A Cautious Analysis of International Economic Sanctions

Naomi Garcia | February 4, 2017

Introduction: The Pretense of Civil Sanctions

Even before the onset of the Cold War that marked a shift in the sphere of International Relations from one of military threats, brute force, and hard-power politics to a world more focused on international stability and multilateral cooperation, world leaders looked to the future of economic sanctions as a just and civil substitution to bloody warfare. As early as 1919, Woodrow Wilson spoke highly of economic sanctions, saying. “Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy. It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted, but it brings a pressure upon the nation which, in my judgement, no modern nation could resist (Wilson 23). ” It is sensible to anticipate the success of economic sanctions, as any international tool used to circumvent the possibility of warfare rightfully appears to be a noble cause. In fact, a large portion of early economic sanctions instituted by the newly-formed United Nations were sanctions supporting international humanitarian causes, primarily attempts to peacefully empower physically or ideologically oppressed groups of people. According to Shi Bin, Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins’ Hopkins-Nanjing Center in China, the initial involvement of the United Nations fostered an international culture of shared humanitarian goals for many countries. “After the conclusion of the Cold War, the United Nations began to play an important role in the imposition of economic sanctions; The UN’s embodiment of shared international goals such as opposing terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and drug trade as well as aiding in political reformation, environmental protection, promoting democracy and human rights became impetuses for the imposition of international economic sanctions (Shi Bin 27). ”

In theory, imposing policies such as international import/export, currency exchange, or natural resource restrictions to enact fundamental changes in the policies of other nations offers the realm of international politics a more peaceful and safe route in which. to instigate political change. However, throughout the decades of their application, not only has their effectiveness been heavily challenged, but the inequity of the aftermath they create for the innocent citizens of their target countries has been increasingly scrutinized.

It it most important to heavily emphasize the initial intent of economic sanctions by the United Nations and independently operating states as a more peaceful, less forceful replacement of international military action. As sanctions continue to evolve, it is unambiguously essential to continue to regard them as an international tool designed to lessen human suffering and limit bloodshed, and to not lose sight of this understanding in the search for effective international cooperation. Since their inception, economic sanctions have continued to become more militaristic in nature, to the extent that Shi Bin even refers to them as deceptive pretext for war; “In cases such as America against Iraq, Bosnia, and Haiti, the use of economic sanctions not only has the potential to fail, but can also be used as an excuse for war itself; the initial use of sanctions can often be used to eradicate public opposition to the use of force, becoming a precursor to war instead of its replacement (Shi Bin 46). ” The use of militaristic force in conjunction with or in response to economic sanctions is in direct contrast with the initial benefits believed to come from economic sanctions. Conversely, the need for military force despite the use of sanctions necessarily proves the ineffectiveness of the sanctions as a sole tool for international political change.

The most comprehensive study of the overall effectiveness of economic sanctions was published in 1990 by Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliot, commonly referred to as the HSE. In this study, the researchers examined 115 cases of international economic sanctions from 1914–1990, and concluded an overall 34% success rate in the effectiveness of economic sanctions in instigating desired fundamental political change to a sovereign state among all cases studied. The impressive range and depth of this study is undeniable, but its significance for the imposition of economic sanctions is thoroughly disheartening; from the perspective of a world leader, a 34% success rate is an incredibly low figure upon which to base an entire punitive international policy. Supporters of international economic sanctions may argue that the risks of failure for the imposing country are proportionate to the losses; imposing economic sanctions on another nation does not necessarily inherently harm the imposing country, nor does it implicitly involve the imposing country in long-term political or ideological warfare. In some senses, economic sanctions can be seen by proponents as no-risk international politics; the potential for failure may be high, but the potential for serious internal damage rests solely on the country upon whom the sanctions are being imposed. To this line of thinking, the rebuttals are clear. Firstly, the less-publicized statistics from the HSE record a significant drop in effectiveness of sanctions from the middle to the late 1900s, beginning at an effectiveness rate of 51% from 1945–1973, and decreasing to only a 17% success rate from 1973–1990, showing a sustained and significant decline in the plausibility of successful economic sanctions over time. Secondly, as Robert Pape elicits in his reanalysis of the HSE, the researchers include economic sanctions as “successes” even when sanctions are used in conjunction with strategic military war efforts, as well as specific embargoes designed to weaken the target country’s military power. Pape goes on to identify the role of militaristic power in the recorded success of economic sanctions, including 6 cases of international concessions only after accepted military defeat by the target country (Pape 99), and five cases of political concessions only following an internationally sponsored military coup (Pape 101).

