Fact Check: do economic sanctions actually work?

A recurring feature of the West’s frosty relations with Russia, Saudi Arabia’s ongoing dispute with Qatar and the near-universal freeze-out of North Korea, the use of economic sanctions as a diplomatic tool has been impossible to ignore in recent years.

And the issue is back in the spotlight after the US announced the end of waivers that allowed a handful of countries including Turkey, India and China to continue importing oil from sanctioned Iran.

Donald Trump has been trying to halt Iran’s oil exports since slapping sanctions on the Islamic Republic last November, “a move intended as punishment for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its support of armed militant groups in the Middle East”, says Reuters.

The US president initially backed a go-slow approach, allowing waivers for allies and trading partners. But by mid-April, with the 180-day exemptions granted to a total of eight nations due to expire on 1 May, economic and security advisors “convinced Trump that the time had come to cut off Iranian oil exports completely”, says the news site.

The decision caught several US allies and Iranian oil buyers off-guard and “triggered an immediate spike in oil prices”, along with a formal complaint from China’s Foreign Ministry, reports The Guardian.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has insisted he is confident that the market will remain stable and that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will help ensure an “appropriate supply” of oil.

But Turkey, in particular, “is resisting the idea of buying oil from America’s two anti-Iran allies, whose relations with Ankara are fraught after the murder of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul last October”, says Bloomberg.

Sanctions like those imposed on Iran – whether in the form of a ban, barrier or restriction on trade – are often seen as a non-violent way of achieving a political or economic goal.

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But while such measures have been proven to work “up to a point”, the danger is that “they will provoke actions by Iran, such as the resumption of large-scale uranium enrichment or attacks on Americans, that would demand a US military response – and perhaps escalate into another of the Middle East wars President Trump has vowed to avoid”, argues The Washington Post.

Why are sanctions so popular?

Sanctions are playing a growing role in modern geopolitics and are used for a variety of reasons, from promoting human rights to impeding nuclear proliferation. They can target states, individuals or businesses and take many forms, including travel bans, asset freezes and trade embargoes.

The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions more than 20 times since the end of the Cold War, typically in cases where diplomacy has already failed and military options are not viable. The EU has levied sanctions more than 30 times, in addition to those mandated by the UN, says New York-based think-tank the Council on Foreign Relations. The US, meanwhile, uses economic and financial sanctions more than any other country.

Reluctance to get involved in foreign conflicts is a major factor in their growing popularity. There is “nothing else between words and military action if you want to bring pressure upon a government,” says veteran diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a former UK ambassador to the UN.

“Military action is increasingly unpopular and in many ways ineffective in a modern legitimacy-oriented world, and words don’t work with hard regimes,” he told the BBC. “So something in between these is necessary. What else is there?”

Why are they often unsuccessful?

In one of the most comprehensive studies on sanctions to date, academics examined more than 100 cases and concluded that the measures were partially successful only 34% of the time.

But this success rate was heavily influenced by the type of policy change pursued, according to Newsweek. “Where it is modest – the release of a political prisoner, for example – the rate jumps up to half of cases,” the site says. “Regime change or efforts to disrupt a military adventure fare less well.”

Among the most notable failures was the US trade and travel embargo on Cuba, which lasted for more than five decades and achieved none of Washington’s policy objectives.

“More than a half-century of sanctions have not sparked a popular uprising, forced the Castros and allies from power, moderated the regime, delivered democracy, promoted economic liberalisation, cut regime ties with other communist systems, stopped foreign investment, or achieved much else of note,” Forbes reports.

The evidence suggests that the longer sanctions last, the less likely they are to succeed, says Colin Rowat, professor of economics at Birmingham University, in an article on The Conversation. “This reflects a fatigue in the countries imposing them”, as well as the target state’s “growing experience evading the sanctions”, he writes.

Indeed, North Korea has managed to sidestep UN sanctions for more than a decade. “Large avenues of trade remain open” to Kim Jong Un’s regime, allowing the country to earn foreign currency to sustain its economy and finance its nuclear weapons programme, The New York Times reports.

Sanctions also often have little impact on the ruling or military elite, argues BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus. They have “tended to hit home against the ordinary people – the ruled – rather than against the rulers who are often the real target for pressure,” he says.

The World Economic Forum notes that sanctions are less effective when applied to international foes, such as the restrictions imposed on Russia by Western powers, and can have unintended consequences.

“The sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 during the crisis over Ukraine have contributed not just to a surge in Vladimir Putin’s popularity but, more importantly, to the growth of Russian patriotism and nationalism,” the organisation says.

Have sanctions ever been successful?

Yes, at least in part. Experts say targeted sanctions helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table in 2015 and to agree to scale back its nuclear activities.

But The New Yorker claims the credible threat of military action was also likely to have been behind the decision. “Israel’s sabre rattling and Barack Obama’s refusal to rule out a strike on Iran’s nuclear reactors must surely have played a role,” the magazine says.

Many analysts also argue that the widespread economic sanctions, boycotts and private divestment imposed on South Africa during the 1980s contributed to the demise of the apartheid regime.

But, again, other major factors appear to have been at play. Lee Jones, author of Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work, argues that South Africa’s economy actually expanded under international sanctions, reports The Washington Post.

“The impact it had was only a modest addition to the pressure that was being brought to bear on the regime by a highly mobilised black-led coalition,” Jones says“That was what ended apartheid in South Africa, not sanctions.”

Who is right?

The evidence suggests that economic pain doesn’t always translate into political gain. In most cases, sanctions have failed to achieve their foreign policy objectives, and even when they have appeared to work, it is unclear if they were the deciding factor.


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