Do Economic Sanctions Work?

CAMBRIDGE – With Western economic sanctions against Russia, Iran, and Cuba in the news, it is a good time to take stock of the debate on just how well such measures work. The short answer is that economic sanctions usually have only modest effects, even if they can be an essential means of demonstrating moral resolve. If economic sanctions are to play an increasingly important role in twenty-first-century statecraft, it might be worth reflecting on how they have worked in the past.

As Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott note in their classic book on the topic, the history of economic sanctions goes back at least to 432 BC, when the Greek statesman and general Pericles issued the so-called “Megarian decree” in response to the abduction of three Aspasian women. In modern times, the United States has employed economic sanctions in pursuit of diverse goals, from the Carter administration’s efforts in the 1970s to promote human rights, to attempts to impede nuclear proliferation in the 1980s.

During the Cold War, the US also employed economic sanctions to destabilize unfriendly governments, especially in Latin America, though they do not appear to have played more than a minor role, even where regime change eventually occurred. Economic sanctions on Serbia in the early 1990s did not deter the invasion of Bosnia. Certainly, the US government’s symbolic punishment of chess legend Bobby Fischer (for playing a match in Belgrade that violated sanctions) provided no relief for the besieged city of Sarajevo.

The old Soviet Union played the sanctions game as well – for example, against China, Albania, and Yugoslavia. It, too, did not have much success, except perhaps in the case of Finland, which ultimately bent its policies to gain relief from sanctions imposed in 1958.