Sanctions: Diplomatic Tool, or Warfare by Other Means?

M. Shane Smith

April 2004

Sanctions are often viewed as an alternative to military force. By punishing an offending party economically, socially, or politically, rather than militarily, those who impose sanctions hope to solve a conflict without the mass suffering and sacrifice required by war. Indeed, sanctions have sometimes been effective, and are widely used. But their use is much more common than their success: studies indicate that only five to, at most, 30 percent of sanctions result in the desired change.[1] [2] The use of sanctions also comes with significant risks. In this essay, I will examine the history and uses of sanctions, some associated problems, and how sanctions can be made more effective instruments of policy.

What are sanctions?

William Ury describes the role of the equalizer in intractable conflicts. Equalizers build up the power of the low power group to enable them to be able to negotiate fairly with the other side. This can be done through violence, but it is also very effectively done with nonviolence. Mobilizing world public opinion is especially important and effective now as the globe is shrinking socially, politically, and economically.

Sanctions involve one party attempting to change another party's behavior without the use of weapons or the military. Sanctions range from travel bans and arms embargoes, to complete trade bans. Sanctions often have uncertain and irreversible consequences and can cause great human suffering. However, they have also been successful in changing opponents' behavior. Sanctions and threats of sanctions have been credited with curbing human-rights violations, ousting belligerent leaders, and limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The perception of doing something to punish a corrupt international government can be a powerful domestic incentive for leaders to implement sanctions. For instance, anti-Castro exiles in the United States have applied significant political pressure on American leaders to retain and even increase sanctions on Cuba.

History of Sanctions

Sanctions have been a tool of economic statecraft for thousands of years. Pericles, a statesman in Athens in the 5th century B.C. ordered all trade banned between the Athenian Empire and Megra, a city-state that had sided with Sparta, Athens' enemy. He intended to send the message that, short of going to war, Athens would punish anyone who challenged her authority. These sanctions ultimately lead to a thirty-year war. [3]

For most of the 20th century, sanctions were rarely used. During the Cold War, both the U.S.S.R. and the United States tried to gain a competitive edge over each other by cooperating with corrupt leaders. This policy made sanctions an ineffective tool. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were only two U.N.-approved sanctions, against Rhodesia and South Africa.

After the Cold War, the U.N. Security Council ordered sanctions against a number of countries, Afghanistan, Angola, Haiti, Iraq, Serbia, Somalia, Sudan, and others. Their violations include external and internal aggression, support of terrorism, and suppression of democracy.[4] Also during this time, the United States rose to unprecedented international power, giving greater authority to its unilateral sanctions. The United States' economic strength, combined with a reluctance to deploy its military force to address economic, moral, or political problems resulted in a sharp increase in unilateral sanctions. In 1998, one commentator estimated that "two-thirds of the world's population [was] subject to some sort of US sanctions."[5] However, the United States has not been the only nation to employ economic sanctions. In addition to thousands of single-nation bans and proposals, the increasingly viable European Union has been sponsoring its own brand of sanctions.

Examples of success

On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 disintegrated in the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland, after a bomb ripped a hole in its fuselage. The Qaddafi regime of Libya was accused of the attack and of harboring two suspects, Amin Fhimah and Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Led by the United States, the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions that threatened international sanctions including military embargoes and prohibiting the sale of industrial equipment to Libya unless it handed over the suspects. Qaddafi resisted for years, but in 1999 succumbed to global pressures. The trial found al-Megrahi guilty of the murders, while his colleague was acquitted. Other examples of the effective use of sanctions include South Africa where it is thought that international sanctions isolated the government and helped bring its policies of apartheid to an overdue end. Similarly, global sanctions placed on Serbia, after Slobodan Milosevic's cruel campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, helped bring about Milosevic's downfall and subsequent extradition to face an international war crimes tribunal.

Shortfalls of Sanctions

Sanctions may have unintended consequences. Alexander George discusses the potential "boomerang effect" of "coercive diplomacy"[6] when he suggests that Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent entry of the United States into World War II, stemmed from economic sanctions:

"The oil embargo the United States imposed on Japan in July 1941 was so credible and so potent that it quickly provoked Japanese leaders into making a very difficult and desperate decision to initiate war rather than capitulate to Washington's extreme demands that it get out of China and, in effect, give up its aspirations for regional hegemony in Southeast Asia."[7]

Similarly, Louis Kreisberg suggests that sanctions can "widen the conflict, add to its destructiveness, and sometimes prolong it."[8]

Sanctions are also destructive to the targeted societies. A 1999 study suggests that post-Cold War sanctions may have contributed to more deaths than all "weapons of mass destruction" used throughout history.[9] In Iraq, for instance, it is has been estimated that hundreds of thousands of children died between 1991 and 2001, in part as a result of sanctions.[10] Such effects weaken the political support necessary for effective trade bans. In Iraq's case, there were significant fluctuations in international support for the decade-long sanctions.

