Serious about Sanctions

By Drezner, Daniel W. | The National Interest, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Serious about Sanctions


Drezner, Daniel W., The National Interest


Self-inflicted wounds. Chicken soup diplomacy. Boomerangs. Good intentions gone bad. These clipped responses reflect the accepted wisdom among policy cognoscenti about the scant value of economic sanctions to the United States. Even Hollywood is derisive; in the summer 1997 blockbuster Air Force One, "President" Harrison Ford denounces as "cowardly" a policy of applying mere economic sanctions to terrorist states.

Curiously, though, this near consensus has not slowed the congressional urge to apply sanctions. In the past three years the United States has imposed or threatened economic sanctions 60 times against 35 different countries, affecting 42 percent of the world's population. According to the Institute for International Economics, sanctions exact an annual cost of close to $20 billion in lost exports. To enforce sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Libya, Congress has passed laws mandating secondary sanctions against foreign companies that do business with these countries. Proponents of such sanctions argue that such legal mandates are necessary for sanctions to work. Opponents point to damaged relations with key allies and utterly inconclusive results.

Sanctions are serious business, and they do involve serious costs. Their effect, however, is more complex than either moralistic optimists or realpolitik pessimists usually contend. A closer look at the history and strategic logic of sanctions shows that they can be a valuable policy tool in some domains but are useless in others. The trick is to figure out which is which.

The Poverty of the Pessimists

Within the foreign policy establishment, sanctions pessimists far outnumber optimists.(1) Lately, too, pessimists have been galvanized by USA, Engage, a business lobby dedicated to the removal of all unilateral sanctions. The pessimistic approach is based on the belief that all sanctions share the same negative characteristics as those of the best-known cases of presumed failure: the UN sanctions regime against Iraq since 1991; the U.S. grain embargo against the Soviet Union in 1980; U.S. sanctions against Castro's Cuba; and, earlier, the 1935 League of Nations sanctions against Italy. Taking these cases as representative, four main conclusions are drawn: 1) sanctions rarely work; 2) unilateral sanctions never work; 3) sanctions hurt American trade and damage the U.S. reputation as a reliable supplier; and 4) sanctions are immoral because they afflict ordinary citizens rather than culpable elites.

Each of these arguments is flawed, but taken together they are wrong for two principal reasons: pessimists ignore lesser known successful cases; and their specific accounts of major failed episodes are pocked with errors. When we take these four arguments one by one and match them against the historical record, several stunning conclusions emerge. It turns out that sanctions tend to work better when applied against allies rather than adversaries. It also happens that unilateral U.S. sanctions are sometimes more effective than multilateral sanctions.

Flawed Argument #1: Sanctions rarely work. Economic Sanctions and American Diplomacy, a recent Council on Foreign Relations volume edited by Richard Haass, displays all the qualities of the pessimists' literature on the subject. It starts with the comment that sanctions are proliferating and concludes with the various reasons why they almost never work: they are imposed halfheartedly; the sanctioned state can easily evade them; the demands are too big or too vague. These pronouncements sandwich some anecdotal descriptions of the most prominent examples of sanctions, including the clunkers listed above, and suggest that all cases of economic sanctions have the same basic characteristics as these celebrated failures.(2)

This is not so. Economic sanctions do not always fail. One comprehensive study of 116 sanctions episodes between 1914 and 1990 concluded that economic sanctions failed about a third of the time, succeeded about a third of the time, and partially succeeded about a third of the time. …

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