Do Sanctions Work?

Mattis thanks Vietnam for supporting NK sanctions Jan 2018

Recently, the Trump Administration announced increased sanctions on travel to Cuba.  However, Cuba is not the only country to have sanctions leveled against it by the United States.  Other countries in the same situation include: Syria, Iran, Russia and North Korea to name just a few.[1]  Sanctions offer the US and other like-minded countries and economic unions, such as the EU, a way to alter another country or group’s way of operating that stops short of war while maintaining some bite.  The United States, particularly after 9/11, has been the biggest proponent and user of sanctions in the world.  The practice has become so ubiquitous in fact that even local governments have leveled sanctions. 

Are all these sanctions actually doing anything though?  Some experts would say yes and point to specific examples including preventing banks from hiding money for the North Korean regime or to the downfall of Charles Taylor in Liberia.[2]  (Some people would even argue that all sanctions are effective compared to complete inaction, although that seems like an especially weak argument.)  Despite these sentiments however, in many if not most other instances, sanctions seem to have had little impact. 

Sanctions can also have unintended consequences.  These can include driving away potential allies and creating anti-sanctioner sentiment through repeated threats against violators.[3]  More importantly it can also mean harming innocent bystanders.  This certainly appears to be the case in Cuba and North Korea where regular citizens live in abject poverty while the countries’ leaders continue to enjoy a wealthy lifestyle.  Sanctions can also affect people from the sanctioning country as their goods and services now have fewer outlets.

This assumes sanctions have actually been passed.  As the US has seen in its attempts to routinely punish nations such as Iran and North Korea, too many sanctions can lead to fatigue.  In addition, countries are also hesitant to pass sanctions at times because they are hard to lift even in the rare instance where they are perceived as successful. 

Experts explain this failure of sanctions results from being too broad or for expecting too much from them.  These same experts generally suggest creating sanctions with clear goals, having multilateral support and being flexible when some of the goals have been met. 

Sanctions having a multilateral coalition is especially important.  Unilateral sanctions where the United States is imposing the sanctions alone, such as those against Cuba and Libya, have been largely ineffective due to their limited scope.[4]  Conversely multilateral sanctions, such as against North Korea and Iran, while certainly not perfect have at least eliminated many of the unilateral sanctions’ weaknesses.  Regardless of the type though, sanctions have ultimately proved futile and should not be used any longer.  After all, Cuba is still run by the same regime and North Korea has still developed nuclear weapons.

Instead a policy of engagement should be adopted.  Specifically the policy known as conditional engagement.  Through this approach the would-be sanctioner would only engage the would-be sanctionee if they adhered to certain conditions.  

While this policy reduces the power of the threat, history has shown in several instances that the threat of sanctions is still not enough to prevent an unwanted action anyway.  Conversely, for evidence of engagement’s success one has to look no further than Iran.  Iran, which has been sanctioned essentially since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, finally engaged and ultimately agreed to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons when it was met with dialogue instead of just threats.  Another example of this process was when the US increased its relations with Myanmar by lifting certain sanctions once the country followed through on democratic reforms.[5] 

This is a policy that can work in North Korea too.  In the case of North Korea, relinquishing nuclear weapons would seemingly be the price of engagement. However, North Korea would be very unlikely and frankly unwise to give up its nuclear weapons program when they are ensuring that country’s leader’s survival.  Instead the US could set a more realistic goal, such as no more weapons tests in exchange for food or energy supplies.  This would not let North Korea off the hook entirely, but it would provide an avenue for building some trust, and be easy to adhere to.  While it would be a long road from there to full nuclear disarmament, it would provide some direction versus the current stalemate.

Conditional engagement is not a panacea and works best through unilateral means and the threat of something worse such as sanctions.  The best evidence of this is the Iran Nuclear Deal.  Still though, conditional engagement is the best path forward.  Unlike sanctions and direct military action, engagement encourages the two parties to work together in a soft power approach that also reduces the risk of creating an atmosphere of resentment going forward.


[1] U.S. Department of Treasury: Sanctions Programs and Country Information.  https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/Programs.aspx

[2] Council on Foreign Relations: What Are Economic Sanctions?  https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-are-economic-sanctions

[3] Brookings: Economic Sanctions: Too Much of a Bad Thing.  https://www.brookings.edu/research/economic-sanctions-too-much-of-a-bad-thing/

[4] Brookings: Use and Effect of Unilateral Trade Sanctions.  https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/use-and-effect-of-unilateral-trade-sanctions/

[5] The Interpreter: Suu Kyi and Obama open new chapter in US engagement with Myanmar.  https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/suu-kyi-and-obama-open-new-chapter-us-engagement-myanmar

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

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