U.S. Presidents and the Use of Economic Sanctions

By Drury, A. Cooper | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2000 | Go to article overview

U.S. Presidents and the Use of Economic Sanctions


Drury, A. Cooper, Presidential Studies Quarterly


With the end of the cold war, states have begun using economic sanctions with much greater frequency. Increased economic ties leading to a greater ability to impose economic sanctions, the end of the Security Council gridlock, and the desire to rely less on military force make economic sanctions a preferred option for states wanting to influence or coerce others. Following this trend, studies of economic sanctions have also increased (Morgan and Schwebach 1997; Dashti-Gibson, Davis, and Radcliff 1997; Pape 1997; Drury 1998).

Since the late 1960s, a vast literature on economic sanctions has accumulated. The majority of the research considers sanction effectiveness and concludes that economic sanctions axe largely ineffective (Galtung 1967; Wallensteen 1968; Doxey 1971; Renwick 1981; Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott 1990a; Morgan and Schwebach 1997; Dashti-Gibson, Davis, and Radcliff 1997; Pape 1997; Drury 1998). A similar list of scholars addressed the reasons economic sanctions may be used and the goals of those sanctions. Most (including those listed above) have asserted that economic sanctions axe aimed at a policy change within the target country. Clearly, economic sanctions do have the overt intent of coercing the target to alter its policy or policies. However, others have suggested that additional goals exist. These include symbolic goals such as punishment or sending a message to international actors (Nossal 1989; Schwebach 2000); legal goals such as altering international norms and/or precedents (Barber 1979; Fisk 2000); and, of course, domestic goals such as placating public demands for action, satisfying economic demands, and appearing active to the public in the world arena (Barber 1979; Olson 1979; Lindsey 1986; Kaempfer and Lowenberg 1992; Simon 1996; Smith 1996).

The collective understanding of economic sanctions on the part of these scholars allows us to understand why sanctions are used, what the goals of those sanctions are, and how likely those sanctions are to be effective. While the literature has been unable to predict with any great accuracy when economic sanctions will work (Morgan and Schwebach 1996,1997; Dashti-Gibson, Davis, and Radcliff 1997; Drury 1998), there is a general understanding that economic sanctions are ineffective in the aggregate.(1) Similarly, no one has explained exactly why each economic sanction is used, but an understanding of the different goals exists.

The conditions that lead to the use of economic sanctions have not been fully studied. Drezner (1998) put it well: "Most of the literature has focused on the outcomes of coercion attempts; there has been little research explaining when senders will initiate threats or acts of economic sanctions" (p. 710). Aside from Drezner's (1997, 1998) treatment of sanction initiation as being a function of expected future relations, no one has addressed when economic sanctions will be used. In this article, I attempt to uncover the conditions that lead a decision maker not only to initiate but also to alter a sanction policy. I concentrate only on U.S. economic sanctions for several reasons. First, the United States is responsible for the majority of the economic sanctions of this century, so understanding the conditions that lead to U.S. sanction policies has clear importance. Second, economic sanction and domestic political data are more available and far more accurate for the United States. Third, while many of the theories surrounding the use of force are not country specific, empirical studies tend to focus on the United States (largely because of data availability).

The question of what conditions lead decision makers to use economic sanctions has direct ties to our understanding of the decision to use military force. Baldwin (1985) argued that economic sanctions are simply the middle option available to a decision maker. That is, a leader can use diplomacy, economic sanctions, or military force as tools of statecraft. …

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