Embargoes and Sanctions

Jerald A. Combs

For most of America's history, the word "embargo" was used to refer specifically to a prohibition on the departure of ships or exports from a nation's own ports, whereas the words "boycott" and "nonimportation" were used to describe prohibitions of imports or ship entries, and "nonintercourse" was used to describe a total prohibition of trade with a nation. But the word "embargo" also was used generically to refer to all stoppages of trade.

Since World War II, the growth of modern economic institutions and relations has afforded governments, especially rich and powerful ones like that of the United States, an arsenal of commercial weapons extending far beyond an outright stoppage of trade, including denial of aid and loans, commodity dumping, import and export limitations, revocation of most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status, and freezing assets. As those means increased, the word "embargo" seemed less applicable to the wide range of economic coercive measures that the United States, the United Nations, and other entities were using to accomplish noneconomic goals. The preferred term now is "sanctions." In eighteenth-century Europe, an embargo was generally a prelude to a formal declaration of war. A civil embargo prohibited a nation's own ships from leaving port; a hostile embargo affected all ships in the port, foreign or domestic. Neutral ships caught in the embargo might even be forced into the service of the belligerent nation. The right to do this was called the power of angary. By imposing an embargo before declaring war, a nation could keep friendly ships from falling into the hands of the enemy and hold enemy ships hostage for future contingencies.

European powers rarely resorted to an embargo as a weapon in itself rather than as a prelude to war, although there were two exceptions to this in the sixteenth century: a French grain embargo against Spain and a threatened Turkish wheat embargo against Venice. In most cases, European nations had little incentive to consider a broader use of embargoes because geographical proximity made conventional military attacks easy and effective. Besides, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries constituted the age of mercantilism, in which people believed that national power depended upon exports exceeding imports. Thus, most diplomats expected an embargo of long duration to hurt the embargoing nation more than its enemy. An extreme example of this philosophy was Great Britain's famous blockade of Napoleonic France, which was not designed to starve France but to compel it to accept British imports or receive no trade at all.


Combs, Jerald A. The Jay Treaty: Political Battleground of the Founding Fathers. Berkeley, Calif., 1970. Deals with the struggle between Madison and Hamilton over economic retaliation, culminating in the embargo of 1794 and Jay's Treaty.

Cortright, David, and George A. Lopez. The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s. Boulder, Colo., 2000. Surveys of U.S. and UN sanctions against Iraq, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda. The authors argue that sanctions are a valuable tool and can work if they are carefully designed to include carrots as well as sticks.

Cortright, David, and George A. Lopez, eds. Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post–Cold War World. Boulder, Colo., 1995. A collection of essays with contrasting views on the efficacy and morality of sanctions. There are specific case studies of the sanctions against Iraq, Serbia, Haiti, and South Africa.

Day, Erin. Economic Sanctions Imposed by the United States against Specific Countries: 1979 Through 1992. Washington, D.C., 1992. A reference work compiled by the Congressional Research Service.

Divine, Robert A. The Illusion of Neutrality: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Struggle over the Arms Embargo. 2d ed. New York, 1979. An excellent account of the sanctions contained in the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s.

Gibbons, Elizabeth D. Sanctions in Haiti: Human Rights and Democracy under Assault. Westport, Conn., 1999. Documents the impact of sanctions on unintended victims, the general population.

Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961. A brilliant exposition of American ideas of economic warfare during the nation's formative years.

Haass, Richard N., ed. Economic Sanctions and American Diplomacy. New York, 1998. An outstanding group of essays covering the post–Cold War sanctions against China, Cuba, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and the former Yugoslavia.

Hanlon, Joseph, ed. South Africa: The Sanctions Report. Documents and Statistics. London, 1990. A collection that spells out the economic impact of sanctions on South Africa.

Heinrichs, Waldo. Threshold of War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Entry into World War II. New York, 1988. A good discussion of Roosevelt's use of sanctions against Japan before World War II.

Hufbauer, Gary Clyde, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott. Economic Sanctions Reconsidered. 2d ed. 2 vols. Washington, D.C., 1990. An encyclopedic work that contains case studies of most of the twentieth-century sanctions discussed in this essay.

Jensen, Merill. The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763–1776. New York, 1968. A good account of pre-Revolution economic action.

Kunz, Diane B. Butter and Guns: America's Cold War Economic Diplomacy. New York, 1997. Contains much on sanctions since 1945.

May, Ernest R. The World War and American Isolation, 1914–1917. Cambridge, Mass., 1959. An excellent account of how Woodrow Wilson dealt with the Allied embargo against Germany before World War I.

Moore, John Bassett. A Digest of International Law. 8 vols. Washington, D.C., 1906. A good reference source for early American precedents.

Owsley, Frank L., and Harriet C. Owsley. King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America. 2d ed. Chicago, 1959. The most complete work on King Cotton diplomacy during the Civil War.

Perkins, Bradford. Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805–1812. Berkeley, Calif., 1961. The best work on the economic measures leading to the War of 1812.

Preeg, Ernest H. Cuba and the New Caribbean Economic Order. Washington, D.C., 1993. Details the problems with the unilateral U.S. embargo against Cuba.

——. Feeling Good or Doing Good with Sanctions: Unilateral Economic Sanctions and the U.S. National Interest. Washington, D.C., 1999. An opponent of unilateral economic sanctions examines the U.S. embargoes against Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, Myanmar, and China.

Singleton, Solveig, and Daniel T. Griswold, eds. Economic Casualties: How U.S. Foreign Policy Undermines Trade, Growth, and Liberty. Washington, D.C., 1999. A collection of passionate essays by politicians and analysts opposed to sanctions.

Spivak, Burton. Jefferson's English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution. Charlottesville, Va., 1979. The best work on Jefferson's embargo.

Waldmeir, Patti. Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of a New South Africa. New York, 1997. Recounts the successful use of sanctions in South Africa.

See also Blockades ; Continental System ; Economic Policy and Theory ; Freedom of the Seas ; Naval Diplomacy ; Oil

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