Sanctions remain popular but their effectiveness is debatable

Sanctions remain popular but their effectiveness is debatable

The Russia-Ukraine war has renewed questions about the effectiveness of sanctions (Reuters)
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Last year, the US significantly increased the number of people and entities under sanctions. Sanctions serve as a politically popular tool that is applied with growing precision, but do they actually achieve their intended purpose?

Last month, the Center for a New American Security released an analysis of US sanctions from 2022. It found that “the United States added 2,275 persons (individuals and entities) to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) list” — a major increase over the previous year. Sanctions in response to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine were the primary driver behind the increase.

Washington frequently uses sanctions as a foreign policy tool, sometimes unilaterally and sometimes in cooperation with other countries or the UN. Key sanctions tools include the SDN list and export controls through the Entity List. The US applies some sanctions based on themes, such as human rights and countering terrorism, while others are specific to a country. Sanctions can target individuals, companies, banks and financial institutions, government agencies and more. Furthermore, the US can leverage its leading role in the global economy and financial system to impose secondary sanctions on non-American individuals or companies that do business with the sanctioned entities.

The basic idea of sanctions has deep historical roots but has evolved in modern times. The US has used embargoes on specific countries, but embargoes are a blunt instrument that typically fails. More recently, sanctions have become more precise, as Washington sanctions specific individuals and entities and uses financial tools more than broad embargoes.

Strict multilateral sanctions have not forced Russia to withdraw, but it is too early to fully assess their impact

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The Russia-Ukraine war has renewed questions about the effectiveness of sanctions. So far, strict multilateral sanctions against Russia have not forced Moscow to withdraw, but it is too early to fully assess their impact. History offers clearer examples. A decades-long US trade embargo on Cuba has completely failed to achieve the goal of regime change. Sanctions on North Korea have failed to deter Pyongyang from continuing its nuclear weapons program. Punishing sanctions on Iraq that began in 1990 failed to achieve the stated objectives.

Analysts such as Agathe Demarais and Nicholas Mulder have noted that sanctions usually fail but sometimes succeed. US financial threats helped force the UK to abandon its invasion of Egypt in 1956. Many in the US foreign policy community see the Obama administration’s use of sanctions against Iran as a good example of how sanctions can work. In that case, Washington worked with foreign partners to impose acute costs on Iran’s economy while also making it clear what Tehran needed to do to lift those sanctions, eventually leading Iran to agree to limits on its nuclear program. In 2018, the Trump administration successfully used sanctions against Turkiye to persuade Ankara to release an American pastor from prison.

Sanctions are more likely to be successful when the country or countries applying sanctions have leverage. The US has had more success when applying sanctions to a country with which it has significant economic relations or when it works with other countries that have important economic links with a target country. For example, North Korea’s isolation from the global economy and close relations with China and Russia have limited the impact of sanctions.

Sanctions are also more likely to achieve their objective when the goal is clear and feasible. The Turkish government did not like giving into US pressure to release the pastor, but the cost of sanctions outweighed the political cost of releasing him. With Iran, the Obama administration achieved the specific goal of pressuring Tehran to reach a nuclear deal, while sanctions intended to produce regime change or broad and fuzzy goals have failed. Governments may be willing to make difficult compromises in response to sanctions, but regimes will not give up power or take steps that they see as fundamentally threatening to their survival.

Sanctions are more likely to be successful when the country or countries applying sanctions have leverage

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Some proponents of sanctions argue that causing economic pain can help push a population to demand a change in leadership. However, as Demarais has pointed out, sanctions are unlikely to work in autocracies, in which the population has little voice and faces severe consequences for speaking out. Sanctions are also more likely to be effective when they work quickly, before a country has time to absorb the economic cost and adapt.

Even when sanctions fail to achieve their objective, they sometimes have value. They send a message and serve as a tool that is sharper than diplomatic statements but less risky than military action. Over time, they can degrade a country’s ability to wage war or extend its influence.

However, the foreign policy benefits of sanctions must be weighed against the costs. Especially when broadly applied, sanctions can cause immense human suffering that can last for decades. They allow autocrats to blame someone else for their own poor governance. Sanctions also often have unintended consequences; they can backfire and end up damaging US foreign policy and economic interests. Once sanctions are imposed, it is politically difficult for Washington to lift them without receiving concessions in return. In the long term, overreliance on ineffective sanctions undermines the tool’s credibility and could lead countries to seek alternatives to the US-led financial system.

The US is not the only country that imposes sanctions but, given its economic size and influence, it is perhaps the most important. Sanctions will remain a popular foreign policy tool for Washington, but it is unclear how far sanctions will advance US interests.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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