Another problem with sanctions is that threats cost more when they fail because the sender must follow through with a punishment. A larger threat is likely to be cheaper, because it is less likely to fail. To reduce potential costs, a sender may build up a threatened punishment, thinking that otherwise it will fail. As a result, senders may overdo the level of threat needed for a situation.

Additionally, threats inherently cause stress and can affect one's rationality or problem-solving capacity. They can also generate resistance. There is a difference between opposition to an outside attempt to influence and opposition generated by the attempt to influence. Often, the target would rather face a threat than be perceived as weak by giving in to a threat. Sanctions convey a message of indifference and hostility. Furthermore, when senders impose sanctions on a target, the target is much more likely to impose sanctions on the sender when given the chance.

Finally, if there is domestic support for the targeted leader, sanctions may generate a "rally around the flag" or nationalist response, in which a population under threat unites around its leaders.[11] Rather than having a pacifying effect on the targeted actor, sanctions then strengthen a leader's domestic support. Outside pressure can also be used by leaders to ignore domestic troubles, placing the blame for economic instability on the outsider, and providing political cover to further repress domestic dissidents, while directing resentment toward those who impose the sanctions.

Some scholars, such as Daniel Fisk, conclude that "economic sanctions are a policy instrument with little, if any, chance of achieving much beyond making policy-makers feel good about having done something for a particular domestic community."[12]

Making sanctions more effective

Rather than simply dismissing sanctions as a destructive weapon of the strong, most analysts argue that they are viable, but imperfect, tools of foreign policy. They suggest ways of structuring and monitoring sanctions to enhance their impact on the targeted actor and to minimize their destructive effects. Specifically, sanctions are more likely to have a positive influence if:

  1. there is multilateral coordination,
  2. the targeted government faces domestic opposition, and
  3. sanctions are combined with incentives.

International Cooperation

Effective sanctions require multilateral coordination or, if used unilaterally, a rare monopoly on the sanctioned commodities. If the targeted actor is able to acquire sanctioned goods elsewhere, then the sanction is little more than a nuisance and has little, if any, potential as a corrective measure. Rather, it is more likely to escalate the conflict. While the United States and sometimes the European Union can weaken other countries, without international cooperation there is little chance of success. The resilience of the governments in Cuba and Vietnam, despite decades of U.S. sanctions, shows that unilateral action may not achieve the intended end. This is largely because, as Eileen Crumm argues, market forces work against multilateral sanctions, making them an inherently difficult instrument of foreign policy.[13] When a commodity becomes scarce due to sanctions, economic forces of supply and demand drive up its value. The economic incentive for others to ignore the sanctions increases. Countries attempt to corner the market by "getting there first and with the most," gaining an advantage before others have a chance to enter the market, which can happen if one nation enforces a trade ban but another does not.[14] This discourages cooperation and renders unilateral sanctions largely ineffective.

Domestic Opposition

Sanctions are most likely to be effective when targeted leaders are faced with domestic instability. Domestic weaknesses lessen the ability for leaders to play the nationalist card, rallying support against external threats. They also decrease their ability to organize internal structures in order to shield themselves from sanctions.

Sanctioned leaders often must acquiesce to external pressure in order to avoid domestic instability. However, when they defer to outsiders, they risk weakening their political standing and encouraging the future use of sanctions against them. They also may encourage external and internal forces to feed off and reinforce one another. This was the case in South Africa, where international pressure and domestic unrest grew, reinforcing each other, until the apartheid regime buckled.

Incentives: An alternative to sanctions

Many experts argue that incentives should be combined with or used as an alternative to sanctions. Doing so, they argue, enhances the chance of avoiding violent conflict and reaching a political goal. David Baldwin draws on behavioral psychology when he argues that threats send a message of hostility and are met with anxiety, fear, and resentment, whereas incentives can send a message of hope, cooperation, and goodwill.[15] While incentives may be resented if viewed as a bribe, or as overshadowed by a threatened or imposed sanction, they are less likely to provoke obstinate behavior. Moreover, they can be combined with sanctions in an effort to divide domestic support for objectionable policies. When specific sectors of society are isolated as targets of sanctions, incentives can alleviate the potential for a "rallying" effect and can increase support for change in other parts of society, by offering potential benefits for another sector of society if the government cooperates. The incentives essay discusses this more in depth.