“Of HSE’s entire data of 115 cases, 30 inappropriately included 10 cases of economic disruption in war; 15 case of trade disputes or strategic embargoes; and 5 cases counted twice. This leaves a total of 85 valid cases, including 5 successes, or an overall success rate of 6 percent…versus the 34 percent HSE report (Pape 106).”

Given a 6% success rate, it would be ill-advised for any foreign policy administrator to enact economic sanctions with any hope of tangible success. Moreover, while economic sanctions may be considered a “success” despite a culmination in military ground efforts, the risk of loss in these instances is no longer the burden of the target country, but the shared burden of all countries involved, as well as that of the soldiers whom these nations send to war.

Why Economic Sanctions Remain Unsuccessful

Many varied forms of research have been conducted on the respective effectiveness of unilateral, multilateral, and universal sanctions in influencing foreign policy decisions. While the controversial findings of the HSE are the only comprehensive data cataloging the results of international sanctions over the past century, international consensus dictates that multilateral sanctions, such as those imposed by multiple countries cooperating together in opposition to another nation state, are far more influential than unilateral sanctions imposed primarily or entirely by a single country. Moreover, universal sanctions, such as those imposed by the UN or enforced by the World Bank, are increasingly more coercive and influential in international interference . However, the scope of influence and economic effectiveness of an international sanction does not guarantee its success in either ideological or political transformations, and the distinction between purely economic effects and the ability to precipitate a desired political change is the fundamental issue regarding the use of economic sanctions. For instance, despite the former Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan Meghan O’Sullivan’s analysis that “the universal, multilateral structure of sanctions also was important. Had a regional body, rather than the United Nations, mandated multilateral sanctions on Iraq, its oil would have enticed other countries not bound by the regional sanctions to trade with Iraq (O’Sullivan 155) ,” it is still universally known that the imposed sanctions did not in fact coerce a political change within Iraq. While universal sanctions created a stark political and social climate change for the citizens of Iraq, no concessions were made from the Iraqi government in response to the forced economic hardship. “Sanctions were a political failure, but Iraqi economic welfare certainly plummeted as a result of sanctions (Eyler 187). ” While these sanctions were successful on the technicality of their effect on the Iraqi economy, without appropriate concessions from the target government, the introduction of economic sanctions is, in essence, useless.

The fundamental flaw regarding the imposition of international economic sanctions in order to combat a foreign country’s political climate is the presumption that one can wage ideological warfare from a distance. If a country is faced with imminent, physical encroachment or military threat, it will make use of its own military power, potentially in conjunction with foreign support, knowing that there is no other option for defense. However, given a challenge to a country’s ideological framework outside of its own borders, aggressive foreign policy makers of the last century have tended toward economic punishment in response to a difference in foreign ideological belief systems and humanitarian violations. Economic sanctions were conceived as a way for foreign states to exert their international economic power and ideological morality without sacrificing their own citizens to military deaths and wartime society. The fault in logic, however, lies in foreign policy makers’ omissions of the understanding that political ideologies espoused by opposing governments are based upon lifetimes, if not many generations, of staunch beliefs. Ideological morality will not be overcome by poverty, nor will it be beaten into submission by export deficits. The larger the discrepancy in beliefs, and the broader the demands for change imposed by any number of nations in the international community, the less likely a country is to acquiesce to such a political transformation on the basis of economic stability.

