Have US-imposed sanctions ever worked?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • Melis Alemdar
  • 24 Sep 2018

Gary Hufbauer, an American academic who's extensively worked on US sanctions, explains both the upside and downside to isolating nation states from the global economic system.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, left, and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, listen as the Senate Banking Committee holds a hearing on U.S. economic sanctions against Russia and whether the actions are effective, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. ( J. Scott Applewhite / AP )

There is a strong scientific consensus on the failure of US sanctions. Academics and subject experts cite various types of data and numerical evidence to suggest that the US-imposed sanctions have not succeeded in toppling most of the rival regimes. 

But Washington continues to use sanctions as a tool to stifle the economies of what it calls the “rogue” regimes. TRT World  spoke to Gary Hufbauer, an American political scientist and a former senior US treasury department official, to understand whether or not the sanctions work. 

Gary Hufbauer, an American political scientist and a former senior US treasury department official, has arguably produced the most influential work on the workings and effects of sanctions.(TRTWorld)

What do you think about US sanctions’ effect on regime changes? 

Gary Hufbauer: All the economic sanctions in the last four decades or five decades have had less than a two percent impact on the GDP of the target country. Two percent is not a very big figure. Now there are exceptions: the sanctions against Iraq prior to the Gulf Wars had a much bigger impact, probably (about) 15 percent. 

The sanctions against Iran probably have an impact prior to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which refers to the international plan concerning Iran nuclear deal] about five percent. So that’s the range of impact. 

Now in terms of the political effect of sanctions, that depends a lot on the nature of the target country. If the target country is small or even mid-size, and has a fair amount of conflict within the country or political turmoil within the country, then, in those circumstances, the sanctions have often produced regime change and the existing government has been tossed out in coup or maybe even by elections or whatever. And the new government has come in. 

So there are many small African countries, Latin American countries, smaller countries even some Asian countries where this has been the case. 

If the target country is a large country which has a very strong leader, and has no internal political dissent or conflict, then, in those circumstances, the sanctions are unlikely to produce regime change. There are very few cases where regime change has occurred in such cases.

(As a result) sanctions against Russia or China didn’t change the political situation very much if at all. So those are the two extremes.

Your research has produced some interesting results that sanctions hurt friends more than enemies. Right? 

GH: If the target country is kind of a friend or even an ally of the country, it’s more likely to have an impact. If the targeted country has been an adversary of the country, that means that the leaders of the targeted country have already anticipated the difficult relationship with the so-called sender country and they tend to be more resistant. 

So it’s easier to get compliance from sanctions against allies than adversaries. I know this sounds a little unusual but it’s true. A really important case way back which truly illustrated this was in the Suez Crisis which occurred a long time ago when the French and the British invaded Egypt after President Nasser took over the Suez Canal. 

President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, at the time, didn’t approve of that and he threatened sanctions against Britain which of course has usually been an ally of the United States. The British withdrew so that was a striking case of (how sanctions worked against an ally). But we have many more cases of that.

You researched the sanctions data between 1914 and 2000 and concluded that in most cases, they are not working against the sanctioned states. Is it also the case after 2000?

We analysed the data actually before Trump came into office and looked at them. We couldn’t see a big difference in the success rate or the characteristics of success post-2000 and before 2000. Basically about a third of the cases there’s some success; that doesn’t mean a complete triumph, but some success. 

But when it’s just unilaterally US sanctioned (which means no ally support), it drops to about a fifth of the cases. And the characteristics of the countries, who are the targets, and their ability to resist seem pretty much the same as before.

Despite the clear data which shows most of the times sanctions do not work, why does the US keep sanctioning states? 

GH: Oftentimes the purpose of sanctions is to reassure constituencies in the sender country that their government is doing something about the bad behaviour of the target country. In other words, the sanctions are intended for domestic consumption in the sender country. That often happens. And we never were able to figure out a metric to decide whether sanctions satisfy the constituencies of the sender country. 

Right now there are (efforts) in the Congress to punish Russia or (to impose) additional punishment to Russia. Congress may very well enact the assignment or not. But what’s the purpose of these bills? The purpose is to show Americans that we the Congress, we senators, we congressmen, we’re very serious about Russia. We don’t like what Russia is doing. 

The sanctions they’re proposing are not changing Russian behaviour. So they expect the kind of thing that often happened with sanctions and that I would say more than half the time sanctions are imposed really with a view to the domestic interest which think that this is the right way to treat that hostile foreign country. 

What about Iran or Cuba? None of these regimes changed. 

GH: You are right. First of all, now Cuba is a very interesting case because these Cuban sanctions go back to 1959. That’s a long time, right? It’s like the North Korean sanctions which go back to the 1950s. 

So here’s a small country very close to the United States and was quite dependent on trade with the US. Nevertheless, sanctions did not succeed even though they were very heavy and no doubt reduced Cuban economy quite a bit. 

Well, the answer in the Cuban case is that President [Fidel] Castro has a very strong grip on the country and a very strong secret police. He was able to withstand the sanctions and also he was able to draw on the resentment of many Cubans towards the United States because Cuba was once occupied by the United States – this is back in the 1920s. In any of that, many Cubans have bad memories of relations with the US. And he was able to effectively exploit that and urge the Cubans to resist. So that’s that case. 

We go then to Iran. And you’re quite right. You may remember that the United States supported the Shah when he returned to power in 1950s. The United States helped put the Shah back up the throne and many Iranians didn’t like that. Later in time when Iran had a confrontation with the United States under the Carter regime (during Iran’s 1979 revolution) and  there were a lot of latent opposition to the United States. 

Ayatollah Khomeini [who led the Iranian revolution] managed to exploit [that memory] and established a very clerical government which lasts to this day. Again (there was) very effective secret police in Iran. Then, of course, the US under Carter tried to have a rescue operation for the American captives which was a big failure and so on. (At the end), everything reinforced Iranian feelings against the United States. And now what Trump is doing for sure has reinforced Iranian opposition towards the United States.

The United States has sanctioned Russia or the Soviet Union since the end of the Second World War. A lot of episodes. Russia’s a big country, it’s a powerful country, it’s a nuclear country... 

[Here, Dr. Hufbauer mentions Obama’s moderate success story of using sanctions against Iran to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran.]

Do you think sanctions create vicious circles?

GH: They’re a vicious circle in the sense that they can create opposition. Sure. A strong leader or a charismatic leader [could make them create vicious circles]. An early example was [Benito] Mussolini, in Italy, who was targeted by sanctions by the League of Nations. And he made a big thing of this. 

The sanctions were indeed not very strong, and very effective. But he said that “These sanctions will increase the Italian bravery.” A great quote. It’s in our book. Italy was then embarked on invading Ethiopia. They conquered Ethiopia prior to the WWII and Mussolini was overall very defiant. His example has been emulated by many leaders ever since.

Sanctions make nations poor, but they don’t achieve regime changes. What do you think about that? 

GH: Sanctions are like carpet bombing. Carpet bombing, which is done by the British against (Germany’s) Dresden during WWII, kills a lot of people. Most of the people have nothing to do with and have no influence over Hitler in terms of his conduct of the war and so forth. Well, sanctions are like that. 

They hit and they hurt. They don’t kill people, but they hurt a lot of ordinary people in the (respective) country. They’re very broad-based and it hurts a lot of powerless people.

The ordinary people in Iran have no impact on the government. And the same would be true in Russia, Cuba, North Korea and so on. Because of that collateral damage – it’s a term often used in the military – I’m not enthusiastic about the use of sanctions. As a general rule, sanctions achieve the result in less than half of the cases. And they harm a lot of ordinary people who have no influence on the government.