Questioning the ‘sanctions decade’. The initial enthusiasm surrounding

the effectiveness of economic sanctions in the context of the enforcement of
international rules is more important than ever. Conditions for the use of
economic sanctions are more favourable now than at any other time since their
regular use by the United Nations began in the 1990s. Direct intervention, the
method previously preferred by the UN and the United States for solving
international crises, has fallen out of favour. Foreign involvement in Iraq,
Afghanistan and Libya has left a series of weak and corrupt governments, unable
to either prevent widespread violence or provide basic amenities for their
people. The world appears to have lost its appetite for military involvement,
prompting a widespread reappraisal of economic sanctions by academics and
policymakers. Seen as a convenient halfway point between inactivity and military
intervention, sanctions are portrayed as a cheaper, less controversial and more
humane alternative. Less costly both in human lives and financial spending, more
likely to be approved by members of the P5 and more flexible overall – they can
be loosened or tightened, expanded or narrowed – they provide an attractive
compromise. Yet while the
popularity of sanctions among policymakers is high, theoretical understanding
of their effectiveness remains mired in academic debate. The general consensus among
scholars is that that they are ineffective policy instruments and the
historical record seems to support this view: sanctions appear to have failed
more times than they have succeeded.

History and Literature:

The use of sanctions as a tool to make
states comply with international rules is a relatively recent development. Between
its creation in 1945 and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the UN used
economic sanctions in only two cases: South Africa and Rhodesia (UN, 2013). In the
ensuing decade, United Nations sanctions were imposed over a dozen times, on
states deemed to have broken a myriad of different rules. Such was their
popularity that the 1990s became known as the ‘sanctions decade’. The initial enthusiasm
surrounding this tool in foreign policy circles soon turned to disappointment
as broad UN-mandated sanctions proved unsuccessful at preventing escalating
violence in the Balkans and in central Africa. Critics pointed out that rather
than helping, sanctions often had a counterproductive effect: by using indiscriminate
‘collective punishment’ measures, they shored up the power of authoritarian
regimes which benefitted from domestic support. Criticism of economic sanctions
reached its apex during the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The UN’s
comprehensive financial and economic embargo, which was only lifted in 2003,
caused widespread humanitarian suffering. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi
civilians perished and the UN’s attempt to remedy the situation through the ‘Oil-for-Food
Program’ became mired in a damning corruption scandal. The effect of first the widespread
human suffering caused in Iraq and second of America’s post-9/11 sanctions experience
encouraged a shift towards supposedly more humane ‘smart’ sanctions. These
targeted measures, which use a combination of arms embargos, asset freezes,
travel restrictions and foreign aid cuts, soon replaced blanket economic punishments.
What is more, the slow-but-steady integration of national economies into the
global economic system has made economic and financial coercion – in particular,
targeted measures – a more attractive response to rule-breaking than ever. This
is especially true for the US, the world’s most prolific user of sanctions,
which acts both indirectly through resolutions in the Security Council or directly
through the Treasury Department.

The catalyst for the international community’s
reappraisal of economic sanctions was the downfall of another, much used policy
tool: foreign intervention. Since the American ‘war on terror’, direct military
involvement has been largely shunned by policymakers as a solution to
international rule-breaking. Bush and Blair’s spurious claim that their
decision to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan was motivated by humanitarian
concerns and the presence of WMDs has been largely discredited (Kurth, 2006;
Weiss, 2004). Moreover, the protracted nature of both conflicts and the large-scale
domestic opposition has left Western powers wary of using military force to deal
with international rule-breaking: an ‘Iraq Syndrome’ similar to the process
that America underwent in the aftermath of the Vietnam War (Mueller, 2005).

The suggestion that economic sanctions could
adequately fill the gap once occupied by military intervention has been greeted
with dismay in some academic circles. Scholarly
debates surrounding the efficacy of econom?c sanct?ons have generally reached
negative conclusions. Baldwin, whose Economic Statecraft provides a
brief outline of the most authoritative studies on the subject, observes that ‘the
two most salient characteristics of the literature … are scarcity and the
nearly universal tendency to denigrate the utility of such tools of foreign policy’
(Baldwin, 1985).