Less than a month into his presidency, U.S. President Joe Biden has already stated that he will impose sanctions on coup leaders in Myanmar. Other White House officials have also suggested that sanctions against Russia are being drawn up following the recent jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In this context, we thought it would be useful to consider what sanctions entail, what goals they serve and what factors make them most effective. For the purposes of this review, we examine sanctions against state actors and their citizens, as those imposed against non-state actors like terrorist groups involve different considerations.

A Brief History

Simply put, sanctions are a broad array of penalties applied by one or more countries against another. They are most commonly economic in nature, but can also involve political, social and other forms of punishment. Although the widespread use of sanctions took off in the 20th century, particularly following World War II, examples extend back to classical antiquity.

The Role of Sanctions

In their classic form, sanctions are a coercive tool to compel a targeted entity to adjust its behavior. Sanctions are sometimes aimed at changing a specific activity (such as having the targeted country withdraw troops from a disputed area), while at other times, an imposing country may seek a broader change (such as replacing the targeted country’s ruling regime).

  • In this basic form, sanctions offer at least the opportunity to assess their effectiveness. Although it always will be challenging to separate sanctions from other coercive actions that may have altered a targeted country’s behavior, at least it is theoretically possible to identify whether behavior shifted.
  • Unsurprisingly, it is generally easier to force and observe a change in behavior in a targeted country that is smaller, less powerful and less well-connected to the global political and economic system, especially if it relies on one key economic activity that makes it vulnerable.

Sanctions also have come to serve several other functions in which their effectiveness may be harder to judge.

  • When a targeted country is unlikely to change its behavior, sanctions can at least limit that country’s ability to conduct the undesired behavior. The European Union and the United States imposed an arms embargo against China following its military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. While the military sanctions could not prevent China’s domestic repression, they likely limited China’s ability to acquire advanced hardware by forcing it to rely on less sophisticated weaponry from domestic suppliers and Soviet bloc countries. China did, however, eventually overcome whatever obstacles the arms embargo initially posed, demonstrating how sanctions’ effectiveness can be fleeting.
  • Sanctions can also be used as a form of deterrence, to discourage either a targeted country or other countries from engaging in similar undesired behaviors. Widespread EU and U.S. sanctions against Russia in the wake of its 2014 annexation of Crimea were highly unlikely to force the Kremlin to give up control of the territory it had just seized. However, by ratcheting up costs, the coordinated sanctions may have deterred Russia from further aggression.
  • Frequently, sanctions also serve a key signaling function, both to domestic and foreign audiences, that an imposing country disapproves of the behavior in question. This enables an imposing country to be seen as “doing something” without resorting to stricter penalties that could escalate tensions beyond its control. On Jan. 19, the day before Biden’s inauguration, Iran sanctioned then-U.S. President Donald Trump and other U.S. officials. Despite having no practical effect, the sanctions probably yielded Tehran political dividends at home and among certain constituencies abroad.
  • Finally, sanctions increasingly are being used as a largely blunt force tool to try to stop a targeted country’s economic advancement in wholesale geostrategic competition. This dynamic has become a growing part of U.S.-China relations, in which each country (particularly the United States, but increasingly China) uses sanctions to try to prevent the other from dominating key economic areas, such as critical technologies like semiconductors and 5G networks.

How Sanctions Are Applied

Notably, many sanctions can be applied either comprehensively against an entire country (for instance, banning certain forms of trade) or in a more targeted fashion (such as freezing the assets of particular people linked to the ruling regime). Both of these methods, however, involve complex tradeoffs.

  • Comprehensive sanctions can exert extreme, wide-ranging pressure, but risk harming a targeted country’s civilians in a way that can backfire. U.S.-led international sanctions against Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, for example, succeeded in throttling Iraq’s economy, but enabled Iraqi leaders to portray them as causing significant humanitarian harm that ultimately weakened the United States’ ability to sustain global enforcement.
  • Targeted sanctions can make life difficult for certain elites, but fail to be sufficiently impactful to provoke a change in state behavior. Contemporary Western asset freezes and travel bans are large irritants for Russian officials and businessmen. Ultimately, however, the livelihoods of these individuals depend on the Kremlin, which also has dulled the impact of such sanctions by offering those targeted with protection and forms of compensation.

