Do Economic Sanctions Work?

CAMBRIDGE – With Western economic sanctions against Russia, Iran, and Cuba in the news, it is a good time to take stock of the debate on just how well such measures work. The short answer is that economic sanctions usually have only modest effects, even if they can be an essential means of demonstrating moral resolve. If economic sanctions are to play an increasingly important role in twenty-first-century statecraft, it might be worth reflecting on how they have worked in the past.

As Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott note in their classic book on the topic, the history of economic sanctions goes back at least to 432 BC, when the Greek statesman and general Pericles issued the so-called “Megarian decree” in response to the abduction of three Aspaisan women. In modern times, the United States has employed economic sanctions in pursuit of diverse goals, from the Carter administration’s efforts in the 1970s to promote human rights, to attempts to impede nuclear proliferation in the 1980s.


During the Cold War, the US also employed economic sanctions to destabilize unfriendly governments, especially in Latin America, though they do not appear to have played more than a minor role, even where regime change eventually occurred. Economic sanctions on Serbia in the early 1990s did not deter the invasion of Bosnia. Certainly, the US government’s symbolic punishment of chess legend Bobby Fischer (for playing a match in Belgrade that violated sanctions) provided no relief for the besieged city of Sarajevo.

The old Soviet Union played the sanctions game as well – for example, against China, Albania, and Yugoslavia. It, too, did not have much success, except perhaps in the case of Finland, which ultimately bent its policies to gain relief from sanctions imposed in 1958.

Most modern cases of sanctions pit a large country against a small country, though there are a few cases involving countries of equal size, such as the long quarrel, from the 1950s to the 1980s, between the United Kingdom and Spain over Gibraltar.

As Hufbauer and Schott, among others, have illustrated, the effects of sanctions are often fairly disappointing – so much so that many scholars have concluded that such measures often are imposed so that governments can appear to domestic audiences to be “doing something.” Certainly, severe US sanctions on Cuba failed to bring the Castro regime to heel; indeed, President Barack Obama’s move to reestablish full diplomatic relations may have more effect.

But sometimes sanctions do work. The strong international consensus to impose sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s eventually helped bring an end to apartheid. Likewise, sanctions have helped bring Iran to the bargaining table, though it is not clear how long its government will be willing to defer its nuclear ambitions. And the Russian economy today is in big trouble, though this might be described as a lucky punch, with the real damage being done by an epic collapse in global oil prices.

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© Project Syndicate

© Project Syndicate

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