Economic Sanctions

Economic Sanctions

In this article, we shall examine economic sanctions in international relations. We will define economic sanctions, discuss the different ways in which they are used in international affairs, examine their effectiveness with regards to behavioral change, as well as examine criticisms of sanctions. This article will then list a number of books on the topic for further reading.

What are Economic Sanctions?

Economic Sanctions are defined as “deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of customary trade or financial relations” and are a key aspect of international relations (Hufbauer, Schott, Elliot, & Oegg, 2007).Within the use of sanctions, there are two types of categories within economic sanctions: trade restrictions, as well as financial restrictions (Pape, 1997). Trade restrictions limit or freeze any trading between two countries. However, trade restrictions do not necessarily have to be a freeze of all trade; they can also be an increase in tariffs, or one element of the economy may receive trade restrictions (leaving the other parts of the economy to still trade internationally) (Pape, 1997). In fact “Economic sanctions have many names: blockades, boycotts, embargoes, sometimes even described as quarantine or economic coercion. The concepts are almost synonymous” (Wallensteen, 1990: 1).

The idea behind economic sanctions is that states using these measures “seek to lower the aggregate economic welfare of a target state by reducing international trade in order to coerce the target government to change its political behavior. Sanctions can coerce either directly, by persuading the target government that the issues at stake are not worth the price, or indirectly, by inducing a popular pressure to force the government to concede, or by inducing a popular revolt that overthrows the government, resulting in the establishment of a government that will make the concessions  ” (Pape, 1997: 93-94). In fact, many governments often prefer sanctions over military force, as they often see it as effective, less costly, and less controversial. However, we shall examine these assumptions, and whether economic sanctions are indeed effective, whether they are costly and hurt the state carrying out the sanctions, and whether any controversies exist with economic sanctions.

History of Economic Sanctions

When we are discussing the role of sanctions in and the international system, one has to remember that economic sanctions are not a new tool for states in their international relations. In fact, “[h]istorically, economic sanctions, which date back at least to the Megarian decree of Athens in 435 B.C., were used by Napoleon in the Continental System commencing in 1806, by Thomas Jefferson in the Embargo Act of 1807, and by the League of Nations against Italy in 1935” (Kaempfer & Lowenberg, 2007: 869). They were also used during World War I, and following the war, economic sanctions were at the forefront of debates between states (Wallensteen, 2000: 1).

The discussions seemed to stem around when economic sanctions could be used on other countries. In the 1930s, that question was posed in relation to aggressing states. However, even then, the economic sanctions did not always work. For example, the sanctions the League of Nations states posed against Italy (because of their attack on Ethiopia) are seen as “ineffective” and a “failure” (Wallensteen, 2000: 1). It was here that individual interests (of countries such as Britan and France) also seemed to be the reason for the limited strength of the sanctions on Italy. Furthermore, they League of Nations was unable to even use sanctions against Japan’s attack on China (Wallensteen, 2000). Later, states discussed the issues of economic sanctions with relation to internal humane rights violations and the issue of colonization. Regarding domestic abuses, we saw this in the 1960s with the United Nations and South Africa, as well as Rhodesia. For example, in the case of Rhodesia, “the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by the Smith regime in South Rhodesia in 1965 resulted in the first UN application of mandatory sanctions as a main  tool of the world body” (Wallensteen, 2000: 2). And in fact, these were viewed to be the most extensive economic sanctions by the United Nations or any other international organization (Wallensteen, 2000). And the United Nations also imposed sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime (Wallensteen). We also saw a third phase of debates surrounding the issue of economic sanctions in 1990 around the issue of Saddam Hussein and Iraq’s invasion into Kuwait during the ‘First Gulf War.’ Wallensteen (2000) argues that the sanctions on Iraq in 1990 were similar to the 1930s discussion on aggressor states in the international system, even though, as Wallensteen (2000) points out, “this language [as an aggressor] was avoided” (2). What is interesting within the context of these economic sanctions was the way that they were approached as a political tool to reach the stated objectives. As Wallensteen (2000) writes, in “both the first and second debates, sanctions were seen as the option for achieving desired change, to be separate from military action. In he Gulf crisis it was one of the instruments” (3).

