Economic Sanctions: Too Much of a Bad Thing

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Richard N. HaassMonday, June 1, 1998


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

Economic sanctions are increasingly being used to promote the full range of American foreign policy objectives. Yet all too often sanctions turn out to be little more than expressions of U.S. preferences that hurt American economic interests without changing the target’s behavior for the better. As a rule, sanctions need to be less unilateral and more focused on the problem at hand. Congress and the executive branch need to institute far more rigorous oversight of sanctions, both prior to adopting them and regularly thereafter, to ensure that the expected benefits outweigh likely costs and that sanctions accomplish more than alternative foreign policy tools.


The widespread use of economic sanctions constitutes one of the paradoxes of contemporary American foreign policy. Sanctions are frequently criticized, even derided. At the same time, economic sanctions are fast becoming the policy tool of choice for the United States in the post-cold war world. The United States now maintains economic sanctions against dozens of countries; indeed, sanctions are so popular that they are being introduced by many states and municipalities. What is critical, moreover, is not just the frequency with which economic sanctions are used but their growing importance for U.S. foreign policy.

Sanctions—defined as mostly economic but also political and military penalties introduced to alter political and/or military behavior—are employed by the United States to discourage the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, bolster human rights, end terrorism, thwart drug trafficking, discourage armed aggression, promote market access, protect the environment, and replace governments.

To accomplish foreign policy ends, sanctions take the form of arms embargoes, foreign assistance reductions and cut-offs, export and import limitations, asset freezes, tariff increases, revocation of most favored nation (MFN) trade status, negative votes in international financial institutions, withdrawal of diplomatic relations, visa denials, cancellation of air links, and prohibitions on credit, financing, and investment.

What explains this popularity? Sanctions can offer what appears to be a proportional response to a challenge in which the interests at stake are less than vital. In addition, sanctions are a way to signal official displeasure with a certain behavior. They can serve the purpose of reinforcing a commitment to a behavioral norm, such as respect for human rights or opposition to proliferation. American reluctance to use military force is another motivation. Sanctions provide a visible and less expensive alternative to military intervention and to doing nothing. The greater reach of media is still another explanation. The CNN effect can increase the visibility of problems in another country and stimulate a desire on the part of Americans to respond. The increased strength of single issue constituencies in American politics is also a factor. Small, organized, focused groups—often acting through Congress—can have an impact far beyond their actual strength, especially when no equally focused countervailing force exists.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from recent American use of economic sanctions for foreign policy purposes:

Sanctions alone are unlikely to achieve desired results if the aims are large or time is short. Sanctions—even when comprehensive and enjoying almost universal international backing for nearly six months—failed to get Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. In the end, it took Operation Desert Storm. Other sanctions have also fallen short. The Iranian regime continues to support terrorism, oppose the Middle East peace process, and press ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Fidel Castro is still in place atop a largely authoritarian political and economic system. India and Pakistan were not deterred from testing nuclear weapons by the threat of draconian penalties. Libya has refused to produce the two individuals accused of the destruction of Pan Am 103. Sanctions could not persuade Haiti’s junta to honor the results of an election. Nor could they dissuade Serbia and others to call off their military aggression. And China continues to export sensitive technologies to selected countries and remains a society where human rights are violated.

Nevertheless, sanctions can on occasion achieve (or help to achieve) various foreign policy goals ranging from the modest to the fairly significant. Sanctions introduced in the aftermath of the Gulf War increased Iraqi compliance with resolutions calling for the complete elimination of its weapons of mass destruction and diminished Iraq’s ability to import weapons. In the former Yugoslavia, sanctions were one factor contributing to Serbia’s decision to accept the Dayton agreement in August 1995. China appears to have shown some restraint in exporting nuclear and ballistic missile parts or technologies.


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