Consider, for instance, that the leader of a certain foreign nation is informed by the United Nations that his style of leadership is considered to be in severe violation of human rights. He must choose to rectify his form of government, or the international community will impose economic sanctions. Simplified, the leader’s choice is one between willingly abandoning his however flawed political ideology in response to international demands, and running the risk of being forced to make those same concessions in a future moment if the economic sanctions prove to be too great of a burden upon the government. According to this leader, it is a choice between imminent assured destruction and the possibility of survival. In extreme cases, the leader may know that determent of human rights abuses will likely lead to the final rise of a revolutionary group that the government has been suppressing, and thus a change in the current dictatorial form of government is assuredly equal to the loss of power. In both extreme scenarios, the loss of immediate and sustained power due to acquiescence to foreign demands is actually greater than the risk of loss from even universally imposed economic sanctions. Consider the impact of economic sanctions on North Korea concerning nuclear fuel processing, which author Drezner analyzes as,

“The threat of economic sanctions was unsuccessful in generating all the desired concessions for two reasons. First, North Korea’s expectations of future conflict were so extreme that it preferred statement to total acquiescence… Second, the United States could not compromise its demands due to the normative importance it placed on nonproliferation issues (Drezner 283). ”

In this as well as myriad other examples of international conflict, each country’s personal ideology regarding its offensive and protectionist policy took clear precedence over international cooperation as well as threats of economic sanctions. Former President of Egypt Gamal Nasser’s Anti-American sentiment during the U.S. imposition of economic sanctions to precipitate Egypt’s removal of troops from Yemen in 1963 concisely summarizes the reactions of a strong political ideology to attempts to force submission with monetary, economic threats. “America was not going to give us wheat till we behaved better. But…we shall continue to voice our opinion frankly…The freedom we have bought with our blood shall not be sold for wheat, rice, maize, or anything else. ” In political situations such as these, governments may often utilize the imposition of sanctions to rally citizens in support against foreign ideological invaders, as was the case in Cuba as well as North Korea . In such instances, economic sanctions to a large degree not only heighten the fervor of the opposing ruling power, but also result in a strengthening of nationalistic resolve by the citizens in response to economic hardship from an attacking foreign nation. Ideological convictions are powerful political tools, and it must be recognized that as strong as the beliefs in political stability and humanitarian righteousness of the intervening country may be, the leaders of the defending nation’s convictions are equally matched.

In addition to the clarification that ideological motives are almost universally stronger than economic incentives, the fact remains that in today’s international society, purely economic effects of sanctions continue to decline as countries have more outlets with which to support internal economic stability. Professor of International Economics at Harvard University Richard Cooper states that, “Widespread economic capacity, in a globally competitive environment, creates options for all parties; and the presence of alternatives undermines the capacity of any one player to achieve its preferred ends (Cooper 3). ” Even in conditions of highly multilateral or universal sanctions, there exist strategic trade options with multilateral benefits for participants. For certain international players, the benefits of pursuing trade routes with countries under economic sanctions highly outweigh the costs implied by the risks of retribution (particularly in the form of economic sanctions) from the international community. For a country such as Iraq, whose ideological stance in and of itself appeared sufficient to withstand the international economic attacks, its position as the possessor of some of the world’s largest oil reserves granted it a good deal of freedom in searching for ways in which to compensate for economic deficits. “Even in the case of Iraq, where the physical conditions for sanctions were good and the neighboring governments were hostile to the regime of Saddam Hussein… arbitrageurs are omnipresent, ready to run risks for high rewards (Cooper 12). ” Multiple other countries, subject to economic sanctions ranging from unilateral to universal, neither conceded political defeat nor suffered in any significant way from the economic effects of the sanctions. China, for example, was placed under relatively heavy multilateral sanctions headed by the United States in 1989 in response to the anti-democratic government killings of college citizens known as the TianAnMen Square Massacre. Despite heavy sanctions, Chinese GDP grew at a rate of 10.2%, astonishing even in times of peace, during the first and most severe five years of sanctions. Unsurprisingly, the sanctions achieved no political concessions , and the government responsible for the killings continued to thrive. Similarly, during the political turmoil framing the Guatemalan society in 1977, the United States attempted to halt the mass murders from both leftist and conservative agents by instituting economic sanctions as well as halting military aid and loans. In the initial wake of the sanctions, Guatemala’s debt to GDP ratio doubled, but the country conceded no political ground in response to the economic hardship. In contrast, despite national political instability, Guatemalan GDP actually began to grow in 1985 and continued to rise at a rate of 4% per annum from 1990 to 1999 , despite the imposition of sanctions.

