Promoting and using sanctions to pressure dictatorships has been becoming more and more popular in recent decades. Hawks support them, where they would like to, but for some reason can’t use military force. Doves support them, where they want to do something, but try to avoid military force. Sanctions seem to be a modest and careful way of forcing tyrants to behave better. They look like a compromise between watching people getting killed on TV and going to war to stop the killing. And sometimes they are. But sanctions are a far more dangerous tool than most people realize.

Obviously, to damage an economy means two things:

1. Making peoples lives more miserable. When dictatorships wreck the economy – and they usually do! – it’s not very smart to destroy what’s left. People starve, the autocrat blames the foreign imperialists for it – and he isn’t even completely wrong about that!

2. Economic development is usually the key factor in liberalising countries. Most democracy movements are led and supported by a well-educated middle-class. So, sanctions may very well hurt the dissident’s cause they are meant to strengthen.

Of course, these risks can be minimized if you minimize the sanctions. But minimized sanctions won’t impress any real dictator.

We should never rule out sanctions. But we should consider them very carefully. They can cause as much as or even more harm than any military intervention.

The Peterson Institute has been studying the effects of sanctions for some years now. In July it released an updated edition of its classic study, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered.

Here you can watch a book forum with the authors: Sanctions Succes Is Possible But Not Common

Here you can read about the key findings:

  • Sanctions “succeed” in about one-third of the cases overall, but the success rate depends importantly on the type of objectives sought.
  • Success means sanctions contributed significantly to the partial or full achievement of the foreign policy goal.
  • Partial achievement of foreign policy goals is far more common than full achievement.
  • Sanctions are often more effective when aimed against friendly and democratic countries than against adversaries and autocrats.
  • Diversified sanctions—involving a mix of trade and financial measures—succeed more often than cases involving only trade sanctions.
  • Incremental implementation of sanctions (i.e., turning the screw) is less effective than full bore measures. However diplomats prefer to turn the screw.
  • International cooperation doesn’t guarantee success but in recent years the record for multilateral sanctions is better than the record for unilateral US sanctions.
  • “Targeted sanctions” are no more successful than traditional measures and those targeting individuals work better as a signaling device than as a coercive measure.
  • Our success rate of one-third overall indicates that in about two-thirds of the cases the foreign policy goal was not achieved or, if it was achieved, other means were decisive (usually military force).