I recall coming across this question in grad school, almost 12 years ago. The professor who taught a course on the UN and its role in development posed this question to all of us. The class, consisted of about 20 or so young, idealistic students from around the world with varying understandings of sanctions – usually emanating from the US and Europe. Some of us even had felt the impact of these measures. And the answer to this question is perplexing and the scale of suffering the sanctions cause to ordinary citizens is humungous. And they don’t work as well as we want them to. So, why do we use sanctions against “rouge” nations? The consensus in class, after nearly 15 weeks of discussions was that sanctions work only in about a third of the cases. The rest of the cases are abject failures, with little to nothing achieved, in the long-term.
Nicholas Mudler, author of the book The Economic Weapon : The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War points out that the history of sanctions is largely a history of disappointments.
What is the theory behind sanctions? It can be summed up succinctly as: if we put enough pressure on governments that are indulging in bad actions, through punishing it, in totality – including the people – then, they will rise up against the government and overthrow it. Then, there will be a different regime that may comply with our demands. Does this bear out, empirically?
We are witnessing, in our own time, sanctions in place against Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. There are horrible instances of migration, internal and outside of the borders of these countries, people starving and going without medicines etc. due to the sanctions. Millions of ordinary people are suffering. There is no doubt about that.
As Mudler points out, the repercussions are not just on the government, but across civil society as well. As he points out “ It makes the discussions about whether the sanctions are working or are going to work much more difficult, because we are seeing the economic effects being caused by private actors, not just by governments anymore.” The fact that Russia is not a small or mid-sized country but very much a mainstream economy with global trade connections makes these sanctions very difficult for all parties concerned.
We are witnessing millions of Ukrainian citizens seeking refuge in Poland and other countries but in a few months, it could be the turn of Russians. What we are witnessing in Venezuela may play out in Russia and it may not be a pleasant prospect for any country to deny these people asylum, especially if they do not agree with Mr. Putin’s policies. Why punish millions for the fault of one authoritarian leader, one can ask? And that would not be an unfair question.
If one looks at other countries where sanctions have been used, most recently in the case of Taliban in Afghanistan, it is causing massive humanitarian suffering. While the Biden administration has issued some exemptions recently, there is always the risk of being caught up in the legal wrangle that comes, when sanctions are violated by civil society groups. Most Americans don’t want such a hassle, even when it comes to making charitable donations – a fact I have studied in the past and have some papers on this issue, as well. The goals of Biden administration in Afghanistan may be very different than in Ukraine, even though the policy tool is the same.
The case of sanctions on Cuba, Iraq, Venezuela and Iran are far more complex and convoluted.
To get more into the details of these arguments and what recommendations Mudler has, go read the book.