What Are Economic Sanctions?
Learn how countries use punitive economic measures to advance their foreign policy priorities.
Teaching Resources on Tools of Foreign Policy
In 2014, North Korea launched a major cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment, destroying much of its computer infrastructure and gaining access to sensitive internal information. The attack came ahead of the release of a Sony film that depicted the assassination of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
In response to the flagrant attack on an American company, the United States slapped economic sanctions on numerous North Korean officials and entities to punish the regime and further hinder its military capabilities.
The U.S. response is one clear illustration of using sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. But sanctions come in many shapes and sizes, and can have far broader consequences.
In this lesson, we’ll explore the different types of economic sanctions, the reasons they are applied, and their wide-ranging repercussions.
Breaking down economic sanctions
Sanctions are economic measures intended to either pressure or punish bad actors—whether they be individuals, groups, or countries—that violate international norms or threaten national interests.
On rare occasions, sanctions can bring about regime change, but more often, they are used to advance foreign policy goals related to conflict resolution, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and human rights, among other issues.
Economic sanctions can either be sweeping or targeted (also known as smart sanctions). Following North Korea’s cyberattack on Sony, for instance, the United States targeted ten individuals for their role in supporting the North Korean regime. On the other hand, sweeping sanctions affect entire countries or major organizations and include more expansive restrictions like banning sales of certain products or prohibiting trade completely, as has been the case with U.S. sanctions against North Korea in response to the latter’s nuclear weapons program.
Sanctions are relatively low-cost and low-risk foreign policy tools. Because of this, they are often implemented before other forms of intervention like armed force, which can be especially expensive and deadly. However, those same factors that limit the cost and risk of sanctions can also constrain their effectiveness, meaning that sanctions on their own rarely lead other countries to fundamentally change their behavior or compromise vital national interests.
Who uses sanctions?
Economic sanctions can either be implemented unilaterally through individual governments or multilaterally through coalitions of countries or multinational organizations like the United Nations and the European Union.
The United States is one of the leading implementers of unilateral sanctions, with restrictions on numerous governments, criminal organizations, and private or state-owned entities that threaten the country’s interests. Targets include the North Korean government, the Central America–based gang MS-13, and the Chinese technology conglomerate Huawei. The Department of Treasury, which administers U.S. economic sanctions, has also targeted thousands of individuals such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Over the past two decades, the United States has increased its sanctions by 933 percent [PDF].
Sanctions are particularly powerful when used by countries with major markets, like the United States. Forbidding another country from doing business in the United States or working with U.S. companies has major consequences. Further, American sanctions are uniquely effective because they can restrict access to the U.S. dollar, which remains the world’s most widely used currency for international trade. Conversely, a smaller economy leveling sanctions carries far less weight.
Multilateral sanctions are often more powerful than unilateral sanctions because they combine the economic force of multiple countries. Accordingly, the UN Security Council uses sanctions as a tool for addressing issues such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and international conflicts. However, building consensus around multilateral sanctions can be tricky. In order for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions, a majority of the fifteen-member body must approve the decision without a veto from one of the five permanent members.
What are the different types of sanctions?
Sanctions come in many different forms. Let’s explore some examples:
Asset Freezes: A government directs banks and financial institutions within its jurisdiction to withhold assets and funds connected to sanctioned individuals or entities.
For example, the United States froze the assets of numerous Russian leaders and banks as punishment following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The targeted individuals and entities reportedly lost access to hundreds of millions of dollars held in U.S. financial institutions.
Travel Bans: A government denies sanctioned individuals entry into its country.
In 2020, the United States imposed travel bans on fourteen Chinese officials for undermining democracy in Hong Kong. The following year, China barred several former senior U.S. officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, from entering the country, in response to actions pursued by President Donald Trump’s administration that “seriously disrupted China-U.S. relations.”
Trade Restrictions: A government curtails customary trade relations, which can include banning certain types of products or cutting off trade entirely.
Take the decades-long U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Following the 1950s Cuban Revolution, the United States cut Cuban sugar imports as an economic penalty on the communist government, which it viewed as an adversary. The sanctions were soon expanded into a total ban on trade between the two countries.
Arms Embargoes: A government bans the sale or transfer of weapons, ammunition, and other related materials.
In 2011, the United Nations imposed an arms embargo on Libya, which was quickly descending into a civil war. The sanctions prohibited all countries from selling arms to Libya or purchasing weapons from the country.
