With the end of the Cold War, the United States had greater success in persuading other nations to join it in imposing sanctions against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and violations of human rights. Rival powers on the UN Security Council no longer automatically vetoed sanctions that affected their respective allies. The two most prominent crises in which broad multilateral sanctions played a major role were the Gulf War of 1991 and the meltdown of the former Yugoslavia. Sanctions in these cases succeeded in devastating the economies of the two rogue nations at the center of the crises, Iraq and Serbia. But in the end it took military force to compel the leaders of those countries to make major changes of policy.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States and the UN Security Council sanctioned all Iraqi trade and financial aid. But Saddam Hussein defied the bans and received substantial supplies through sympathetic Palestinians in Jordan. He also made a firm peace with Iran, thus securing his borders. As Saddam showed no signs of relenting on Kuwait, President George Bush began pushing his allies for military action. Many American leaders, including the former chairman of Reagan's joint chiefs of staff, Admiral William Crowe, argued that continuing sanctions might well force Saddam to settle without further bloodshed. Bush's own joint chiefs, led by General Colin Powell, were also reluctant to go to war, but were willing to do so if overwhelming force were used to avoid another Vietnam. Bush agreed, and the resulting Operation Desert Storm routed Saddam's army. But the allied armies stopped before taking Baghdad or capturing Saddam himself. They then signed an agreement with Saddam that restored Kuwait's border and permitted inspections to ensure the dismantling of all Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam defied those agreements, and the United States and the United Nations continued their sanctions to try to bring him into line. Nevertheless, Saddam held out for more than a decade while the sanctions regime slowly declined. The United States and its allies exempted some Iraqi oil from the sanctions under strict controls to see that the money was used for humanitarian purposes within Iraq and to compensate Kuwait for war damages. But Saddam managed to divert some of that aid to maintaining his regime. He also smuggled oil, with the cooperation of Iran and others, to keep himself afloat. Meanwhile, Russia, France, and other nations pressed for further loosening or even ending the sanctions, on the grounds that Saddam had sufficiently conformed to his agreements and that the embargoes bore most heavily on innocent civilians.
Multilateral sanctions also played a major part in the Balkan crises of the 1990s. After the death of Tito, Slobodan Milosevic began appealing to Serbian nationalism as a substitute for the collapsing communist ideology that previously had sustained his position. As a result of growing Serb militancy, Slovenia, Croatia, and then Bosnia declared their independence. Milosevic used his control of the Yugoslav army and heavy weapons to invade Bosnia and Croatia in support of the Serb inhabitants of those areas. He then expelled or massacred all non-Serbs in the conquered areas, in a program dubbed "ethnic cleansing." The Croats and Muslims often returned the favor of ethnic cleansing when they had the chance, but the imbalance of power gave them fewer of those opportunities.
The United States under George H. W. Bush left the Europeans to furnish a few thousand UN troops to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged areas while America led the Security Council to impose an economic blockade of Serbia. By 1994, the blockade had worn Milosevic down to the point that he deserted the Bosnian Serbs and joined the embargo against them in hopes of getting the sanctions lifted against Serbia. But the Bosnian Serbs refused to quit. In July 1995, they brushed aside a UN force protecting the sanctuary of Srbrenica, massacred the adult males, and brutalized many others. Finally, the United States and NATO began a major bombing campaign that, combined with pressure from a rejuvenated Croat army, forced Milosevic to the peace table. At Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995, Bill Clinton succeeded in hammering out a peace agreement to be enforced by an enlarged UN contingent to which the United States would contribute one-third of the troops.
Milosevic, however, began a similar ethnic cleansing program in Kosovo in 1998. Despite the reluctance of Russia, the NATO allies restored sanctions against Milosevic. They eased them when he agreed to negotiate with the Kosovar Muslims, but nothing came of the talks, and Milosevic resumed military activities in Kosovo. It was clear to all that mere sanctions would not change Milosevic's policy, so NATO resorted to threats, and finally the use of force. A devastating ten-week bombing campaign ultimately brought Milosevic to retreat from Kosovo in favor of a UN peacekeeping force that included U.S. troops.