervention as an option, as President Donald Trump raised in reference to Venezuela. Such talk will quickly kill any possibility of gaining regional support for U.S. objectives.

The key to successful sanctions is a gradual approach that builds consensus around an agreed-upon set of objectives that, if not met, will lead to escalating sanctions, starting with regime leadership of the targeted country.  Without the patient diplomatic work to generate consensus around how and when to apply economic pressure, sanctions are ultimately viewed as too much of a zero-sum game and therefore likely to fail in its current unilateral, U.S.-centric form.

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