A perennial favorite tactic for officials running U.S. foreign policy has been to impose economic sanctions on countries whose governments defy Washington’s wishes. Sanctions enjoy a reputation among the policy elite of being the responsible "middle option" between relying solely on diplomacy or using military force when dealing with an adversary. Political leaders resist the former approach because they fear being portrayed as weakling appeasers. Conversely, launching military interventions entails significant perils and drawbacks – a point that the multiple, sometimes spectacular, failures of Washington’s wars over the past seven decades underscore.
But the image of sanctions as a sensible middle course is largely an illusion. Economic sanctions have the unique feature of being simultaneously ineffectual and cruel. Their track record of successfully compelling recalcitrant governments is dismal. At the same time, they have inflicted enormous suffering on civilian populations that have little or no power to get entrenched regimes to comply with US demands. Four countries have been especially prominent targets of Washington’s reliance on sanctions: North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. A succession of presidential administrations deserve credit for tenacity, if not much else.
Washington has sought to isolate North Korea and impede its economic interactions with the outside world since the Korean War ended in 1953. The campaign intensified when evidence emerged in the early 1990s that Pyongyang had embarked on a program to develop nuclear weapons. Since then, the United States has pressured the rest of the international community to endorse a seemingly endless escalation of punitive measures. The North Korean people who are not members of the political elite certainly endure miserable lives, as sanctions exacerbate the disastrous impact of Pyongyang’s dysfunctional communist economic system. Periodic famines have resulted in the deaths of more than a million victims. The pervasive poverty is evident in a variety of ways, including the phenomenon that adult North Koreans are on average several inches shorter than their prosperous South Korean brethren.
But while it’s indisputable that the U.S.-led system of sanctions has devastated the North Korean people, it has not caused the regime to retreat in any meaningful way. Washington’s principal demand has remained consistent throughout five administrations, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, that Pyongyang agree to a complete, verifiable, and irreversible end to its nuclear weapons program. Instead, North Korea has conducted multiple nuclear tests over the years and now apparently possesses an arsenal of 20 to 30 nuclear weapons – along with a growing missile delivery system. Such an outcome constitutes the operational definition of a policy failure.
The United States has experienced an equal lack of success with its campaign to punish Cuba. True, Cuba’s economy lags well behind those of its hemispheric neighbors, and Cuban cities look as though they’ve been caught in a time warp – their streets cluttered with barely functional automobiles from the 1950s. Nevertheless, Washington’s strategy of pressuring the country’s communist regime to democratize and accept several other demands shows few signs of success. Furthermore, the leakage of Washington’s sanctions policy against Cuba grows worse each year. President Barack Obama seemed to recognize the fading effectiveness of the existing approach and took limited steps toward normalizing relations. Unfortunately, President Trump reversed many of those steps, and the surly impasse between Washington and Havana, now entering its seventh decade, continues.
Apparently learning little or nothing from the futile record regarding North Korea and Cuba, US leaders adopted a similar, vengeful approach toward Iran following the Islamic revolution in that country and browbeat US allies and clients to follow Washington’s lead. The outcome reflects a familiar pattern. The sanctions, especially the restrictions on financial transactions and oil exports, have substantially depressed the living standards of ordinary Iranians, but Tehran has not altered its foreign policy in ways Washington insists. Iran’s clerical regime still maintains close ties to Hezbollah and other groups opposed to Israel, still backs the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, still works with Shia militias in Iraq, and still aids the Houthis in their effort to gain power in Yemen.
In essence, US leaders demand that Tehran placidly accept Israeli and Saudi preeminence in the Middle East and be content to occupy a vulnerable, thoroughly subordinate, status in the region at Washington’s sufferance. Not surprisingly, Iran refuses to accept such a humiliating outcome. Moreover, even when Tehran shows a willingness to compromise on some issues, the United States spurns such efforts – as it did when the Trump administration sabotaged the multilateral agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program.
A more recent U.S.-orchestrated sanctions campaign is one directed against Venezuela’s Marxist government. Even though several key countries, most notably Russia and China, openly defy Washington’s wishes, the Trump administration continues to tighten the economic screws in an effort to bring down Nicolas Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian, anti-U.S. regime. The corruption, systemic incompetence, and the inherent folly of Maduro’s socialist policies would have been enough by themselves to tank the Venezuelan economy and cause widespread deprivation, but the additional burdens caused by US punitive measures have made the lives of ordinary Venezuelans even more miserable. They also have worsened a huge refugee flow out of the country that creates burdens on Colombia and other neighboring states. Yet, even with all of Washington’s pressure, Maduro has been able to hang on to power and remain a political and diplomatic thorn in the side of the United States. In yet another case, sanctions have failed to achieve their policy goal.
These outcomes should come as no surprise. Economic sanctions have a long track record as an ineffective foreign policy tool. More than three decades ago, the seminal scholarly work of Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, documented that sanctions rarely achieved their policy goals. More recent editions of the book confirm the conclusion with even greater certainty. Sanctions inconvenience the targeted regime – and create substantial suffering for innocent people in that country – but they seldom compel the regime to capitulate or even make major concessions. As Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott demonstrate, that outcome is especially true when the issue in question is a high-priority for the country’s political leadership. The success of international sanctions in inducing South Africa’s apartheid government to relinquish power is the example of success that proponents invariably cite. But that episode involved an exceptional degree of unity on the part of the international community, and the achievement remains a rarity. None of the campaigns the United States has pushed has come close to duplicating the feat.
The ineffectiveness of sanctions should be reason enough to avoid resorting to the policy in the future, but the grinding cruelty of such measures is an even more compelling reason. Unfortunately, US officials seem oblivious or callous about that problem. The most shocking example of insensitivity was then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright’s statement during an interview on CBS 60 Minutes when reporter Lesley Stahl cited accounts that the U.S.-led international sanctions against Iraq, still in effect years after the Persian Gulf War, had cost the lives of 500,000 Iraqi children. When asked if the policy had been worth such a price, Albright responded: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it." The comment was not only unworthy of a US official, but unworthy of any decent human being. And continuing to impose economic sanctions that cause suffering to innocent civilians is a policy unworthy of a decent country.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.