The oldest known instance of a country deploying economic sanctions against another dates from 432 B.C., when Athens imposed severe restrictions on Megara. The Megarian Decrees denied the city-state use of the Athenian empire’s harbors, cutting off its trade. But tiny Megara was an ally of Athens’ great rival Sparta, and disagreements over the sanctions were among the reasons that precipitated the Second Peloponnesian War between Greece’s two dominant powers.
Some historians believe Pericles, the ruler of Athens, was looking for a way to provoke the Spartans into war, and the decrees served his purpose; others argue the decrees were meant to avoid war by imposing a non-military solution on the Megarians — and failed.
Two-and-a-half millennia later, the potency of economic sanctions as an instrument of statecraft still depends greatly on their purpose. But the risks of getting it wrong have not prevented governments from using them, with greater frequency and mixed results.
The U.S., long the world’s most prodigious exponent of sanctions, has grown even more prolific in recent years. According to a study by the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, President Donald Trump, in his very first year in office, increased the number of people and entities under sanctions by nearly 1,000. That’s a 30% jump over the final year of President Barack Obama’s administration, and a 300% increase over its first year in the White House.
The more frequent use of sanctions is not necessarily a bad thing. To a substantial extent, it is a natural American response to changing strategic and political realities. Around the world, those who threaten the U.S. and its interests are becoming harder to detect, and harder still to interdict. Dangerous people and organizations can conceal themselves in the digital fog, or behind the protection of countries that are hostile to the U.S.
At the same time, American presidents have grown more circumspect about using some of the blunter and more kinetic implements deployed by their predecessors. Diplomacy, the other tool available to states, is often too slow to yield results, and largely useless against some modern threats such as cyber-attacks by non-state actors, for instance.
In comparison, sanctions are a compelling offensive weapon — one that is also, for the most part, defensible. They can be deployed quickly and bloodlessly, allowing a president to be seen as taking action against perceived threats, without the risk of American lives or property. Also, they can be more subtle, allowing action against individuals or entities without automatically severing relations with governments.
But do they work? That depends, as with the Megarian Decrees, on their purpose. All the empirical evidence suggests that sanctions don’t lead to regime change — Cuba and North Korea have been under sanctions for decades, but their dictators have tended to die in their beds, with power transferring smoothly to the next generation of tyrants. Sanctions didn’t topple Saddam Hussein; that required a war.
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Even when sanctions aim mainly to change regime behavior, the track record is mixed. Scholars at the Peterson Institute for International Economics have run the rule over hundreds of instances of economic sanctions imposed on countries — as opposed to individuals or institutions — going back to the start of World War I. Their conclusion: sanctions don’t often produce the desired result. The reasons for failure vary: the sanctions may be inadequate; they may generate opposition from allies; the target regime may be able to turn isolation into a political advantage; the regime may be able to get help from other sources.
In the right circumstances, sanctions can be very effective indeed. David S. Cohen, a former Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence (and ex-CIA deputy director) has suggested that sanctions work best when they meet three conditions: when they serve clear and attainable policy objectives; when they are used in conjunction with other levers of pressure, like diplomacy and the threat of military action; and when other countries lend support by imposing their own restrictions on the targeted individual, institution or regime.
All three conditions applied to the sanctions on Iran in the mid-2000s, when the European Union and the United Nations shared the American goal of preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons. Facing prolonged isolation and deep economic pain, the Iranians grew serious about negotiations with the U.S. and other world powers, and eventually signed the 2015 nuclear deal.
Cohen’s criteria represent the ideal; not all three conditions are absolutely necessary for sanctions to work. The Trump administration didn’t need other countries to endorse, much less join, its sanctions against top Turkish officials last year, to secure the release of the American pastor Andrew Brunson. The sanctions were promptly dropped after Brunson came home.
The deepening cleavage of world politics into liberal and illiberal camps will make multilateral consensus over sanctions almost impossible to achieve. Russia and China are unlikely to agree with Western democracies to impose more sanctions on Syria, for instance. Within the European Union, which requires unanimous consent for such decisions, right-wing and populist leaders — Hungary’s Viktor Orban, say — would likely balk at new sanctions on Russia.
Thank goodness for American exceptionalism — and American muscle. Given the size of the U.S. economy, and the dollar’s role as the world’s main trading currency, sanctions imposed unilaterally by the White House have the same effect as multilateral restrictions. Consider the current U.S. sanctions on Iran, imposed after Trump abrogated the 2015 nuclear deal last year. The other signatories to the deal remain vocally committed to it; Germany, France and Britain have devised a “special purpose vehicle” to give companies a supposedly fail-safe way to evade American sanctions.
Not a single European company has stepped forward, for fear of attracting the attentions of the U.S. Treasury.
The risk, of course, is that the Trump administration will overuse the weapon. Former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has warned of sanctions overreach: “If foreign jurisdictions and companies feel that we will deploy sanctions without sufficient justification or for inappropriate reasons — secondary sanctions in particular — we should not be surprised if they look for ways to avoid doing business in the U.S. or in U.S. dollars.”