Questioning policymakers is high, theoretical understanding of their


Questioning
the effectiveness of economic sanctions in the context of the enforcement of
international rules is more important than ever. Conditions for the use of
economic sanctions are more favourable now than at any other time since their
regular use by the United Nations began in the 1990s. Direct intervention, the
method previously preferred by the UN and the United States for solving
international crises, has fallen out of favour. Foreign involvement in Iraq,
Afghanistan and Libya has left a series of weak and corrupt governments, unable
to either prevent widespread violence or provide basic amenities for their
people. The world appears to have lost its appetite for military involvement,
prompting a widespread reappraisal of economic sanctions by academics and
policymakers. Seen as a convenient halfway point between inactivity and military
intervention, sanctions are portrayed as a cheaper, less controversial and more
humane alternative. Less costly both in human lives and financial spending, more
likely to be approved by members of the P5 and more flexible overall – they can
be loosened or tightened, expanded or narrowed – they provide an attractive
compromise. Yet while the
popularity of sanctions among policymakers is high, theoretical understanding
of their effectiveness remains mired in academic debate. The general consensus among
scholars is that that they are ineffective policy instruments and the
historical record seems to support this view: sanctions appear to have failed
more times than they have succeeded.

History and Literature:

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The use of sanctions as a tool to make
states comply with international rules is a relatively recent development. Between
its creation in 1945 and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the UN used
economic sanctions in only two cases: South Africa and Rhodesia (UN, 2013). In the
ensuing decade, United Nations sanctions were imposed over a dozen times, on
states deemed to have broken a myriad of different rules. Such was their
popularity that the 1990s became known as the ‘sanctions decade’. The initial enthusiasm
surrounding this tool in foreign policy circles soon turned to disappointment
as UN mandated sanctions proved unsuccessful at preventing escalating violence
in the Balkans and in central Africa. Critics argued that sanctions often
proved counterproductive, shoring up the power of authoritarian regimes by giving
them a foreign enemy against which they could rally domestic support. Criticism
of economic sanctions reached its apex during the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion
of Kuwait: the UN’s comprehensive financial and economic embargo, which persevered
until 2003, caused widespread humanitarian suffering. Hundreds of thousands of
Iraqi civilians perished and the UN’s attempt to remedy the situation through the
‘Oil-for-Food Program’ became mired in a damning corruption scandal.

The combined
effects of the human suffering in Iraq and of America’s attempts to deal with
the perpetrators of 9/11 encouraged a shift towards supposedly more humane ‘smart’
sanctions. These targeted measures, which use a combination of arms embargos,
asset freezes, travel restrictions and foreign aid cuts, are increasingly
preferred to blanket economic punishments. The greater interconnectedness of
the world economy in recent years, particularly of trade and finance, has made
economic sanctions – in particular, targeted measures – a more attractive
response to rule-breaking than ever. This is especially true for the US, the world’s
most prolific user of sanctions, which acts both indirectly through resolutions
in the Security Council or directly through the Treasury Department.

Academic literature
on the subject of economic sanctions has been largely pessimistic. The most well-known
study on the topic, Hufbauer, Schott and Elliott’s Economic Sanctions
Reconsidered, concludes that only 34% of sanctions implemented between 1914
and 1990 were successful (Hufbauer, et al., 2007: 158) and that this rate of
effectiveness is in decline. Whereas 44% of sanctions implemented pre-1973 were
considered to have been effective, only 24% of sanctions after 1973 are
classified as successes. 

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