Policy Debate: Are Economic Sanctions Effective in Altering a Country's Actions?
Issues and Background
In today's fluid global marketplace, the failure of unilateral sanctions has become apparent: sanctions simply alter trade patterns without seriously damaging the target nation. Unless multiple countries deploy trade sanctions, the targeted country can avoid their punishing effects by turning to alternative suppliers. Although the United States enjoyed near-monopoly status in the production of many goods earlier in the century, that is not the case today. Instead, sanctions transfer business from U.S. companies to foreign competitors in the same market....
Former President Carter was right to tell Cubans their country is isolated without true democracy and human rights. But lifting the trade embargo will remove the only incentive Castro has to reform. Instead, the United States should cultivate closer relations with ordinary Cubans, support those struggling for freedom and prod the dictatorship to loosen its grip.
Economic sanctions have often been used by the U.S. and other countries in attempts to alter the behavior of the target countries. These sanctions typically include general or selective trade embargoes, restrictions on foreign investment, and restriction on travel to and from the affected country. Among the most prominent examples of current or recent U.S. economic sanctions:
While economic sanctions have been a popular tool of international policy, there is substantial disagreement over the effectiveness of these policies. Advocates of sanctions argue that the imposition of economic sanctions imposes substantial economic costs on the citizens of the affected countries. Since the development of the theory of comparative advantage by David Ricardo in the early 1800s, economists have argued that free trade provides economic benefits for all participants. Under this argument, countries may increase their level of per capita consumption by specializing in the production of those goods that they can produce at the lowest opportunity cost and trading these goods for those that can be acquired at a lower opportunity cost from other countries. The imposition of sanctions eliminates or reduces these potential gains from trade. (A more extensive discussion of the possible gains from trade appears in the debate investigating whether the U.S. gains from international trade).
It is also important to note that while multilateral sanctions may impose a substantial cost on the target country, unilateral sanctions are most likely to impose substantial costs primarily on the country that imposes the sanctions since the target country has other trading options. For example, the U.S. trade embargo on trade with Cuba initially resulted in the development of close trading ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union. In more recent years, Cuba has traded extensively with Europe and other North, South, and Central American countries. The availability of alternative trading partners substantially weakens the effect of the sanctions on the target country.
Supporters of sanctions argue that U.N.-sponsored sanctions have been effective in ending racist policies in Rhodesia and South Africa. Opponents of sanctions, however, argue that sanctions generally seem to have little or no effect in altering the behavior of the target country. They suggest that the changes in Rhodesia and South Africa would have occurred as a result of internal pressures even in the absence of sanctions.
The U.S. government has often imposed sanctions on countries in the hope that these sanctions will lead to political unrest and the replacement of the current government with one that is likely to be supportive of policies advocated by the U.S. Opponents of economic sanctions, though, argue that sanctions often make it easier for the current political leadership to blame economic problems on the trade restrictions imposed by the U.S. (and/or other nations). Health care problems, poverty, and so forth are blamed on the effect of the sanctions instead of on political and economic problems within the country.
One concern with sanctions is that the children, the poor, and the sick are often the primary victims of the trade restrictions while the leadership is largely unaffected. Long-term sanctions may lead to negative feelings toward the U.S. (and other countries that initiate and support sanctions) on the part of the general population in the target country. Concerns are often expressed that this may lead to an expansion in terrorist activities directed at U.S. targets. Proponents of sanctions argue that allowing free trade trade provides support for governments that engage in substantial human rights violations.
For better or worse, economic sanctions have become one of the most frequently used foreign policy tools of the U.S. It is likely that the debate over their efficacy will continue for some time to come.
Primary Resources and Data
Different Perspectives in the Debate