Questioningthe effectiveness of economic sanctions in the context of the enforcement ofinternational rules is more important than ever.
Conditions for the use ofeconomic sanctions are more favourable now than at any other time since theirregular use by the United Nations began in the 1990s. Direct intervention, themethod previously preferred by the UN and the United States for solvinginternational crises, has fallen out of favour. Foreign involvement in Iraq,Afghanistan and Libya has left a series of weak and corrupt governments, unableto either prevent widespread violence or provide basic amenities for theirpeople. The world appears to have lost its appetite for military involvement,prompting a widespread reappraisal of economic sanctions by academics andpolicymakers.
Seen as a convenient halfway point between inactivity and militaryintervention, sanctions are portrayed as a cheaper, less controversial and morehumane alternative. Less costly both in human lives and financial spending, morelikely to be approved by members of the P5 and more flexible overall – they canbe loosened or tightened, expanded or narrowed – they provide an attractivecompromise. Yet while thepopularity of sanctions among policymakers is high, theoretical understandingof their effectiveness remains mired in academic debate. While the consensus amongscholars is that that they are ineffective policy instruments, attentionin the literature is concentrated almost entirely on whether imposed sanctionsforce a state to change its behaviour. The question of deterrence, of whether theimplicit or explicit threat of sanctions can dissuade a state from following acertain course of action is barely addressed. History and Literature:The use of sanctions as a tool to makestates comply with international rules is a relatively recent development.
Betweenits creation in 1945 and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the UN usedeconomic sanctions in only two cases: South Africa and Rhodesia (UN, 2013). In theensuing decade, United Nations sanctions were imposed over a dozen times, onstates deemed to have broken a myriad of different rules. Such was theirpopularity that the 1990s became known as the ‘sanctions decade’. The initial enthusiasmsurrounding this tool in foreign policy circles soon turned to disappointmentas broad UN-mandated sanctions proved unsuccessful at preventing escalatingviolence in the Balkans and in central Africa. Critics pointed out that ratherthan helping, sanctions often had a counterproductive effect: by using indiscriminate’collective punishment’ measures, they shored up the power of authoritarianregimes which benefitted from domestic support. Criticism of economic sanctionsreached its apex during the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
The UN’scomprehensive financial and economic embargo, which was only lifted in 2003,caused widespread humanitarian suffering. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqicivilians perished and the UN’s attempt to remedy the situation through the ‘Oil-for-FoodProgram’ became mired in a damning corruption scandal. The effect of first the widespreadhuman suffering caused in Iraq and second of America’s post-9/11 sanctions experienceencouraged a shift towards supposedly more humane ‘smart’ sanctions. Thesetargeted measures, which use a combination of arms embargos, asset freezes,travel restrictions and foreign aid cuts, soon replaced blanket economic punishments.What is more, the slow-but-steady integration of national economies into theglobal economic system has made economic and financial coercion – in particular,targeted measures – a more attractive response to rule-breaking than ever. Thisis especially true for the US, the world’s most prolific user of sanctions,which acts both indirectly through resolutions in the Security Council or directlythrough the Treasury Department. The catalyst for the international community’sreappraisal of economic sanctions was the downfall of another, much used policytool: foreign intervention.
Since the American ‘war on terror’, direct militaryinvolvement has been largely shunned by policymakers as a solution tointernational rule-breaking. Bush and Blair’s spurious claim that theirdecision to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan was motivated by humanitarianconcerns and the presence of WMDs has been largely discredited (Kurth, 2006;Weiss, 2004). Moreover, the protracted nature of both conflicts and the large-scaledomestic opposition has left Western powers wary of using military force to dealwith international rule-breaking: an ‘Iraq Syndrome’ similar to the processthat America underwent in the aftermath of the Vietnam War (Mueller, 2005).
The suggestion that economic sanctionscould adequately fill the gap once occupied by military intervention has been greetedwith dismay in some academic circles. Scholarlydebates surrounding the efficacy of econom?c sanct?ons have generally reachednegative conclusions. Baldwin, whose Economic Statecraft provides abrief outline of the most authoritative studies on the subject, observes that ‘thetwo most salient characteristics of the literature … are scarcity and thenearly universal tendency to denigrate the utility of such tools of foreign policy'(Baldwin, 1985).