Looking at more recent history of international relations, it seems that economic sanctions have not went away as a policy option used by international state actors; when looking at more current use of sanctions, one of “the most encyclopedic taxonomy of sanctions episodes is that of Hufbauer et al. (1990),…which records 116 cases since 1914, and the idea of sanctions as a tool are far from dissipating post Cold-War era (Kaempfer & Lowenberg, 2007). And it seems that many of the economic sanctions in the 1990s were focused “internal war situations” where there was internal fighting (Wallensteen, 2000), whether government repression or civil conflict, or both. However, throughout the history of the use of economic sanctions, it is important to note that few have been seen as “comprehensive”; most were limited to one sector or specific elements of the state’s economy or financial sectors (Wallensteen, 2000).

Seeing the use of economic sanctions by states and international organizations, it begs the question of whether economic sanctions work, or whether they fail to adequately to lead to hoped policy changes. We shall discuss this question in the section below.

Do Economic Sanctions Work?

One of the key questions in the field of intentional relations on the issue of foreign policy tools is “Do economic sanctions work?” In fact, this question is highly debated amongst scholars and policymakers. And the United Nations Security Council has the ability to meet with various entities within the United Nations (such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as well as organizations outside the United Nations (such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent) to inquire about what economic sanctions will do to the society before it decides whether it wants to go ahead with economic sanctions (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 76).

When looking at whether economic sanctions work, the findings in the field are that many economic sanctions do not work, and in those cases that economic sanctions work, it often depends on the situation, context, and specific country effects of the economic sanctions. Plus, there are other risks to economic sanctions, such as the effects on civilian lives.

Looking at work critical of the idea the notions that economic sanctions are effective policy tools, Robert Pape has written a paper entitled “Why Sanctions Do Not Work.” In the article, he explains the various reasons why this is the case, looking at a database (by Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott, and Kimberley Ann Elliot of various economic sanctions from 1914 until 1990 (the database has 115 total cases). Pape (2000) challenges the “successful” cases of the study, and finds that many of them that were categorized were not actually very successful (in a more recent paper by Morgan, Bapat, & Kobayashi (2014), they introduce a new dataset with regards to economic sanctions). Along with Pape’s findings in 1997, writing in 2000, Wallensteen, looking at various cases of economic sanctions, also argued that economic sanctions were more frequently ineffective than they were successful in reaching stated outcomes.

And in their game-theoretic model work, Kaempfer and Lowenberg (2007) found that often, both the one carrying out the economic sanctions, as well as the country being targeted by sanctions both are hurt by this policy; “[t]he degree to which the sanctions impose costs on these nations depends on the number and size of other countries willing to continue trading and on the elasticities of the trade offers of those countries. Unilateral sanctions create a smaller deterioration in the target’s terms of trade than do sanctions involving a larger number of participant countries” (875). And often, with sanctions, other actor can get involved illegally, increasing their trade activity with the sanctioned state (Kaempfer & Lowenberg, 2007).

And in fact, there are a number of misconceptions with regards to economic sanctions and the effect that they have as an international relations instrument. For example, Hufbauer, Schoot, Elliot & Oegg (2007: 2) have laid out nine particular points of caution or lessons to policymakers with regards to the issue of economic sanctions. Regarding the use of sanctions, they write:

  • “Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew. Policymakers often have inflated expectations of what sanctions can accomplish. At most there is a weak correlation between economic deprivation and political willingness to change. The economic impact of sanctions may be pronounced, especially on the target, but other factors in the situation often overshadow the impact of sanctions in determining the political outcome.
  • Friends Are More Likely to Comply than Adversaries. Economic sanctions are most effective when aimed against erstwhile friends and close trading partners. These countries have more to lose, diplomatically as well as economically, than countries with which the sender has limited or adversarial relations.

