Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Are Sanctions Effective?

By Aneil GillPublished May 6, 2018

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Though sanctions have produced unintended detrimental consequences in the past, prudent use remains a critical foreign policy tool. Carefully crafted sanctions represent a preferable alternative to war and isolationism. This article examines the history of sanctions and highlights effective examples.


Written by Aneil Gill, 5/6/18

Though sanctions have produced unintended detrimental consequences in the past, prudent use remains a critical foreign policy tool. Carefully crafted sanctions represent a preferable alternative to war and isolationism. This article examines the history of sanctions and highlights effective examples. 




Sanctions have become a common coercive instrument in foreign policy, but do they truly make a difference? Many laud sanctions as a valuable tool in shaping state actions and enforcing international norms, serving as a middle ground between inaction and war during times of high tension. Others are more critical of their efficacy, questioning whether they exert the type of influence intended and highlighting possible negative externalities that may arise in such complex and multidimensional situations. The United States embargo against Cuba and sanctions levied against Tehran leading up to the Iran nuclear deal provide unique context to these respective arguments. Through analysis of historical precedent, it is clear that economic sanctions have the potential to serve a vital role in pursuing foreign policy objectives without the use of military force, encouraging peaceful resolutions when applied properly and in the correct circumstances.
    The efforts to curb the spread communism in Cuba amount to the failures of a flawed plan and highlight the potential downfalls of economic sanctions. The embargo and other economic restrictions implemented since 1960 have effectively isolated Cuba from US economic markets and influence for half a century, yet the objectives of the policies have not been realized. Cuba remains a communist nation under repressive leadership that maintains staunch opposition to US interests and ideologies. The failure of these sanctions rests in their unilateral and unrealistic objectives. At the height of the Cold War, the US feared communist expansion in the Western Hemisphere, thus encouraging leaders to pursue regime change in Cuba, which sits on the proverbial doorstep of the US. Before the embargo, the US accounted for more than two-thirds of Cuba's imports and exports, leaving behind a void that would be filled by the Soviet Union after the embargo was enacted. Thus, the implemented economic restrictions opened the door for the Soviet Union to gain further influence in the nation, fueling nationalistic, anti-American sentiment that legitimized Castro's control of the island nation.
    In contrast to the Cuban embargo, sanctions placed on Iran effectively pressured the nation's leaders to consider negotiations on a nuclear agreement. The resulting Iran nuclear deal was only agreed upon because of Tehran's willingness to engage with the international community following years of harsh economic sanctions that limited economic growth and targeted specific aspects of Iranian policy and leadership. The sanctions, which gained more multilateral. support in the decade leading up to the nuclear deal, had resulted in a sharp economic decline, with reports of 50% inflation and a 5% shrinkage in the Iranian economy in 2013. Rather than strengthening the existing regime, the multilateral sanctions, along with the accompanying threat of further sanctions or possible military action, appropriately punished the nation's nuclear program and opened the door to diplomatic engagement. A study found that 57% of Iranian prior to the agreement were in favor of a deal with the international community and "Three quarters also supported more talks between Tehran and Washington, more educational and cultural exchanges with the United States, and much more trade." This sort of political pressure on elected leadership to pursue a deal can be attributed to the economic struggles stemming from sanctions imposed by the international community. The desire to lift effective sanctions spurred talks that prevented large scale conflict in Iran over nuclear weapons.
    The contrast between the two examples demonstrates the need to remain methodical in the application and outlining of sanctions. Many times, sanctions imposed on highly centralized governments (such as dictatorships) end up punishing the common population without forcing the desired change in policy. Scholars have noted sanctions on Iraq following the Gulf War in 1990, when demonstrating this point, since "the devastation of the infrastructure and then the almost total cut-off of exports and imports, meant that Iraq was - in the words of a UN envoy - reduced to a pre-industrial state." Like the Cuban embargo, the sanctions on Iraq did little to inspire regime change or influence a policy shift, instead punishing individual citizens. This leads some to argue that sanctions can be instead effective in applying political pressure on leaders in nations that are more democratic or decentralized. Additionally, other scholars have emphasized the value of multilateral action and credibility through support for the sanctions with the threat of dramatic increases in economic isolation or military action in order to further legitimacy and effectiveness.  
    Now, when considering new sanctions on Russia or North Korea, we must consider the historical precedent set by the actions taken against Cuba and Iran. Targeted, multilateral, and clearly defined sanctions are an effective tool in pressuring leadership to respect international law or pursue détente. It is thus imperative that the US remain willing to utilize this tool in lieu of military action or purely isolationist policy.