Making Sanctions More Effective

As these examples demonstrate, sanctions often can succeed on a tactical level, but fail on a strategic one. That is, they can accomplish their immediate purpose, but singularly flop in forcing the desired shift in behavior that is their ultimate goal. Worse, at times they can be strategically self-defeating by creating more problems than they solve. Despite the unique nature of each sanctions process, there are some widely accepted factors that increase the effectiveness of sanctions.

1) Linking sanctions to a defined and attainable change in behavior. Probably the biggest factor that determines sanctions’ effectiveness is whether an imposing country clearly ties them to a specific behavior that a targeted country is willing and able to change. A targeted country has to know what it can do to have sanctions removed and the demand cannot be something that country’s leaders see as a “red line” for their sense of survival.

  • During El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s, multiple rounds of U.S. economic sanctions over human rights abuses in the country were ineffective because they were unclear and Salvadoran leaders felt their actions against leftist guerrillas were fundamental to their survival. By contrast, when the United States threatened to withhold part of an aid package unless Salvadoran leaders interceded in a legal dispute in 1988, the U.S. request was clear and politically palatable, leading to its success.

2) Focusing on the greatest point(s) of leverage while being cognizant of potential overreach. Sanctions’ effectiveness relies on an imposing country applying them where a targeted country is vulnerable to an imposing country’s penalties. Otherwise, sanctions may prove much more “bark” than actual “bite.” That said, an imposing country also must weigh whether using its outsized influence could reverberate in ways that backfire.

  • The United States has repeatedly used its outsized influence in the international financial system and the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency of choice to successfully cut off numerous sanctioned entities and individuals’ access to funds. In 2018, for example, Washington succeeded in effectively delinking Iranian banks from the global financial system.
  • Simultaneously, however, U.S. actions have also generated significant concern about its “weaponization” of finance and the dollar, which has catalyzed efforts in some countries to shield themselves from U.S. economic leverage. China and Russia have begun to develop mitigation strategies in case the United States ever tries to delink their banks in a way similar to those of Iran.

3) Considering the humanitarian costs. Although sanctions generally are more effective when an imposing country uses its largest lever(s) of influence, doing so often has significant negative repercussions for the common people in the targeted country, and can also undermine sanctions’ ability to alter a targeted country’s behavior.

  • In 2019 and 2020, the United States cut off Venezuela from its primary source of income, oil exports, in an effort to accelerate the ousting of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian regime. The economic fallout, however, only exacerbated Venezuela’s already dire humanitarian crisis by affecting ordinary citizens far more than the country’s leaders, who remain in power. Caracas’s portrayal of the sanctions as a form of U.S. “collective punishment” has also weakened Washington’s ability to sustain regional support for them.

4) Considering the resolve and time horizon of the targeted country’s leaders. Sanctions are more likely to be effective when a targeted country’s leaders are at least somewhat responsive to their citizens and concerned about possible near-term threats to their rule. By contrast, they are less likely to change a targeted country’s behavior when officials do not worry about grassroots political pressure or immediate challenges to their power.

  • Despite not being a true democracy, Iran has elections and relatively lively political debates. The country also endures sporadic cases of widespread protests that ensure its elected leaders have to at least take citizens’ grievances into consideration. The most recent mass, anti-government demonstrations in late 2019 and early 2020, which were triggered by the spending cuts due largely to U.S.-led sanctions, demonstrate how the country’s leaders may be vulnerable to outside pressure.
  • By contrast, North Korea’s deeply entrenched elites exert near-complete societal control and see no serious domestic challenge to their long-term rule. These factors make them less vulnerable to sanctions designed to change a ruling regime’s behavior by provoking popular discontent.

5) Using sanctions in concert with other means of statecraft. Sanctions can, in some cases, be effective on their own. However, they are almost always more powerful when combined with and complemented by other actions to pressure a targeted country to alter its behavior, including incentives (like diplomatic engagement) and disincentives (like military force).

