Questioningthe effectiveness of economic sanctions in the context of the enforcement ofinternational rules is more important than ever. Conditions for the use ofeconomic sanctions are more favourable now than at any other time since theirregular use by the United Nations began in the 1990s. Direct intervention, themethod previously preferred by the UN and the United States for solvinginternational crises, has fallen out of favour.
Foreign involvement in Iraq,Afghanistan and Libya has left a series of weak and corrupt governments, unableto either prevent widespread violence or provide basic amenities for theirpeople. The world appears to have lost its appetite for military involvement,prompting a widespread reappraisal of economic sanctions by academics andpolicymakers. Seen as a convenient halfway point between inactivity and militaryintervention, sanctions are portrayed as a cheaper, less controversial and morehumane alternative. Less costly both in human lives and financial spending, morelikely to be approved by members of the P5 and more flexible overall – they canbe loosened or tightened, expanded or narrowed – they provide an attractivecompromise. Yet while thepopularity of sanctions among policymakers is high, theoretical understandingof their effectiveness remains mired in academic debate. The general consensus amongscholars is that that they are ineffective policy instruments and thehistorical record seems to support this view: sanctions appear to have failedmore times than they have succeeded.
History and Literature:The use of sanctions as a tool to makestates comply with international rules is a relatively recent development. Betweenits creation in 1945 and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the UN usedeconomic sanctions in only two cases: South Africa and Rhodesia (UN, 2013). In theensuing decade, United Nations sanctions were imposed over a dozen times, onstates deemed to have broken a myriad of different rules. Such was theirpopularity that the 1990s became known as the ‘sanctions decade’. The initial enthusiasmsurrounding this tool in foreign policy circles soon turned to disappointmentas UN mandated sanctions proved unsuccessful at preventing escalating violencein the Balkans and in central Africa. Critics argued that sanctions oftenproved counterproductive, shoring up the power of authoritarian regimes by givingthem a foreign enemy against which they could rally domestic support. Criticismof economic sanctions reached its apex during the aftermath of Iraq’s invasionof Kuwait: the UN’s comprehensive financial and economic embargo, which persevereduntil 2003, caused widespread humanitarian suffering.
Hundreds of thousands ofIraqi civilians perished and the UN’s attempt to remedy the situation through the’Oil-for-Food Program’ became mired in a damning corruption scandal. The combinedeffects of first the human suffering caused in Iraq and second of America’s post-9/11diplomatic experience encouraged a shift towards supposedly more humane ‘smart’sanctions. These targeted measures, which use a combination of arms embargos,asset freezes, travel restrictions and foreign aid cuts, are increasinglypreferred to blanket economic punishments.
The constantly increasinginterconnectedness of the world economy, particularly of trade and finance, hasmade economic coercion – in particular, targeted measures – a more attractiveresponse to rule-breaking than ever. Add to that the slashing of aid budgetsthroughout the West since 2008 and the widespread public resistance to militaryinterventions since Afghanistan and Iraq and economic sanctions look like a positivelyrisk-free substitute to advance the national interest. This is especially truefor the US, the world’s most prolific user of sanctions, which acts both indirectlythrough resolutions in the Security Council or directly through the TreasuryDepartment. Most of thescholarly and policy debates surrounding economic sanctions consist of eitherquantitative studies or examinations of high-profile cases. Both approacheshave their pitfalls, though most appear to cast a largely negative light on theeffectiveness of sanctions. The most often cited study on the topic, Hufbauer,Schott and Elliott’s Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, arrives at theconclusion that only a third of sanctions implemented between 1914 and 1990 weresuccessful (Hufbauer, et al., 2007: 158), a rate of effectiveness, they argue,that is in decline. Whereas 44% of sanctions implemented pre-1973 wereconsidered to have been effective, only 24% of sanctions after 1973 areclassified as successes.