Embargoes and Sanctions - The effectiveness of u.s. sanctions in historical context

The United States also imposed economic sanctions in cases far less serious than Iraq and Serbia after the Cold War. It was imposing sanctions against forty different nations as of 1999. Certainly, the United States was using sanctions more often than any other nation. In fact, many critics believed that its use of sanctions had gotten out of hand. Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, a major compilation of case studies by Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott concerning economic sanctions as exercised throughout the world in the twentieth century, concludes that sanctions worked only about one-third of the time, usually when they were exercised decisively rather than gradually, had multilateral rather than mere unilateral support, and were directed at rather weak and unstable regimes (vol. 1, p. 93). Truly altering a nation's fundamental political or military policy most often required military force. The history of sanctions in American history as narrated here seems to bear out that analysis.

On the other hand, sanctions have served purposes beyond the most ambitious one of changing another nation's fundamental policy decisions. Sanctions have signaled to adversaries, allies, and America's domestic constituencies the seriousness of an issue. They have prepared domestic constituencies for the possibility of armed conflict by making clear that all peaceful options were being tried before resorting to war. They have weakened the economies of adversaries in ways that interfered with their preparations for conflict. And they have served as an object lesson for future adversaries. Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein demonstrated that determined regimes can survive powerful sanctions for an extended period of time, but the ravages on their economy certainly ensure that no nation will risk such sanctions lightly in the future.

Nevertheless, sanctions also have produced nationalist reactions in target nations that stiffened rather than weakened resistance to America's foreign policy goals. Moreover, even friendly nations often refuse to go along with U.S. sanctions, and the economic effect is simply to transfer commerce from the United States to other countries. In the end, then, sanctions are a tempting means for the U.S. government to try to coerce cooperation with its policies by means short of war and to signal its determination at home and abroad, but in the absence of the threat or use of military force, embargoes and sanctions do not often succeed in changing a nation's fundamental policies, and they impose costs on the initiator as well as the object of such measures.

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