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Strategic Application of Economic Sanctions

Updated on November 16, 2016
Cargo ship
Cargo ship | Source

Sanctions are a policy instrument involving the use of economic power to achieve political objectives. They may be punitive or preventative, and range in severity from blocking trade agreements to leveling total import and export embargoes.

Definitive intentions

Sanctions are not economic ends unto themselves. Economic measures enacted purely for trade advantages may have political consequences, but do not inherently represent sanctions. Similarly, legislative actions may have all the effects of sanctioning without an overt agenda.

Strategic political application of economic leverage is the defining characteristic of sanctions. In practice though, there is much room for subtle policy manipulation. One ambiguity involves government actions that represent a negative form of sanctioning, such as suspension of aid or bestowing aid on a rival. There may also be tactical differences between wartime and peacetime sanctioning: as an immediate wartime offensive, economic sanctions may represent only a supplementary measure rather than a means for a specific political goal. Objectives must be clearly defined in order to assess effectiveness.

The American-German Crisis, January-March 1916. Depicts U.S. President Woodrow Wilson looking out his door at howling dog labeled "Jingo"; representing those in the U.S. eager to join the Great War against Germany. Oscar Cesare, 1916.
The American-German Crisis, January-March 1916. Depicts U.S. President Woodrow Wilson looking out his door at howling dog labeled "Jingo"; representing those in the U.S. eager to join the Great War against Germany. Oscar Cesare, 1916. | Source

Diplomatic popularity

Economic sanctions are by no means a new idea, but they increased conspicuously after World War I, when economic interdependence and the deterrence of modern warfare began to attract significant appeal in the international arena.

The League of Nations covenant provided for sanctions as a disciplinary measure against violators, but its lack of resources and cooperation hindered enforcement. Since World War II, the United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions several times, but it also is limited by deficiencies in authority and financial support.

The continued proliferation of sanctions reflects the dynamic nature of conflicts and alliances in the post-Cold War political spectrum. A wide range of situations can be identified as vital political interests, but not all warrant the military responses typical of full-fledged war.

Picture of anti-Iraq-sanctions and anti-Iraq-invasion marchers. 2002 or 2003, Washington, DC.
Picture of anti-Iraq-sanctions and anti-Iraq-invasion marchers. 2002 or 2003, Washington, DC. | Source

Reasons and risks

In the absence of a strong central world authority, sanctions have been used arbitrarily by international actors—notably the European Union and the United States government---for many purposes. They can communicate a strong political stance, respond to a critical situation, appease pluralistic pressure, or advocate international norms of behavior. Modern sanction agendas have included labor regulations, environmental standards, religious persecution, human rights, and suppression of terrorism.

Sanctions do not hold the same risks as military engagement of retaliation, escalation, casualties, and irreversible damage to infrastructure and the natural environment. The threat of additional action or even the communication of opposition can potentially deter the prohibited or undesirable activities, yet it may be difficult to measure the direct effect of sanctions.

Reliance on sanctions has often been grounded on the perception that they are a low-cost policy alternative, but a closer look reveals potentially high costs.

Controversial uses

Unilateral sanctions---enacted without international support or even against opposition from allies---can incite political backlash. Among these, the most controversial are secondary or extraterritorial sanctions, which extend policy consequences to any actors that deal with the primary target. For example, the year 1997 saw both the Helm’s Burton Act (officially the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act) and the D’Amato Act (officially the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act); in both, the United States sought to punish foreign investment in the target countries. Such sanctions are considered a violation of international law. In 1996, even before the Helms-Burton and D’Amato Acts were in place, the European Union lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the United States for extra-territorial legislation.

More rare but far more devastating are total embargoes, such those enacted against Iraq. Imposed by the United Nations after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, these sanctions stayed in place for 13 years. Despite exemptions for food and humanitarian supplies, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died from deprivation.

Flags at the ONU building, Geneva
Flags at the ONU building, Geneva | Source

Tactics and effects

There are two conflicting schools of thought regarding the use of economic power to address political problems. One side recommends fostering economic growth as a long-term route to opening progressive dialogue, and the other recommends coercive or punitive actions to force change. Political scientist Franklin L. Lavin coined these opposing strategies as “oxygen versus asphyxiation.”

Sanctions can have a powerful impact on a target state’s economy and population, but the desirability of these effects is debatable. They can also fail miserably in their objectives, with unfortunate and unnecessary losses.

Regardless of eventual outcome, sanctions obstruct free trade in the interim. From a domestic business perspective, sanctions complicate risk assessment and sacrifice private commercial interests through lost profits and competitive disadvantage. Unless sanctions are universally enforced, they disproportionately restrain trade for all involved parties—not just the target. Even traditional trade restraints, such as tariffs and quotas, seem less damaging than sanctions because protectionist tariffs at least protect domestic industries from foreign competition. Trade restrictions can also cost allies potential profits.

