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加里·哈夫鲍尔(Gary Hufbauer)和杰弗里·肖特(Jeffrey Schott)在他们关于这一话题的经典著作中指出,经济制裁至少可以追溯到公元前432年希腊政治家和军事家伯里克利颁布了所谓的“迈加拉法令”(Megarian decree)以处理三名阿斯帕齐娅妇女被绑架事件。在现代,美国利用经济制裁追求各种目标,比如20世纪79年代卡特政府用它来推进人权、20世纪80年代用它来阻止核扩散等。

在冷战时期,美国也利用经济制裁动摇不友善国家,特别是拉丁美洲国家,尽管制裁效果往往并不怎么样,即使在政权最终发生更迭的国家也是如此。20世纪90年代初对塞尔维亚的经济制裁并未威慑其对波斯尼亚的入侵。显然,美国政府对国际象棋传奇鲍比·费舍尔(Bobby Fischer)的象征性惩罚(因为它在贝尔格莱德参加比赛,违反了制裁规定)并没有给被包围的萨拉热窝带来多少喘息。

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