Foreign Aid Reductions: A government reduces the amount of money, services, or physical goods given to another country as a form of coercion or punishment.
In 1988, for instance, the United States sharply cut its foreign aid to Sudan after the Sudanese military overthrew the government and proceeded to support terrorist efforts. The level of aid dropped from $216 million in 1987 to an average of $48 million a year from 1988 to 2001.
Secondary Sanctions (or Extraterritorial Sanctions): A government sanctions not just bad actors, but also individuals, entities, and other countries supporting those bad actors.
The United States has imposed secondary sanctions on companies and countries that do business with nations such as Iran and North Korea. The mere threat of those sanctions prevents many other countries from working with Iran and North Korea in the first place, contributing to the two nations’ economic isolation. Secondary sanctions, however, can cause problems when they cast too wide a net and ensnare allies and unsuspecting third parties, turning what could have once been common policy against a problem country into a major source of friction among partners.
Are sanctions effective?
In some instances, sanctions have been a useful foreign policy tool to help bring about regime and policy changes.
Take South Africa, for example. Despite opposition from then President Ronald Reagan, Congress used sanctions in 1986 to pressure South Africa’s government to end its racist system of apartheid. Those sanctions, which numerous other countries also imposed, compelled many multinational companies to halt business in South Africa. Due in part to sanctions that isolated the country and put pressure on its government, apartheid finally ended in the early 1990s. Sanctions were then lifted at the behest of South Africa’s soon-to-be President Nelson Mandela, who praised this international action for bringing South Africa “to the point where the transition to democracy” was possible.
Quite often, however, sanctions have proven demonstrably less effective. For instance, since the 1960s the United States has imposed a strict trade embargo against Cuba’s communist government along with restrictions on travel and the flow of money. Yet six decades later, Cuba’s government remains in power. U.S. sanctions have also failed to bring about meaningful political change in countries such as China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.
One limitation of sanctions—both unilateral and multilateral—is that targeted countries can sidestep them by finding support elsewhere.
Iran has been under heavy U.S. sanctions since the Islamic Revolution in 1979; however, Russia and China routinely undermine these sanctions. In recent years, for instance, Russia signed a free trade agreement with Iran, and China agreed to a $400 billion investment in Iran’s transportation, manufacturing, and energy sectors. The United States has attempted to push back: Chinese companies, for example, have been subjected to secondary sanctions for doing business in Iran. But Iran continues to avoid total economic isolation, revealing that unilateral sanctions have their limits even for the most powerful economy in the world.
Over time, the effectiveness of sanctions diminishes as targeted groups, such as the Iranian government, become more adept at circumventing these economic restrictions. Moreover, sanctions can in some ways actually help authoritarian governments, as they restrict an open market and can provide regimes with more control over the economy and distribution of goods.
Another limitation is that broad sanctions on major economies are largely untenable in today’s globalized world.
The United States may wish to impose broad, sweeping sanctions against China for its crackdown on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, human rights violations in Xinjiang, or increased militarization of the South China Sea. However, the United States refrains from doing so and instead leans on narrower, targeted sanctions because the two countries’ economies are so deeply intertwined, with hundreds of billions of dollars in annual trade. As a result, sweeping U.S. sanctions would hurt not only Chinese companies but also the American companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing. Ultimately, U.S. consumers would have to pay higher prices for many goods.
Additionally, sanctions can have far-reaching and dire consequences—and not only for political or business elites. More often than not, sanctions affect everyday civilians. Broad sanctions can cut the public off from economic opportunities and cause harmful supply-chain disruptions. This can create shortages of food, gas, and medical supplies, exacerbating already precarious humanitarian situations.
For example, look at U.S. sanctions against Venezuela during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite exemptions for humanitarian efforts, U.S. sanctions have reportedly slowed or prevented critical medical products—including COVID-19 vaccines—from entering the country. The issue, Venezuelan officials and human rights organizations say, is that international financial institutions and logistics providers delay or refuse deliveries to avoid running afoul of U.S. sanctions.
Sanctions: A helpful but imperfect tool
Sanctions have their limitations: they can be insufficiently coercive, easily sidestepped, harmful to civilians, and even beneficial to authoritarian regimes.
But when implemented properly, with specific goals in mind, and combined with other foreign policy tools—such as diplomacy or armed force—sanctions can help influence others and advance a country’s foreign policy priorities.
Now that World101 has covered the fundamentals of economic sanctions, put these principles into practice with Model Diplomacy’s companion pop-up case on Economic Sanctions.