Sanctions usually fail to achieve any of their stated political goals, and they often backfire and further encourage the behavior they are designed to stop.
A recent Bloomberg report drew attention to the undesirable but predictable consequences of sweeping sanctions against Russia: “Some administration officials Biden they are now privately voicing concern that instead of dissuading the Kremlin as intended, sanctions are instead exacerbating inflation, worsening food security and punishing ordinary Russians more than Putin or his allies.”
These detrimental effects of broad sanctions should not surprise anyone who has closely followed these issues, as this is what almost always happens when the entire economy of a country is targeted for punishment. The failure to change the behavior of the target government is even less surprising, since it is extremely rare for hostile authoritarian states to succumb in the face of US-led pressure campaigns. The negative impact of these sanctions on Russia will inevitably be more significant and far-reaching than in previous cases, since Russia is a much larger player in the global economy. The more violent the economic war becomes, the more it harms the whole world.
Often marketed as an “inexpensive” alternative to military conflict, the practice of sweeping sanctions is an indiscriminate attack on an entire country. They punish tens of millions of ordinary people, leaving the wealthy and well-connected mostly untouched. In some cases, they themselves create humanitarian crises, and in others, such as in the case of Venezuela, they greatly exacerbate existing crises and make them much more deadly than they would otherwise be.
Sanctions are often imposed on countries under the de facto control of brutal authoritarian governments, which means that people suffer doubly, both from those who govern them and from outside forces that wage economic warfare in an attempt to isolate those rulers. In any case, people forced to suffer because of this or that policy are not able to change it, but sanctions tend to strengthen authoritarian leaders, while the internal opponents of these leaders are forced to fight just to survive.
The case of Russia is unusual in that it is the first time in recent history that the United States and its allies have attempted to use this kind of large-scale economic coercion against such a large state, although in other respects they follow the same pattern we have seen with previous sanctions regimes. Broad sanctions always punish the common people more than the elite, and this is by design. As shown Esfanjar Batmanghelidj in his study of Iran sanctions, sweeping sanctions act as an inflationary weapon directed directly at the people. He further explained in an article written with Erica Sea earlier this year that “the sanctions are hitting hardest on middle-class citizens who struggle to maintain their standard of living as inflation throws the economy into turmoil, and on those living in poverty who are simply struggling to survive as prices are rapidly growing on bread.
Economic war has consistently worsened food security in the target country, and now the same devastating effects are being felt around the world due to disruptions caused by the war itself, the sanctions response to it, and Russia’s response to sanctions. As warned Amir Khanjani in an article for Responsible Statecraft magazine earlier this year, “We’re really in uncharted waters and don’t seem ready for the consequences.” We are accustomed to coercive politics backfired in the form of increased security concerns, but now we are facing a future in which we will also face an economic blow. Economic warfare is no longer a “cheap” option when the target can fight back.
If the costs of economic warfare are high, what about the benefits? The truth is that there are either few or none at all. The limited effectiveness of sanctions as a policy tool has been well understood by scholars for decades, but this understanding has hardly influenced political decision making. As explained Nicholas Mulder In Economic Weapons, an important report on the origins of modern economic sanctions after World War I, the United States has increasingly resorted to the use of economic sanctions in recent decades, and these sanctions are now less successful than ever.
Mulder writes: “While in the period 1985-1995, at a time of relative Western power, the chances of success of sanctions were still about 35-40 percent, by 2016 this figure had fallen below 20 percent. In other words, while the application of sanctions has skyrocketed, their chances of success have plummeted.” The increasingly sophisticated use of financial sanctions and secondary sanctions by the United States has made economic warfare even more devastating for the people on the “host” side, but with the exception of the US-led international sanctions regime that led to the Iran nuclear deal, this regime did not bring any other notable successes.
One reason for this decline in efficiency is the relative decline in the economic power of the United States and allies and the rise of other states, which creates more opportunities for other countries to act as sanctions violators. Another is that the United States tends to use its most powerful sanctions to achieve far-fetched and sometimes impossible goals—whether it be forcing regime change, forcing unilateral disarmament, or ending a war. American politicians constantly overestimate the power of sanctions and underestimate the readiness of the target state to endure economic suffering for some other purpose.
For example, the United States remains committed to maintaining maximum pressure sanctions on North Korea and continues to threaten North Korea with more sanctions if its government conducts new missile and nuclear tests. During the start of the pandemic, the DPRK effectively isolated itself from the world of its own accord, so it’s hard to imagine what further economic sanctions could achieve. North Korea remains adamant in the face of disarmament demands, and it seems very unlikely that this will change, no matter how much stimulus Washington may offer.
In other cases, such as Afghanistan, the United States refuses to recognize the country’s de facto government and continues to sanction it as if it were just a band of insurgents. The risk of violating sanctions is so great that most firms and financial institutions will not risk doing business in the country, even if some transactions are technically permitted. Sanctions currently imposed on the Taliban* have effectively cut Afghanistan off from almost all foreign trade, the United States has seized the assets of the Afghan state, and international aid, on which the country has been heavily dependent for decades, has been reduced to a fraction what was before.
The predicted result was deepening poverty and hunger for tens of millions of ordinary Afghans. The fall in purchasing power over the past year means that food may be available, but most people cannot afford to buy it.
Economic coercion through broad sanctions can cause enormous destruction, but it usually does not advance US interests or improve security conditions in other parts of the world. It is time to recognize that sweeping sanctions do more harm than good and exacerbate many of the problems they are supposed to address.
Author: Daniel Larison Daniel Larison — freelance editor for the online publication Antiwar.com and former senior editor for The American Conservative magazine. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago.
Translation by Sergei Dukhanov
* Traffic “Taliban» by decision of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation