Economic Sanctions

Economic Sanctions: An overview   

Economic sanctions and foreign policy_ hoover institution

In the conduct of foreign policy world leaders and countries have applied economic sanctions since Ancient Greece. 

They have usually been used as reprisals to settle grievances with wrongdoers.

In earlier times, countries justified their reprisals as a moral right to punish wrongdoers or entities responsible for the grievance.

In many cases, reprisals were imposed as reaction to a denial of justice (an authority refused to extradite criminals), an unfriendly act (refusal to pay a debt) or to deny the (potential) enemy access to certain goods which could be used to enhance military capabilities. Reprisals could be very expansive, whereby not only denying goods, but also kidnapping citizens of another country. 

With the evolution and socialization of international realizations, e.g. the promotion of friendly relations, peaceful settlement of disputes and the prohibition to use armed force in the conduct of foreign relations, punishment of wrongdoers has been replaced with compliance to accepted norms of conduct and behavior. For instance, massive human rights violations, restoration of democracy (following a military coup), stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or the support of international terrorism. 

The justification for imposing economic sanctions now focuses on stopping or preventing unacceptable conduct and compelling a change of conduct

The fundamental problem with economic sanctions is that they are an enforcement tool to compel change in conduct or behavior. Therefore, it should be no surprise that economic sanctions quickly provoke disagreements. One catches more flies with honey, than with vinegar.

From a compliance perspective, there is a common observation that as an instrument, economic sanctions are ineffective, namely they only achieve their goals in 34% of the cases which they are imposed. However, this perspective doesn’t fully explain the role of economic sanctions in the governance of global affairs, setting standards of conduct which cannot be violated without consequences.

Situations when Economic Sanctions are Imposed

Images of Foreign Policy and Economic SanctionsA signal of disapproval (regarding conduct or policy) 

For instance, United Nations sanctions against Apartheid South Africa (regarding its racial discrimination policies), Iraq (1990 regarding its invasion of Kuwait), U.S. boycott against Cuba (for the export of revolutionary subversion and refusal to compensate U.S. nationalized properties), and U.S. led sanctions against the Russian Federation regarding its controversial involvement in the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine.

UNSC approves system to impose targeted sanctions in South Sudan_UN News Centre_ UN Photo by Devra BerkowitzA response to a violation of international norms or law.

For instance, the United Nations sanctions against Saddam Hussein for invading Kuwait in 1990. U.S. led sanctions against Iran regarding its failure to honor its obligations under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (which will be hopefully uplifted in view of the recently concluded nuclear deal).

President Roosevelt and PM Winston Churchill Atlantic Charter_Photo US Navy U.S. Historical Center Photograph NH 67209Sanctions are a “Demonstration of Resolve,” as means to assert leadership in foreign affairs.

This is of particular importance to the U.S., whereby successive U.S. Administrations frequently feel compelled to act, even when the chances of altering the conduct of the target is remote (e.g. sanctions imposed against the Russian Federation regarding the current crisis in the Ukraine). Under these circumstances, the U.S. perceives the costs of inaction to be greater than the costs of sanctions.

Furthermore, research has also concluded that the international community expects U.S. leadership – to show moral outrage and to reassure allies that the U.S. will stand by its foreign commitments.

Economic Sanctions_False_Sense_of_SecuritySanctions are imposed as a deterrence for potential future misdeeds.

Sanctions are frequently imposed to discourage potential wrongdoers from contemplating the pursuit of objectionable policies. This is a form of global governance to assist the evolution of international norms and standards. An example of this is the use of the economic sanctions mechanism by the United Nations Security Council to authorization the creation of international tribunals to prosecute war crimes – e.g. the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Flags of the Cold War super powersSenders may impose positive sanctions in situations where they have significant interests in the outcome.

Sanctions can also be imposed to influence a positive outcome in the conduct of a Target. For instance, economic inducements, promise of foreign aid or military protection.

One of the most celebrated and successful types of positive sanctions was the U.S. Marshall Plan of 1948-1953, whereby the massive transfer of resources from the U.S. to Western Europe created an unprecedented level of wealth and political stability that in turn drew these countries into the U.S. camp against the Soviet Union. Another example of positive sanctions, albeit less successful, is the buying-off of North Korea regarding its nuclear weapons ambitions.


The adoption of sanctions may serve domestic political goals of Senders.

Sanctions can also be imposed to appease internal political or social moral outrages against noxious conduct. In this context, governments are put under pressure to do something – one must be seen to take action against a target. Sanctions can be the best alternative for governments when diplomacy is perceived as being too weak, but military force being too strong a reaction. The imposition of sanctions can also be a means to mobilize support for military action, as was the case for the U.S. prior to entering the Second World War or the 1990 UN sanctioned military operations against Iraq.


Additional Reading Materials

Governmental Resources

NB For an explanation how EU member states implement EU sanctions, one must review the websites of the relevant national authorities of the EU member states.  

  • Academic/ Non-Governmental Resources 
    • Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) – which publishes independent research on global security issues 
    • Galtung, J. (1967) “On the Effects of International Economic Sanctions, With Examples from the Case of Rhodesia,” World Politics 19(3): 378-416. The general theory of sanctions as we know it today is based on Galtung’s study of the UN sanctions against Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe). Although Galtung makes no reference to target sanctions, his theory is still influential. 
    • Hufbauer, G. et al. (1990), Economic Sanctions Reconsidered 3rd Edition (reprinted in 2009) (Washington DC, Institute for International Economics)- a highly accredited comprehensive study of cases of economic sanctions during the twentieth-century. Note that this study is subject to academic criticism (which focuses on the applied research methodologies and the casual links regarding the compliance of Targets with the demands of Senders). 
    • Robert A. Pape, Why Sanctions Don’t Work, International Security Volume 22, Issue 2 (Autumn 1997) – this article is a well articulated criticism on the effectiveness of economic sanctions and of Gary Hufbauer’s et al. study. 
    • Baldwin, D. (1985), Economic Statecraft (Princeton: Princeton University Press) – is an authoritative study on the effectiveness of conventional economic sanctions. According to this work, sanctions have been more effective than is perceived by critics. 
    • Doxey, M. (1996), International Sanctions in Contemporary Perspective (London: MacMillan Press) – an authoritative study into the history and logic of economic sanctions imposed by multilateral organizations.