Between hollow rhetoric and war: how sanctions work – and why they often don’t

<span>A sign protesting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Whether sanctions will stop Putin and the Ukraine war, however, remains to be seen.</span><span>Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/EPA</span>
A sign protesting against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Whether sanctions will stop Putin and the Ukraine war, however, remains to be seen.Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/EPA

In the year 432BCE, the Athenian empire sought to teach its smaller neighbour, Megara, a punitive lesson after various acts of defiance. Instead of going to war, which would break the peace with Sparta, Athens took the novel path of blocking the Megarians from using all the ports in the region.

It was known as the Megarian decree, and it was arguably the first recorded case of economic sanctions. It was also a failure, at least when it came to fending off a conflict. The Peloponnesian war, pitting Athens against Sparta, erupted a year later, and some ancient historians believe it was triggered by the Megarian sanctions.

It set a pattern for millenia to come. Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, a comprehensive survey published first in 1985 and updated since then, found that since the first world war, state efforts at economic coercion succeeded only about a third of the time at achieving a range of aims, from “modest policy changes” to “disruption of military adventures” to regime change.

Defining success can be complicated and subjective. Edward Fishman, a former senior state department sanctions official, argues the aim of sanctions can be broadly divided into psychological, forcing a change in policy, or material, degrading the target’s military or economy by cutting off resources.

“Material goals are much more likely to succeed than psychological goals,” says Fishman, now a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “With a material goal, all you really have to do is make sure that the sanction is achieving economic pain first and foremost.”

In the case of psychological aims, success is rarer but easier to measure. The current thicket of western sanctions on Russia are a clear failure in those terms. Vladimir Putin is not deterred from pursuing his attempted conquest of Ukraine. Materially too, there are doubts about the effectiveness of western measures.

Russia’s economy is growing, but the Biden administration argues the sanctions have had a degrading impact on the Russian military and insists Putin’s army would be even more lethal if it had unrestricted access to western technology.

Last week, the US and its G7 partners announced a huge expansion in sanctions against Russia and the entities that support its war economy, while also tacitly admitting that the current measures need some improving.

Iraq, Iran and Israel

Examples of sanctions changing a foreign government’s policy are few and far between. The fall of apartheid in South Africa in 1992 is generally (though not universally) seen as the greatest success for an international campaign of isolation.

However, there are two more recent cases of successful sanctions in which the US was not aware of, or did not appreciate, its own achievement. Intense sanctions in the wake of the first Gulf war led to the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but the Bush administration convinced itself the WMD was just being better hidden, and the US invaded anyway in 2003.

US-led sanctions were also instrumental in persuading Tehran to the negotiating table to accept significant limitations on its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief. That came apart when Donald Trump walked out of the deal three years later, and since then Iran has advanced from being at least a year from the capacity to make a nuclear warhead, to just a few weeks.

Analysing modern cases of sanctions, Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University and the author of The Sanctions Paradox, cites the case of the George HW Bush administration’s withholding of loan guarantees from Israel in 1992 in response to settlement expansion. The economic pressure ultimately brought down the government of Yitzhak Shamir and brought Yitzhak Rabin to office, ushering in a sustained period of attempted peacemaking with Palestinians.

Critics of Joe Biden think he could exercise similar leverage now by suspending weapon sales to Israel, and thereby bring the Gaza war to a rapid end, but Shamir’s successor as Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has far more counter-leverage on the US than Shamir ever had. He has been invited to address a joint session of Congress for a fourth time this summer, a record for a foreign leader, and threatens to bring any differences with Biden into the midst of the US presidential campaign.

A hammer that makes every job look like a nail

US economic clout has diminished in other ways over the years. Being cut off from western markets was once fatal for an emerging economy, but not any more. As Iran and Russia have discovered, there are now a multiplicity of fast-growing economic powers, like China, India, Turkey and Brazil, unwilling to simply follow Washington’s direction.

“What we’ve seen in the past three and a half decades is that, as a result of globalisation, a number of countries that used to be pretty poor and insignificant are now strong,” Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative, said.

There is no shortage of case studies of sanctions policies that have failed on every level. The most striking and longest-lived example is the US embargo on Cuba, which has failed to derail the communist regime in Havana over three-quarters of a century, while helping impoverish the population.

Related: ‘Sanctions hole’: how secretive routes supply Russia with western tech and consumer goods

It remains in place largely because of the nature of US politics. The US Congress has little control over wars but it can impose and maintain sanctions to suit its constituents – and congressional sanctions, once imposed, are difficult to lift.

Sanctions are frequently imposed as punishment against foreign states and individuals, not in any hope of policy success but because it would be unthinkable not to act, in the case of crimes against humanity for example.

“Even if you’re not accomplishing tangible results, it’s still important to send a signal,” says Peter Harrell, who served as the senior director for international economics in the first year of the Biden White House. “Sometimes in diplomacy, you want to send a signal of condemnation.”

Between hollow rhetoric and going to war, it is often the only mid-range option in the policy toolbox, the hammer that makes every job look like a nail, because there is nothing else.

“That’s why I think every administration winds up using them way more than they think they will,” said Fishman, whose forthcoming book, Chokepoints: American Power in the Age of Economic Warfare, examines the history of US sanctions policy.

“Biden came in saying there is going to be a review of the use of sanctions and we are going to be far more judicious about using them, and Biden winds up using sanctions more than any other president.”