Examples of Sanctions in International Relations

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In international relations, sanctions are a tool that nations and nongovernmental agencies use to influence or to punish other nations or non-state actors. Most sanctions are economic in nature, but they may also carry the threat of diplomatic or military consequences as well. Sanctions can be unilateral, meaning they are imposed only by one nation, or bilateral, meaning a bloc of nations (such as a trade group) is imposing the penalties.

Economic Sanctions

The Council on Foreign Relations defines sanctions as "a lower-cost, lower-risk, middle course of action between diplomacy and war." Money is that middle course, and economic sanctions are the means. Some of the most common punitive financial measures include:

  • Tariffs: Surcharges on imported goods, often imposed to aid domestic industries and markets.
  • Quotas: Limits on the number of goods that may be imported or exported. 
  • Embargoes: Restrictions on or cessation of trading with a nation or bloc of nations. These can include limiting or banning travel by individuals to and from nations.
  • Non-tariff barriers: These are designed to make foreign goods more expensive by complying with onerous regulatory requirements.
  • Asset seizure/freeze: Capturing or holding the financial assets of nations, citizens, or preventing the sale or moving of those assets. 

Oftentimes, economic sanctions are linked to treaties or other diplomatic agreements between nations. They could be revocation of preferential treatment such as Most Favored Nation status or import quotas against a country not abiding by agreed international rules of trade.

Sanctions may also be imposed to isolate a nation for political or military reasons. The United States has imposed severe economic penalties against North Korea in response to that nation's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, for example, and the U.S. does not maintain diplomatic relations, either.

Sanctions are not always economic in nature. President Carter's boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 can be viewed as a form of diplomatic and cultural sanctions imposed in protest against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Russia retaliated in 1984, leading a multination boycott of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Do Sanctions Work?

Although sanctions have become a common diplomatic tool for nations, especially in the decades after the end of the Cold War, political scientists say they are not particularly effective. According to one landmark study, sanctions have only about a 30 percent chance of succeeding. And the longer sanctions are in place, the less effective they become, as the targeted nations or individuals learn how to work around them.

Others criticize sanctions, saying they are most often felt by innocent civilians and not the intended government officials. Sanctions imposed against Iraq in the 1990s after its invasion of Kuwait, for example, caused prices for basic commodities to spike, led to extreme food shortages, and triggered outbreaks of disease and famine. Despite the crushing impact these sanctions had on the general Iraqi population, they did not lead to the ouster of their target, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

International sanctions can and do work sometimes, however. One of the most famous examples is the near-total economic isolation imposed on South Africa in the 1980s in protest against that nation's policy of racial apartheid. The United States and many other nations ceased trading and companies divested their holdings, which in conjunction with strong domestic resistance led to the end of South Africa's white-minority government in 1994.

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