The oldest known instance of a country deploying economic sanctions against another dates from 432 B.C., when Athens imposed severe restrictions on Megara. The Megarian Decrees denied the city-state use of the Athenian empire’s harbors, cutting off its trade. But tiny Megara was an ally of Athens’ great rival Sparta, and disagreements over the sanctions were among the reasons that precipitated the Second Peloponnesian War between Greece’s two dominant powers.

Some historians believe Pericles, the ruler of Athens, was looking for a way to provoke the Spartans into war, and the decrees served his purpose; others argue the decrees were meant to avoid war by imposing a non-military solution on the Megarians — and failed.

Two-and-a-half millennia later, the potency of economic sanctions as an instrument of statecraft still depends greatly on their purpose. But the risks of getting it wrong have not prevented governments from using them, with greater frequency and mixed results, against individuals, institutions and countries, as punishment for infractions, ranging from financial chicanery and drug smuggling to nuclear proliferation and genocide.

The U.S., long the world’s most prodigious exponent of sanctions, has grown even more prolific in recent years. According to a study by the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, President Donald Trump, in his very first year in office, increased the number of people and entities under sanctions by nearly 1,000. That’s a 30% jump over the final year of President Barack Obama’s administration, and a 300% increase over its first year in the White House. The U.S. Treasury’s list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons now runs to 1,300 close-typed pages.

The more frequent use of sanctions is not necessarily a bad thing. To a substantial extent, it is a natural American response to changing strategic and political realities. Around the world, those who threaten the U.S. and its interests are becoming harder to detect, and harder still to interdict. Dangerous people and organizations can conceal themselves in the digital fog, or behind the protection of countries that are hostile to the U.S.

At the same time, American presidents have grown more circumspect about using some of the blunter and more kinetic implements deployed by their predecessors. Diplomacy, the other tool available to states, is often too slow to yield results, and largely useless against some modern threats such as cyber-attacks by non-state actors, for instance.

In comparison, sanctions are a compelling offensive weapon — one that is also, for the most part, defensible. They can be deployed quickly and bloodlessly, allowing a president to be seen as taking action against perceived threats, without the risk of American lives or property. Also, they can be more subtle, allowing action against individuals or entities without automatically severing relations with governments.

But do they work? That depends, as with the Megarian Decrees, on their purpose. All the empirical evidence suggests that sanctions don’t lead to regime change — Cuba and North Korea have been under sanctions for decades, but their dictators have tended to die in their beds, with power transferring smoothly to the next generation of tyrants. Sanctions didn’t topple Saddam Hussein; that required a war.

Even when sanctions aim mainly to change regime behavior, the track record is mixed. Scholars at the Peterson Institute for International Economics have run the rule over hundreds of instances of economic sanctions imposed on countries — as opposed to individuals or institutions — going back to the start of World War I. Their conclusion: sanctions don’t often produce the desired result. The reasons for failure vary: the sanctions may be inadequate; they may generate opposition from allies; the target regime may be able to turn isolation into a political advantage; the regime may be able to get help from other sources.

Of course, diplomacy and war are no more certain than sanctions to bring about the desired change. And even where sanctions have failed, things might arguably have been worse if they had not been imposed at all. How much more harm might the Castros, the Kims and Saddam Hussein done if they had free access to markets and arms?  

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