  • Beware Autocratic Regimes. It is hard to bully a bully with economic measures. Senders should not expect that sanctions will work as well against large targets that are strong, stable, hostile, and autocratic.
  • Slam the Hammer, Don’t Turn the Screw. There is a better chance to avoid military escalation if sanctions are deployed with maximum impact. This was the authors’ conclusion in 1990 regarding Iraq and remains their policy advice in 2007 in the confrontation with Iran over its ambitions to develop nuclear weapons.

  • More Is Not Necessarily Merrier. A large coalition of sender countries does not necessarily make a sanctions episode more likely to succeed. Cooperation is generally sought only when the objective is very ambitious and is often not needed when goals are more modest. Moreover, the greater the number of countries needed to implement sanctions and the longer the sanctions run, the greater the difficulty of sustaining an effective coalition.
  • Choose the Right Tool for the Job. Sanctions often are the first course in a menu of actions against belligerent nations. In many instances, they are deployed in conjunction with other measures directed against the target: covert action, quasi‑military measures, or regular military operations. Indeed, in some cases, economic sanctions merely provided an interim response until military action could be organized—as President George H.W. Bush admitted in his memoirs about the first Gulf War.

  • Don’t Be a Cheapskate or a Spendthrift. Senders need to match costs imposed on domestic constituencies (and allies) to expected benefits; otherwise, public support for the sanctions policy may quickly erode. But senders also need to take care not to worry so much about minimizing self-inflicted costs that they devalue the impact of the overall exercise.

And Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease (2014) also explain the challenges of sanctions, pointing out that they often impact civilians, that it is tough to continue sanctions knowing that civilians are being hurt, and it is difficult to carry out economic sanctions when there may be a need for military intervention. For example, in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, “vigorous and early preventive deployment of UN soldiers…might have obviated the later need for sanctions to pressure Belgrade and Serbian irregulars and might have prevented that grisly war” (77).

In their work,  Hufbauer, Schoot, Elliot & Oegg (2007) find that, when sanctions are used, there is at least some success 34 percent of the time; of course this means that most of the time, sanctions do not work at all. And when they work does in fact depend on the objective regards the reasons that sanctions are used. A “modest” goal has a much higher success rate than a policy goal of regime change. Others working on the questions of the effectiveness of economic sanctions seemed to have found similar results. For example, William H. Kaempfer & Lowenberg (2007) found that it depends on who the sanctions effect. Namely, it “depend[s] on the relative influences of competing interest groups within the sanctioning country. In the target country, normally only those sanctions that have differential effects on supporters and opponents of the ruling regime will induce the regime to alter its objectionable policy” (868).

Economic Sanctions and the Impact on Civilians

Along with criticisms about the effectiveness of economic sanctions with regards to policy change, many have also suggested that sanctions do little to hurt regimes, and do much more to impact civilians in the population. For example, in a 1990 study entitled Effect of the Gulf War on Infant and Child Mortality in Iraq, Ascherio et. al. found “infant and child mortality increased more than threefold in the period from January through August 1991, as compared with the average rates during the previous six years. This increase corresponds to an excess of about 4600 deaths among Iraqi children under five years of age…”. Furthermore, economic sanctions also “had damaging effects on women and children in Iraq…The gender dimensions of sanctions are often overlooked, as women and girls tend to bear the brunt as they sacrifice their food rations for the male members of their families” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 76).

