The History of Foreign Sanctions


How Sanctions came to be, are being used today, and do they really work?

For years economic sanctions have been used as an alternative for war — a diplomatic manner of achieving the agendas of individual or collective nations. More recently, Russia has experienced a plethora of sanctions from a coalition of foreign nations as a result of its invasion of Ukraine. But while many may describe sanctions as viable substitutes for military aggression, the reality is unclear, and a long history of sanctions can demonstrate the complexity of economic action in foreign policy.

The History of Sanctions

While modern day sanctions arrive from powerful nations or global organizations such as the UN, sanctions have been a powerful tool used by many civilizations and nations in the past. In fact, for the entirety of recorded history, civilizations and communities have imposed sanctions on one another; in 89 BC, for example, King Mithridates VI of Pontus imposed sanctions on Rome in response to their support of another raiding population. However, while historically relevant, sanctions became especially important with the rise of globalized and modern economies. Importantly, the first sanctions imposed by modern nations came in the form of blockades, imposed as a supplement to wartime activities. Examples of wartime sanctions include British blockades of the American Colonies during the American Revolutionary War and of the French in the Napoleonic wars, as well as Allied blockades of the central powers during World War One. For less fortunate recipients, this meant economic devastation and even famine. For nations that imposed the blockades, the economic attacks were seen to be a winning factor in the war. It was after World War One, however, that nations began to entertain the idea of employing economic action separate from wartime engagement — creating the modern style of economic sanctions. American president Woodrow Wilson, in particular, was influential in describing sanctions as a peaceful alternative, describing them as an “economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy” that “no modern nation could resist”, Blockades and economic sanctions would therefore progress into the central policy of the League of Nations. Article 16 of the League of Nations Covenant outlines this specifically, affirming that should a nation breach the covenant, the league shall “subject it to the severance of all trade or financial relations” and “the prevention of all financial, commercial or personal intercourse”. With economic actions popularized in the operating basis of the League of Nations, they would persist through World War Two, when nations like Britain and Germany became desperate to undercut their enemy’s economic ability. Apart from the League of Nations, the United States was able to impose its own economic attacks, including an economic embargo on Japan that would ultimately result in the Japanese strike at Pearl Harbor and the war in the pacific. Further, with the conclusion of World War Two, the creation of new global institutions such as the UN paved the way for collective economic sanctions, especially with the participation of the United States and its world leading economy. Subsequently, Since 1966 the UN has, by its own count, imposed a series of 30 different sanctions on nations from Rhodesia and South Africa, to former Yugoslavia and Iraq. The collapse of several of said nations illuminates the true stopping power of UN sanctions, and how economic sanctions have carried their legacy into many modern day conflicts, in which the UN and the United States have been the main perpetrators of sanctions. To summarize, human populations have strived to afflict the commerce and trade of opponents since the foundation of states and trade routes. These strategies, however, would progress into embargoes and wartime attacks on economies, which would further function as the basis of peace keeping strategies and sanctions imposed by global organizations such as the League of Nations and its successor in the UN today.

The Efficacy of Sanctions

In the same way that advancements such as planes and artillery made warfare increasingly impersonal in the early 20th century, economic sanctions prove to be an even further removed medium for imposing suffering on nations and their people. Sanctions are by all means politically practical and effective, as they are neither direct aggression or inaction, and can unilaterally affect the nation on the receiving end. But economic sanctions may not be the saving grace that Woodrow Wilson professed, or even be effective in purpose. While the U.N. often describes its targeted measures, modern economies make it incredibly difficult to achieve precise measures of economic actions, with sanctions causing adverse effects across populations and often harming lower and middle classes more than the ruling elite they concern. Despite the collateral and damaging effects of sanctions, even the U.N. admits that “sanctions are not an end themselves”, and it therefore becomes important to label them a supplementary tool rather than a diplomatic release. This is, however, quite difficult when the effects of sanctions are put in perspective; the Cato institute estimates that “U.S. sanctions have likely led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions, of people in the post–World War II era.”, a grizzly effect for a tool that can often prove inadequate. Sanctions have proved to be simultaneously effective and ineffective, showing a staunch propensity for imposed suffering, but a less than certain ability to produce desired change. It may be tempting to interpret sanctions as successful for their adverse costs on targeted nations, but the desired policy goals need to be kept in perspective — Does twisting the arm of a regime necessarily produce desired results? Not necessarily, with numerous research institutes and publishing organizations finding varied estimates of political success in around 20–40 per cent of the cases, and case studies like Cuba and North Korea demonstrating the resilience of autocratic and receiving nations to devastating sanctions designed to force policy change. Granted, sanctions can prove successful, but despite their exponential rise in popularity among many nations, sanctions have proven to be sufficiently devastating but often insufficiently achieving. It may be suffice to say then, that the gap between sanctions and the armed conflict they succeeded is present, but smaller than we thought in efficacy and humanity.

Sanctions Continuing

Economic sanctions are now more popular than ever, with the UN currently imposing sanctions on fourteen different nations as of today. It was no surprise then, to see the first actions opposing Russian aggressions in Ukraine to arrive economically. Many of the dilemmas surrounding sanctions are therefore being played out on the international stage, with the U.S. imposing targeted sanctions on specific Russian individuals and imports to try and reduce collateral damage towards the Russian population, and President Joe Biden’s assertion that “This is going to take time” highlighting the difficulty of a sanctioning strategy at combatting immediate threats such as the Russian invasion. Such a strategy naturally requires time to play out and take effect. The economic sanctions on Russia therefore provide the U.S. and the west with a challenge to see how capable they are at economically asserting their agenda across the globe, subsequently creating an interesting test of economic sanctions themselves. Russia, especially behind its oil trade, is a larger and stronger opponent than has ever been tackled by economic means alone, and the outcome of sanctions on its population and policy decisions can provide valuable information on, and bring attention to, the state of economic sanctions in the contemporary global policy. Thus, as the world looks to economic sanctions as a saving grace, the humanitarian and functional clouds around economic sanctions have been given global stage, and the continued strategy of sanctions is faced with a pivotal challenge that can either be triumphantly overcome with the defeat of Russia, its economy, and its advance into Ukraine, or prove to be a crippling display of inadequacy.