Smart Sanctions

The focus on political concessions has led to an analytical and practical distinction between comprehensive or "dumb" trade sanctions and targeted or "smart" sanctions, with a shift from broad economic sanctions that hurt entire populations to more specified sanctions aimed at governing or military bodies.[16] Yet, David Cortright and George Lopez find that so-called "smart" sanctions carry much less weight, are easily circumvented and, as a result, have less chance of success, whereas, on average, comprehensive sanctions have been more effective.[17]

Nonetheless, recognizing the often-unacceptable human costs associated with comprehensive sanctions, and the unlikely potential for holding together such an international coalition (indeed, there have been only four U.N.-approved comprehensive sanctions), Cortright and Lopez provide specific recommendations to improve the effectiveness of sanctions. They recommend maintaining a list of individuals and entities responsible for, or supportive of, objectionable policies in targeted countries, who are then subject to financial sanctions and seizures, as well as travel bans. When whole sectors of society, such as businesses or communities, are the targets, they recommend expanding sanctions to strategic commodities, such as arms (although arms embargoes have traditionally lacked adequate enforcement), petroleum products, and commodities of great value to decision-makers (e.g. diamonds in Africa).


The effectiveness of sanctions is questionable. It is clear that the more harm sanctions have on their target, the more likely they are to influence the target's behavior. The human costs of such sanctions, however, are often unacceptable and make international support unlikely. Moreover, sanctions are likely to have greater effect on their target if the target government is faced with domestic opposition; otherwise, sanctions may simply encourage greater political cohesion around the targeted leadership.

Conflict often arises due to one party's feeling that they lack political, economic, or security resources. Sanctions, by definition, intend to further weaken the target, increasing their anxiety, and escalating a conflict.

However, sanctions should not be wholly dismissed, as they have been effective in the past. If used thoughtfully, they can help to solve conflicts with a minimal amount of violence.

[1] The numbers vary from one study to another because different cases are examined and different measures are used.

[2] Peter Wallensteen, "A Century of Economic Sanctions: A Field Revisited." Uppsala Peace Research Paper No. 1. Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden. 2000. Available online at (Accessed May 13, 2013) (Originally found at < > Accessed April 2, 2004.) (The numbers vary from one study to another because different cases are examined and different measures used.)

[3] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 118-123. <>

[4] Steve Chan and A. Cooper Drury, "Sanctions as Economic Statecraft: An Overview," in Steve Chan and A. Cooper Drury (eds.), Sanctions as Economic Statecraft: Theory and Practice (New York: St. Martins Press, 2000), p. 3.

[5] Nancy Dunne, "Sanctions Overload," Financial Times (July 21, 1998), p. 19; as quoted in Geoff Simons, Imposing Economic Sanctions: Legal Remedy or Genocidal Tool? (London: Pluto Press, 1999), p. 2.

[6] Coercive diplomacy is the purposeful combination of threats and diplomacy aimed at "persuad[ing] an opponent to stop or undo his effort to alter a status quo situation that itself endangers the peace or...already involves naked military aggression." Alexander L. George, Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace press, 1991), p. xi. <>

[7] Ibid., p. 19.

[8] Louis Kreisberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, 2nd edition (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), p. 102. 4th edition (2012) available at <>

[9] John Mueller and Karl Mueller, "Sanctions of Mass Destruction," Foreign Affairs (May/June 1999), p. 43.

[10]For sources and debates regarding the effect of sanction on Iraq, see the Frontline story entitled the "The Debate over UN Sanctions," available at

[11] Johan Galtung, "On the Effects of International Economic Sanctions, with Examples from the Case of Rhodesia," World Politics Vol. 19, No. 3 (April 1967), PP. 26-48. <

[12] Daniel W. Fisk, "Economic Sanctions: The Cuba Embargo Revisited," in Chan and Drury (eds.). p. 65.

[13] Eileen M. Crumm, "The Value of Economic Incentives in International Politics," Journal of Peace Research Vol. 32, No. 3 (1995), pp. 313-330. <>

[14] Ashton B. Carter, Marcel Lettre and M. Shane Smith, "Keeping the Technological Edge," in Ashton B. Carter and John M. White (eds.), Keeping the Edge: Managing Defense for the Future (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), pp. 127-162.

[15] David A. Baldwin, "The Power of Positive Sanctions," World Politics Vol. 24, No. 1 (October 1971), pp. 19-38. <>

[16] For instance, see David Cortright and George A. Lopez (eds.), Smart Sanctions: Targeting Economic Statecraft (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002).

[17] David Cortright and George A. Lopez, "Introduction: Assessing Smart Sanctions," in Cortright and Lopez (eds.), pp. 1-22.

Use the following to cite this article:
Smith, M. Shane. "Sanctions: Diplomatic Tool, or Warfare by Other Means?." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: April 2004 <>.

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