It cannot be assumed that sanctions will ever cause a shift in power politics, but even when they do, they can take a long time to “work”. Meanwhile, especially with severe trade blocks, they have the potential to impoverish innocent civilians, as with the previously mentioned case in Iraq. In any other situation, such a widespread deliberate disregard for life would be described as torture, murder, genocide, or war. Such use of sanctions is not only inhumane but also strategically misguided. As author James Burnham expressed, the rationale for sanctions against a hostile regime “assumes that popular pressure from below, sparked by economic deprivation, will force leaders at the top (who normally are fully insulated from economic inconvenience) to change their policies.” The sociological strategy of inciting revolution through poverty would be much more likely to work in situations where there is already a strong popular opposition to the government, business elites who would be affected negatively, or a populace with the power to effect change. But as an effort to protest tyranny or human rights violations, crippling an already suffering population further is both counter-intuitive and cruel.

“Targeted” sanctions have evolved to identify more focused (and therefore hopefully more constructive) policy agendas. Even the most mild sanctions by definition seek to cause some degree of economic hardship. They must therefore be monitored closely so that they do not extend their warrant.

Accountability and evaluation

Sanctions should not be used as a one-size-fits-all policy. The target should first be assessed, as comprehensively as possible, for its responsiveness. Discussion should include government or corporate stability, existing inclinations towards change, and any other relevant financial or cultural circumstances.

The following proposed criteria would help provide for accountability and successful policy conditions:

-state clearly defined objectives

-state clear requirements for lifting sanctions

-determine alternatives if objectives fail or change

-gain multi-lateral support or establish a high threshold for unilateral action

-project costs and benefits to all affected parties

-update cost-benefit analyses frequently

If sanctions are to be used to conduct coercive foreign policy, they should be formulated to hit their targets directly, efficiently, and humanely.

Resources used:

Burnham, J. (1997, Jan/Feb). The heavy hand of export controls. Society, 38-44.

Himes, K. (1997, Feb 28). War by other means: criteria for the use of economic sanctions. Commonweal, 13-15.

Lavin, F. (1996, Fall). Asphyxiation or oxygen? The sanctions dilemma. Foreign Policy, 139-53.


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    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      billybuc---I started out as an Econ major but very quickly switched to Political Science because I can hardly stand it either!! (I kept a dual minor in Business Management plus Middle Eastern Studies and have not done anything professional with any of it YET.) I owe most of my grasp of International Relations to my college advisor (Dr. Doug Simon of NJ). I'm new to online writing and am just now starting to add photos that I didn't just take around my house, so I would love some tips. Thank you so much for offering and I will be sending you an email later today. :-) ~Lurana

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I graduated with degrees in Marketing and Economics and hated it...I had to get older before I could find an appreciation in economic theory. I'm impressed with your grasp of this subject. Well done! Where are your followers? You are a good writer and you should have more followers. Do you want some assistance? If so, drop me an email at holland1145@yahoo and I'll share some tips with you. I want to see you succeed.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Thank you again. I like the picture you painted: "oil nations are floating on black gold and global economy is floating on oil revenues"....this is too true!

    • pramodgokhale profile image


      5 years ago from Pune( India)


      Thank you for reply to my comment which is authentic. Oil is always critical factor and shape global economy and development.

      Most of the oil producing nations are weak and ruled by undemocratic regimes and oil importing nations always look for the source and it's security.

      Oil nations are floating on black gold and global economy is floating on oil revenues , investment of petro money across the globe.

      You rightly pointed that Moral high ground is lost.

      Since independence India has faced sanctions, restrictions on technology transfers from west. Today situation has changed .

      India never behaved irresponsible manner as far as international protocols signed by India.

      Thank you for article ,waiting for more.

      pramod gokhale

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      5 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Hello pramodgokhale and thank you for commenting. :-)

      The threat of U.S. sanctions against India or anyone else doing business with Iranian oil is exactly the kind of unilateral, extra-territorial action that has greatly undermined respect for American foreign policy and the role of the United Nations.

      I read this quote by Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin: "We abide scrupulously by UN authorized sanctions...from a legal perspective there is nothing that binds us to follow them [the U.S. sanctions].”

      I also don't like that the U.S. offers timelines and exemptions for Iran's business partners while still targeting them; it may seem to mitigate the effects, but it is such a power play. They would seek to divert oil business to whomever is currently in their favor...but as happened with the Gulf War, alliances shift easily and any moral high ground is lost.

      Thanks again for reading and namaste,

      Lurana @MrsBrownsParlour

    • pramodgokhale profile image


      5 years ago from Pune( India)


      I understand the topic. We Indians know economic sanctions very well.Sanctions imposed by super powers against India, we chose our way and attained self reliance.

      These sanctions are one sided affair. At present Iran is facing sanctions,

      West wants her dominance intact so these measures have been imposed on developing nations.

      Thank you

      pramod gokhale


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