Around the world, growing numbers of governments are using economic sanctions as a tool to influence the behaviour of other countries. Their tactics are nothing new. Sanctions and embargoes have a long and chequered past, dating back to antiquity, when the Athenian statesman Pericles issued the so-called “Megarian decree” in response to the abduction of three local women in 432 BC. Yet, as Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott note in their study of the topic, rather than preventing conflict, Pericles’s sanctions in Ancient Greece brought a number of unintended consequences; ultimately helping to prolong and intensify the Peloponnesian War.
This might be the first instance of sanctions being tried – and failing – but we have many more recent cases to choose from. Veterans of GCSE history may remember the League of Nations and the failure of its sanctions to protect Abyssinia from Fascist Italy. Draconian regimes still rule countries like Iran, largely under American embargo since 1979 – not to mention Cuba, whose sanctions date back to 1962.
Fast forward to 2018, and the global appetite for sanctions looks as strong as ever, with President Trump edging ever closer to full-scale trade war with China. Rarely a week seems to go by without news of fresh sanctions against Russia from the Western world. Citizens, horrified by extra-judicial killings and cyber warfare, might well favour such penalties. In times of public outrage, it may feel and look good for policy-makers to be “doing something”. But have we given sufficient thought to whether such measures actually work?
As Nima Sanandaji details in a new IEA report, trade sanctions do occasionally achieve their strategic or foreign policy goals. Yet far more often, they are ineffective blunt instruments.