Less than five years after sanctions were lifted from Myanmar, army generals conducted a violent coup that shattered democracy in the region. World leaders were shocked at this sudden turn of events and reinstated sanctions, which immediately received accusations of only being symbolic. This has recently become a common criticism against sanctions: according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, only 34% of sanctions are partially successful, and a mere 10% are able to coerce the desired behaviour from their target. Despite their ineffectiveness, they remain popular because of their perception as a proportional response to certain challenges and provide an alternative to military intervention and complete inaction.
Two pivotal issues are responsible for the ineffectiveness of sanctions. The first is a general unwillingness to introduce harsh sanctions, compounded by a lack of vigorous enforcement. They can have a profound detrimental economic effect on the country implementing them, and estimates claim that the United States, the largest user of sanctions, loses $17 billion from exports every year, while destroying the potential to create 200,000 jobs. The price of sanctions does not stop there; businesses must endure adjustment costs in the wake of changing trade patterns, and sanctions may damage the country’s reputation as a reliable trading partner. The UK’s recent sanctions of the major Russian steel manufacturer Evraz is just one example of the economic impact felt by countries implementing sanctions.
Human rights organizations also criticize sanctions for being immoral, noting that they have caused humanitarian crises in the past due to their crippling effects on civilians. For example, the World Bank reports that sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990 resulted in the price of basic commodities increasing by over a 1000% in the ensuing five years; this caused a 150% increase in infant mortality rate. When such information is released, the resulting international pressure leads to these sanctions being loosened, which significantly alleviates the financial impact on the recipient, and thus the effectiveness of sanctions.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that these sanctions will have such a devastating impact on the accused country in the first place. Since nations are so well interconnected via global markets, if a complainant imposes sanctions, the target still has several active trading partners. This explains why North Korea can remain so resilient against international sanctions as friendly nations, such as China, reduce the consequences of the resulting shortfall in trade.
Governments can take several steps to amplify the effect of their punishment. Countries could join their allies in enforcing sanctions and ask for the same support in the future. This is because multilateral sanctions lead to a greater economic detriment for the recipient, but also reduce the number of third-party markets that can mitigate the impacts of the trade deficit. For example, Russia’s economy was only slightly affected by sanctions in 2014 because only a handful of countries implemented them but experienced a staggering 15% contraction in 2022 when they were joined by even historically neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Singapore. Conversely, there is a danger that participants may enforce the sanctions at varying degrees of stringency; to that end an international body, such as the United Nations, might be involved to deter this.
Officials might also want to enforce compliance with these sanctions by persuading the target’s major trading partners to contribute to the cohesive effort. As unlikely as this may sound, even if it may involve offering additional incentives, this process has been successful before. For example, in the aftermath of the Hundred Hours’ War, El Salvador was forced to remove their troops from Honduras because its largest trading partner, the Organisation of American Countries, threatened to implement sanctions if it refused. However, the current situation in Russia demonstrates that, although there have been calls for this exact strategy, it has not yet been implemented.
Countries might set up government branches that predict the outcomes of proposed sanctions; such analysis can be indispensable in convincing other nations to implement them, as opposed to relying on rhetoric by politicians. Moreover, this branch can prepare annual statements that show the costs and benefits instigated by these sanctions. If there are noticeable positive outcomes it will lead to more trust in the sanctions and result in stricter enforcement. However, if the opposite is true, nations can rescind these harmful sanctions before they are more difficult to lift; countries in this position often must keep them intact solely to preserve their pride.
As tension between the authoritarian and liberal global orders continues to rise, sanctions will remain the cheapest and most favoured way for countries to preserve their interests abroad. Introduction of these policies may be pivotal for leaders; they will greatly increase the chance that confrontation results in the best possible outcome for them.