The Unintended Casualties of International Economic Sanctions

There are, of course, examples of both political and economic successes as a result of purely economic sanctions; however, it is imperative for the international community to recognize that a governmental tool that does not specifically instigate military war does not necessarily imply a lack of violence. According to Shi Bin,, the general structure behind successful economic sanctions is as follows: economic pressure, economic hardship, social pressure or political unrest, and finally political change. In a general sense, this structure seems particularly logical. Instigating social and political unrest strong enough to topple a nation’s regime without setting foot within the country’s boundaries or laying a hand upon the innocents would be the most ideal form of political change. The fallacy of this structure, however, lies in the fact that the very people who suffer the most noticeably from any economic downfall are those who are less likely to participate in the decisions and workings of a nation’s government. The workers whose jobs are most affected by changed international trade policies or closing export routes are almost universally not simultaneously active in the country’s physical labor force and the governmental elite. Since a vast majority of sanctions promoted by the United Nations or economically influential countries like the United States are in response to undemocratic inequality or violations of human rights, it is blatantly erroneous to assume that the social unrest of the common masses would lead to a political upheaval of the elite. In contrast, for some opposing undemocratic governments, a suppression of the common people during a time of a surge in humanitarian injustices may be a favorable outcome. If the people are economically oppressed, up to a certain point, it is easier for the controlling power to suppress and contain them. Proponents of sanctions may argue that sanctions attempt to push the boundaries of this aforementioned “certain point,” and that with enough economic pressure, any mass of people will have no choice but to revolt against the ruling power for survival. If the intent, however, is to save the people from an unjust form of leadership, then how can success be defined as worsening their lives to a point far beyond the extent of their own government’s harsh rule so that there is no choice but to risk their lives in rebellion? In November of 1987, for instance, 30 people were killed in Haiti while attempting to vote. At the time, the United States was very influential in Haiti, purchasing 84% of Haitian exports and supplying 64% of the country’s imports. In response to the undemocratic murders, the United States immediately stepped in, suspending aid to Haiti with the imposition of increasingly severe sanctions culminating in the suspension of all aid. By 1994, the economic sanctions had been successful in ousting the ruling power, and sanctions were soon lifted. However, according to a study by American University of Washington, D.C.,

“The sanctions have led to a dramatic drop in Haitians living standards. As a result, many Haitian’s have had to adopt harsh survival tactics, such as foraging for plants and eating seeds of crop plants, leading to a surge of illnesses in the poorest areas of Haiti. For example, the sanctions contributed to extensive malnutrition, disease, and famine in the northwest. Unfortunately, in rural areas scarcity of transportation and lack of electricity has led to deaths: deaths which could have been otherwise prevented. The deaths occurred because, with a lack of electricity or transportation, vaccines could not be adequately refrigerated or shipped. Those most effected by sanctions were children. Aid workers say children’s death rates, because of the sanctions, were 20 times the usual rate. The children died from treatable maladies, such as measles and other commonly treatable viruses. This was because sanctions forced Haitian public-health programs to grind to a halt (American University) .”

