Ineffective, Immoral, Politically Convenient: America's Overreliance on Economic Sanctions and What to Do About It

20 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2020

Date Written: February 18, 2020


American sanctions target around two dozen countries, with some states experiencing what amounts to near-total economic embargoes. Why are these policies in place, what effects do they have, and how successful are they in achieving their geopolitical objectives? Sanctions have massive humanitarian costs and are not only ineffective but likely counterproductive. On these points, there is overwhelming agreement in the academic literature. Such policies can reduce the economic performance of the targeted state, degrade public health, and cause tens of thousands of deaths per year under the most crushing sanctions regimes. Moreover, they almost always fail to achieve their goals, particularly when the aim is regime change or significant behavioral changes pertaining to what states consider their fundamental interests. Sanctions can even backfire, making mass killing and repression more likely, while decreasing the probability of democratization.

Why, then, does the United States use economic sanctions so often? The popularity of sanctions owes more to the domestic interests of politicians than their ability to achieve geopolitical goals. American policymakers show little interest in the empirical research on sanctions and they often do not supplement trade restrictions with diplomatic efforts that can help achieve a bargain. In contrast, sanctions make sense from the perspective of domestic politics and political psychology. They provide a middle ground between military force and doing nothing and are unlikely to cause a domestic backlash because the damage they inflict is indirect and largely unobserved. Taking into account political realities, here are several suggestions to prevent the overuse of sanctions: when implemented, they should be restricted to symbolic targets, which would allow American leaders to achieve their political goals without harming innocents abroad; the United States should be laxer in the enforcement of current and future sanctions regimes; and Congress should legislate to make it more difficult for the executive branch to unilaterally impose sanctions without end, which would create a legal cause of action for those affected. Finally, opponents of current policies should continue to make the public aware of the effects of robust sanctions, which can remove the political incentive to enact and implement them. The more often that imposing heavy economic sanctions is seen as an ineffective policy that harms innocents abroad for self‐​interested reasons, the less likely they are to be used.

Keywords: economic sanctions, foreign policy, US sanctions, foreign enforcement, geopolitical tensions, public health

JEL Classification: F1, F10, F12, F13, F5, F50, F51, F52, F59

Suggested Citation

Hanania, Richard, Ineffective, Immoral, Politically Convenient: America's Overreliance on Economic Sanctions and What to Do About It (February 18, 2020). Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 884, Available at SSRN:

Richard Hanania (Contact Author)

Cato Institute

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