And, in a 2000 study by Mohamed M. Ali & Iqbal H. Shah, they found that in their work and in others that the “[r]esults from the two surveys on childhood and maternal mortality in Iraq clearly show that childhood mortality in the south/centre increased during the period of the UN sanctions that followed the Gulf conflict. Information from several other studies and surveys shows an increase in the rates of malnutrition and in babies born with low birthweight. In the 10 years since  the Gulf conflict, infant and under-5 mortality has more than doubled in the south/centre. Childhood mortality rates in the south/centre are now much higher than those 20–24 years ago” (1856). But they also found improvements in areas with the autonomous regions in Iraq (2000). However, there were other negative effects of the sanctions on Iraq. For example, there was much less food available, given the high reliance on imported food. Furthermore, Alnasrawi (2001) argues that “[t]he effectiveness of the blockade was so pronounced that in a 5 December 1900 testimony before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations it was reported that the embargo had effectively shut off 90% of Iraq’s imports and 97% of its imports and produced serious disruptions to the economy and hardships to the people” (New York Times, 6 December 1990: A 16) (cited on page 208 of Alnasrawi, 2001). He was also quite critical of the Food-For-Oil program, arguing that it did not improve the horrible conditions. Speaking overall of the sanctions, Alnasrawi (2001) argues “that the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq was unprecedented in its comprehensiveness, severity and length, and in the enormous human and economic cost which it inflicted in Iraq” (217).

What Do States Use Economic Sanctions?

Given the questions about economic sanctions, and the level of support that most economic sanctions are not able to alter policies to the desired position of the sanctioning state, and the detrimental effect that they seem to have on children and society as a whole, some have asked the question as to why leaders even use them to begin with. For example, Taehee Whang has examined this question in a 2011 paper entitled “Playing to the Home Crowd? Symbolic Use of Economic Sanctions in the United States.” Whang (2011) argues that the reason leaders in the United States have advocated and used economic sanctions because it helps their support levels domestically. Whang (2011) explains that “[e]ven when instrumentally ineffective, sanctions are an effective way of displaying “do something” leadership to the public in the midst of international conflict. Sanctions can be used to placate the domestic populace when few other options that cost as little are available, and elevate the popularity of incumbent leaders” (799). Thus, economic sanctions, at least in the case of the United States, seems to be about domestic political maneuvering, which seems to be in line with the often-noted assumption that leaders’ main objective–first and foremost–is to stay in power.


Books on Economic Sanctions

Richard Haas (Editor), Economic Sanctions and American Foreign Policy

Daniel W. Drezner, The Sanctions Paradox: Economic Statecraft and International Relations.


Ali, M. M. & Shah, I. H. (2000). Sanctions and Child Mortality in Iraq. The Lancet, Vol. 35, pages 1851-57.

Alnasrawi, A. (2001). Iraq: Economic Sanctions and Consequences, 1990-2000. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 2, pages 205-218. 

Ascherio, A., Chase, R., Cote, T., Dehaves, G., Hoskins, E., Laaquei, J., Passey, M., Qaderi, S., Shuqaidef., S., Smith, M.C., & Zaidi, S. (1992). Effect of the Gulf War on Infant and Child Mortality in Iraq. The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 327, No. 13, pages 931-936.

Hufbauer, G.C., Schott, J.J., Elliott, K.A. (1990). Economic Sanctions Reconsidered: History and Current Policy, second ed. Institute for International Economics, Washington, DC.

Hufbauer, G.C., Schott, J.J., Elliot, K.A., & Oegg, B. (2007). Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd Edition. Peterson Institute for International Economics. Available Online:

Kaempfer, W.H. & Lowenberg, A.D. (2007). The Political Economy of Economic Sanctions, pages 686-911. In Handbook of Defense Economics, Vol. 2, Todd Sadler & Keith Hartly (Eds.). Elsevier. Available Online:

Morgan, T.C., Bapat, N. & Kobayashi, Y. (2014). Threat and Imposition of Economic Sanctions 1945-2002. Conflict Mangagement and Peace Science, online, 28 February 2014. Available Online:

Pape, R. (1997). Why Sanctions Do Not Work. International Security, Vol. 22, No. 2, pages 90-136.

Wallensteen, P. (1990). A Century of Economic Sanctions: A Field Revisited. Uppsala Peace Research Papers, No. 1, pages 1-23. Available Online:

Weiss, T.G., Forsythe, D.P., Coate, R.A., & Pease, K.K. (2014). The United Nations and Changing World Politics. Seventh Edition, New York, New York. Westview Press.

Whang, T. (2011). Playing to the Home Crowd? Symbolic Use of Economic Sanctions in the United States. International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 55, pages 787-801.

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