Effective Sanctions: Incentives and UN-US Dynamics

By Lopez, George A. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Effective Sanctions: Incentives and UN-US Dynamics


Lopez, George A., Harvard International Review


As a means for responding to a wide array of national security concerns and violations of international norms, economic sanctions have occupied an increasingly prominent place in the tool kit of US policymakers. Ever since the United States championed UN Security Council Resolution 661 to expel Iraq from Kuwait in August 1990, it has imposed sanctions to restore democratically elected governments, protect human rights, extradite international fugitives, and end inter-state and civil wars. Especially after the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has employed more specialized smart sanctions, both on its own and in conjunction with the UN Security Council, to combat what many claim to be the most serious contemporary threat to US and global security--the spread of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

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Although practitioners and politicians continue to resort to sanctions to punish wrongdoers, critical assessments of sanctions continue to be quite mixed. Some lament the limited success rate of sanctions, which most analysts consider to be 33 percent or lower. Others worry that Congressional trade and aid restrictions combine with UN-mandated sanctions to create a sanctions "epidemic" in US foreign and economic policy.

And yet, sanctions techniques have become increasingly effective. This trend can be attributed to a number of mutually reinforcing realities. First, policymakers from the United States and the international community now recognize those factors in sanctions formulation and implementation that lead to success. Second, the development of sharpened sanctions techniques--so-called "smart sanctions"--has replaced comprehensive trade sanctions. These provide states and international organizations with greater versatility of coercive economic measures while limiting the unanticipated humanitarian damage that sanctions can bring. Third, the success of sanctions necessitates astute consideration and management of the complex, symbiotic relationship that has emerged between the United States and the UN Security Council. This demands a coordinated strategy that balances sanctions and incentives as complementary tools designed to pressure and encourage delinquent states into changing their behavior.

Designing Successful Sanctions

The dozens of sanctions cases implemented since 1990 resulted in an impression of the international community as having a good idea of how to guarantee the success of a given sanction. Four considerations are particularly instructive for designing effective policies.

First, in this age of globalization, unilateral sanctions seldom succeed--multilateral support and cooperation are essential to the success of sanctions. In fact, when international (United Nations), regional (such as the European Union), and national authorities coordinate their actions to effectively monitor and enforce sanctions, target compliance increases significantly.

Second, sanctions as a means of punishment and isolation rarely succeed. Indeed, sanctions form only half of the mix of mechanisms needed to alter the behavior of stubborn targets. Positive inducements--the proverbial carrots of international economic and political relations--are a necessary complement to the sticks of a sanctions strategy. This is especially true in complex cases such as the control of weapons proliferation.

Third, sanctions succeed when they are a component of a larger foreign or international policy with multiple tools that collectively serve a specified end. When sanctions are the policy or are maintained for so long that they, de facto, become the policy, then they are no longer effective. This was the trap that the United States and United Nations fell into with sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s.

Finally, the structure of sanctions must be clear and credible.

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