Are Sanctions Really Working? Some Dispute Effectiveness in Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

Economic sanctions, an increasingly popular foreign policy tool used to express U.S. displeasure abroad, are coming under growing criticism from economic and policy experts.

Though favored by human rights activists as a way of registering displeasure with authoritarian governments, policy mavens generally sniff at the "blunt instrument" that rarely achieves its goals.

The United States currently has dozens of economic sanctions in place, on Iraq, Cuba, Libya, Iran and North Korea among many others. President Clinton imposed the most recent ones last month against Sudan.

In addition, according to USA-Engage (, which lobbies against sanctions, there are dozens of bills pending on Capitol Hill that if passed would impose new sanctions on dozens of countries for a host of noxious practices, including: building or selling biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, persecuting religious minorities, using child labor, environmental destruction, exporting terrorism and producing illegal drugs.

Between 1993 and 1996, 35 nations came under the U.S. sanctions gun.

According to the 1997 Report of the President's Export Council, 75 countries representing 52 percent of the world's population have been punished at one time or another by unilateral U.S. sanctions.

But policy experts across the political spectrum are coming to the conclusion that, in most cases, economic sanctions are ineffective.


When introducing legislation in November to establish criteria for adopting sanctions, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, said sanctions "rarely achieve their foreign policy goals."

But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and a leading defender of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, disagrees.

"Sanctions express commitment to norms on international conduct, human rights and nonaggression," said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen in an editorial published on the USA-Engage web page. "In the end, everyone wins."

Business interests, sometimes accused of sacrificing American values in pursuit of the deal, say commercial engagement inserts American values into otherwise isolated countries.

"Pulling business out of a country is like bringing all the missionaries home," said Michael Gadbaw, senior counsel for international law and policy at the General Electric Co.

A report published in the spring by the National Manufacturers Association, a group made up of 10,000 small U.S. manufacturers, said economic engagement is the best way to modify another nation's behavior.

"Unilateral economic sanctions do not work," said Marino Marcich, author of the NMA report on U.S. sanctions from 1993-1996.

"Do they change the behavior of the target government? In 90 percent of the cases, the answer is no. Barring investment and imports will not lead the people to rise up and overthrow a rogue regime."


Mr. Marcich said the United States should always try diplomacy "before pulling the trigger" on unilateral sanctions.

The United States is currently engaged in both multilateral and unilateral sanctions.

"Sanctions work best when they are multilateral but they must be a part of a wider political strategy," said a White House official on the condition of anonymity. "We recognize sanctions often take time, and sometimes have unintended consequences.

"They work best when they are targeted narrowly against the offending party. For example, sanctions helped undermine apartheid South Africa and encouraged Libya to reduce its support for terrorism. . . . And sanctions are often preferable to force."

Still, he said there were times, when, for moral reasons, the United States was obligated to go it alone. Sanctions against Cuba is one example.

In early December, a Brookings Institution seminar titled "Economic Sanctions: Do They Work? …