Yesterday the European Union banned all imports of Syrian oil in an effort to halt the Syrian government’s bloody crackdown on anti-regime demonstrators. In the past week or so the EU has also issued sanctions against Iran’s Al Quds military force due to its “technical and material support” for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s rule and the UN has moved closer to sanctions against Syria’s leaders. Over the past few years, the United States, the UN, and other actors have sought to curtail Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs through economic sanctions.
The prominence of economic sanctions as a tool of statecraft, together with the apparent intransigence of these sanctions’ targets such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria, raises serious questions. Are sanctions actually effective in pressuring governments to change their policies? Do they only harm the general population, or can they squeeze elites as well? How can sanctions be made more effective?
Political scientists have addressed these questions and have arrived at some conclusions. While differences in data and methods have produced somewhat different findings, the basic empirical results are as follows. Economic sanctions are only successful in about a third of the cases in which they are used. The work of Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliot, as reviewed here, shows that sanctions are most effective if the goal is simply destabilization of a target state (a 52% success rate) but are less effective if the objective is modest policy change (33%) or major policy change (25%) by the target government. Some scholars are even more pessimistic, suggesting that Hufbauer, Schott and Elliot overestimate the success of sanctions; Robert Pape argues that only 5 of their 40 claimed successes actually stand up to scrutiny.
There is also evidence that economic sanctions worsen target governments’ respect for basic human rights. Dursun Peksen explains these findings as follows: “sanctions fail to attenuate the coercive capacity of the target elites and create more economic difficulties and political violence among ordinary citizens, [encouraging governments to] commit more human rights violations.” Similarly Reed Wood finds that “…sanctions threaten the stability of target incumbents, leading them to augment their level of repression in an effort to stabilize the regime, protect core supporters, minimize the threat posed by potential challengers, and suppress popular dissent.”
Studies have also shown that multilateral sanctions are more effective than unilateral sanctions, and that factors including the initial stability of the target state, the length of time sanctions are in place, and the extent of trade linkages between target and sender affect the success of sanctions. Sanctions may also be more effective when initiated by, and targeted against, democratic states.
Given this somewhat discouraging empirical evidence, should sanctions be utilized as frequently as they are today? What are the moral and practical implications of imposing broad-based economic sanctions as opposed to targeted “smart sanctions” against regime leaders? In the cases of Syria, Iran, and North Korea, what other policy instruments should be the fallback if sanctions prove ineffective?