  • In the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States successfully coerced Libya to give up its weapons of mass destruction and limit its support for terrorist groups by pairing multilateral sanctions with a myriad of positive and negative inducements, including secret negotiations and credible threats of military action.

6) Coordinating sanctions with other global players. Simply put, sanctions are more likely to affect change when they are supported by as many countries as possible, especially when coordinated through an international institution to increase their perceived legitimacy and mitigate against possible sanctions fatigue. That said, even if there is broad global support, one influential outlier can provide a targeted country with a sufficient lifeline.

  • Nearly every country of consequence joined international sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa, eventually helping to bring about the collapse of the racist system. In contrast, the U.S. embargo against Cuba, despite severely restricting its economic development, has failed to overturn the country’s communist system since nearly the entire rest of the world still engages with Cuba in some capacity.
  • The United Nations coordinates a wide array of global sanctions on North Korea that are supplemented by even stronger EU, Japanese, U.S. and South Korean sanctions. Collectively, these penalties significantly restrict the reclusive regime’s activities, yet have failed to change its behavior in part because China is widely acknowledged to help North Korea evade the most stringent measures.

7) Ensuring broad domestic political support. Broad support for sanctions is helpful not only at the international level, but also at the domestic one. An imposing country’s leaders must have widespread political backing that can be sustained over time. Otherwise, the targeted country’s leaders risk believing they simply can wait out the current government of an imposing country without adjusting their behavior.

  • Under President Jimmy Carter, the United States imposed a grain embargo against the Soviet Union in 1980 in response to its invasion of Afghanistan. But the embargo was quickly lifted once Carter’s successor, Ronald Regan, took office in 1981. On the campaign trail, Reagan criticized the embargo, which was widely seen as punishing U.S. farmers more than the Soviet Union, leaving no doubt in Moscow that it simply needed to wait for a political change in Washington.

8) Complementing domestic political opposition in the targeted country. Although it is not always possible, sanctions can be especially effective when complementing existing indigenous pressure in a targeted country. Such mutually reinforcing top-down and bottom-up pressure can leave a government with no recourse other than to change its behavior, although it may try to exploit perceived coordination by its opponents.

  • Global sanctions against South Africa during the 1980s were effective in part because they complemented a well-developed domestic protest movement that was already exerting significant grassroots pressure on the government.
  • In the wake of Navalny’s imprisonment, the leaders behind the ongoing anti-government protests in Russia have held virtual meetings with Western representatives in which they’ve called for sanctions on Russian business elites. This has since prompted Russian officials to try to portray the demonstrations as being directed by foreign powers.

9) Updating sanctions regularly. Sanctions are most effective when they are dynamic, not static. It is important to regularly evaluate a targeted country’s attempted workarounds, possible new points of leverage over a targeted country and other considerations, including whether to lessen or remove sanctions. A targeted country must believe in the credibility of the sanctions’ removal if it takes appropriate steps; otherwise, it has no incentive to comply and will simply think of the sanctions as a “cost of doing business.”

  • The United States has not updated its Burundi-related sanctions, imposed in 2015 following a wave of violence in the country, since 2016. At the time, Washington placed financial and travel sanctions on government and rebel leaders accused of instigating attacks. Not only have these sanctions failed to quell unrest or make Burundi more democratic, but two of those sanctioned were named to top governmental posts last June.

10) Preparing for next-order implications. Sanctions often create both unintended and foreseeable consequences. Considering these in advance can ensure sanctions’ effectiveness in their own right and that the knock-on effects conform to an imposing country’s broader strategic objectives.

  • The broad U.S. embargo against Cuba has played a role in helping to prompt multiple waves of Cubans to flee the island in the hopes of reaching nearby U.S. territorial waters. The United States, however, has proven willing to expend the money and resources needed to retrieve and resettle these asylum seekers due to the value (even if only symbolically) it places on the embargo.
  • U.S. military and economic sanctions placed on Pakistan in the wake of its 1998 nuclear test and 1999 coup may have paradoxically increased Pakistan’s reliance on its nuclear capability by curtailing Islamabad’s access to conventional U.S. weaponry and weakening its confidence in Washington as an ally.


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