This type of strategic economic foreign policy must beg the question, “Against whom are we fighting?” The unjust deaths of the 30 voters may have been avenged, but at the cost of the lives of innocent children dying from curable diseases. Placing a dependent country in a situation in which vaccinations against commonly curable diseases are either blocked by trade restrictions, or exempted from trade restrictions but inaccessible due to internal poverty and social unrest is a danger not only to the people of the country, but a threat to international immunity.

Furthermore, though this paper has discussed the unlikely nature of even pure economic success as a result of sanctions, the international view that an unjust ruling body will automatically suffer in the event of economic hardship is thoroughly flawed. Faced with internal social upheaval and international attempts at coercion, there is abundant evidence that the leadership in control will go to further extremes of oppression in order to remain in power. During the United Nation’s mandatory economic sanctions on the Rhodesian white supremacist government in 1966, for example, the average income of whites rose while that of the native Rhodesians decreased even under universal sanctions . Moreover, according to U.S. Bureau of the Census statistics, as many as 567,000 Iraqi children died from diseases and malnutrition due to the imposition of economic sanctions by the United Nations Security Council as opposed to the 45,000 total military and civilian deaths counted during military warfare. While it is difficult to deny the incredibly low success rate of political reformation due to economic sanctions, proponents may argue that the imposition of sanctions likely hinders the ruling body in question from furthering human rights abuses and undemocratic leadership. Given the aforementioned statistics, however, the benefits of a potential stalemate in no way outweigh the losses of the lives of innocent citizens. The ideological, economic, and political structure of a ruling power is not one that is likely to bow to the demands of foreign powers backed only with threats of economic instability for the common people of a nation. Cases of extreme internal violence within a country historically end in foreign military warfare even after the imposition of sanctions; only after prolonged death of innocent civilians and children by both the ruling power and the foreign nations attempting to halt the injustice is the regime forcefully toppled. One only needs to examine Hitler’s Nazi Germany to recognize the extent to which a twisted regime will go to squeeze money out of its citizens, and to find an economic scapegoat upon which to place the burden of political instability


Given the ineffectiveness of international economic sanctions on both political reformation and concrete economic decline on a target country, the imposition of such policies is ill-advised. Given the often fatal effects of economic sanctions on the very people that the policies are being enacted to protect, the use of economic sanctions to achieve political goals is reprehensible. With the statistically probable resilience of the target ruling body and the particular fragility of the oppressed, a governing body who strategically elects to impose economic sanctions with an understanding of their devastating consequences could only knowingly choose their imposition based on one of two ideological paths: a certain grounds for moral superiority — a sense of supercilious righteousness that betrays the country’s lack of sufficient concern to become truly involved in the struggle, or as a precursor to war.

After such an extensive analysis of the harms created by economic sanctions, it is natural for the reader and the researcher to wonder, if not sanctions as a replacement for war, then what? While a comprehensive plan for international political power is out of the scope of this paper, the conclusions outlined within will be emphasized through metaphor: If a doctor in an attempt to cure an ill patient discovers that the medicine he or she is administering offers no cure, and in fact has absolutely no effect on the patient’s body whatsoever, an educated medical professional will likely discontinue the treatment in search of a viable cure. However, if the doctor discovers that the treatment being administered has been causing a severe and irreversible malady that will undoubtedly lead to a more rapid, imminent death of the patient, the doctor’s main priority is to first immediately forgo the treatment, regardless of whether or not there is another known cure. Having no cure for a chronic illness, even an illness that causes early death, is in no way an adequate excuse to purposefully instigate an unrelated, more serious and deadly malady. It is imperative that the international community and policy leaders recognize that economic sanctions are not the cure for the malady of war, and that in the search of a more viable cure, world leaders must discontinue the use of a so-called remedy that leads to the inception of a greater disease.