Do Economic Sanctions Work?

History is rife with the failure of economic sanctions, from the trade and travel embargo on Cuba to sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Crimea in 2014.

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    Do Economic Sanctions Work?

    Do Economic Sanctions Work?

    President Thomas Jefferson signed the Embargo Act in 1807 in the hopes that Europe’s need of America’s natural resources and agricultural products might end the hostilities of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It failed spectacularly, with Jefferson signing its repeal three days before his presidency ended.

    History is rife with the failure of economic sanctions, from the trade and travel embargo on Cuba to sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Crimea in 2014.

    One study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics showed that sanctions (of all types: weapons, economic, political) imposed on a nation tend to be ineffective in response to a militarized conflict. The study did find, however, that sanctions in response to other circumstances were at least partially successful in 34 of the cases studied over multiple decades.1

    The Case Against Economic Sanctions

    The limited success of sanctions in preventing behavior detrimental to global world order or America’s national interests is due to a variety of factors, including:

    • When the objectives are large or time is short. For instance, sanctions against North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons development program.
    • When sanctions are imposed unilaterally, such as when the United States imposed sanctions against Iran without its European allies.
    • Actions against third parties that decline to follow the sanctions imposed by one country (e.g., U.S.) on another country tend to do harm to national interests by provoking anti-American sentiment, promoting challenges at the World Trade Organization and distracting from the bad behavior of the targeted nation.
    • Unintended consequences may follow sanctions, such as harming the people of a targeted nation. For instance, sanctions to force the dictator to accept election results in Haiti triggered a massive and dangerous exodus of people from Haiti to the U.S., while military sanctions on Pakistan increased its efforts to develop its nuclear capability.
    • They can have the reverse impact of bolstering bad regimes by creating scarcity, which allows its leaders to control the distribution of goods.
    • May harm the financial interests of businesses, farmers and workers of the nation imposing sanctions.
    • Overuse of sanctions may lead to “sanction fatigue,” leading to diminished compliance over time or resistance to future sanction coordination among nations.

    The Case for Sanctions

    Sanctions have met with some success in the past. For example, sanctions persuaded Serbia to sign the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s and helped bring about the end of South Africa’s apartheid rule.

    The key to such successes is that they have been multilateral, focused on the problem and accompanied by rigorous oversight.



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