Economic sanctions have a long history that can be traced back to some of the earliest human civilizations. Economic historians Gary Hufbauer and Jeffrey Schott have attributed the earliest economic sanction to Pericles, a Greek statesman and general who, in 432 BC, issued the so-called Megarian decree in response to the abduction of three Aspasian women. Yet, despite this long history, the effectiveness of economic sanctions, particularly with regard to considerations of human rights can be called into question.

For the past decade, economic sanctions have been a way for the United States to reinforce a desired behavior on another country. As stated by Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former British Ambassador to the UN (1998-2003), economic sanctions serve as an alternative to military action which has become increasingly unpopular. He goes on to say that “in a modern legitimacy-oriented world where military actions are frowned upon, it is difficult to persuade hard regimes with words alone. In other words, negotiation alone is not enough without concrete action that can be implemented” either as a threat or as a punishment for failing to adhere to the desired outcome. It is because of this dilemma that economic sanctions can become a tool for foreign policy reinforcement.

However, as Ambassador Greenstock notes, economic sanctions are only effective when applied universally“ when all parties that have an economic partnership with a state cease to continue relations with them in compliance with the sanction. For example, according to Nicholas Burns, a senior diplomat for President George W. Bush, the economic sanctions imposed on Iran in the early 2000s to coerce Iran into ending its nuclear development program have been unsuccessful as many countries are effectively ignoring them or, like China, are undercutting them. He goes on to add that because of this sensitivity to the cooperation of all parties involved, there are few examples looking back over the last 25 to 30 years where sanctions have actually succeeded. The same unsuccessful results can be seen with North Korea. Non-compliance on the part of China has rendered economic sanctions against North Korea ineffective. Its nuclear development program has not ceased and Kim Jong-un continues to act uncontrollably.

Furthermore, there is another element to economic embargos beyond just universal compliance. Even if North Korea’s economic sanctions are applied universally and China does indeed cease economic relations, the sanctions would still be ineffective. Assuming international compliance, the fundamental flaw with economic sanctions being applied to authoritarian regimes and military states is that the leaders of those states often have no regard for their people whatsoever. Does Kim Jung-un care that his citizens are suffering human rights abuses or that his people are starving? No. Economic sanctions are designed to hit home against the ordinary people “ the ruled“ rather than against the rulers who are often the real target of the pressure. In a democratic state, sanctions work because the government is subject to the needs of its people. But in North Korea, where citizens are of little importance or consequence, economic sanctions have no effectiveness whatsoever.

Another factor that must be accounted for when examining economic sanctions is the countless number of innocent civilians who live in the state in which sanctions will be imposed. This causes a moral dilemma. A consideration of the impact of these sanctions on the state’s population would undermine the effectiveness of the embargo since the time it would take for the North Korean government to be substantially impacted would far exceed how long a country would fully commit to maintaining the economic sanction. A sense of moral duty would therefore cease the implementation of the sanction prior to it becoming effective against the government.

Economic sanctions are a complex tool that many states and governments have chosen to impose on others in order to enforce certain behavior. However, despite the longevity of this policy, its effectiveness is unclear at best. Riddled with issues such as non-compliance, moral dilemmas, and the indifference of the targeted government to the suffering of its own people, perhaps the solution to enforcing political behavior does not lie in the use of economic sanctions.


Disclaimer: The views published in this journal are those of the individual authors or speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of The Berkeley Economic Review staff, the Undergraduate Economics Association, the UC Berkeley Economics Department and faculty,  or the University of California at Berkeley in general.

Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *