Why Economic Sanctions Often Fail

News Abroad

Mr. Jacobs is a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and a writer for the History News Service.

On his recent trip to Europe, President Bush pushed the Continent's top leaders to adopt tougher economic sanctions on Iran. Yet there's every reason to believe that the president's visit, even coupled with European sanctions, will not produce results.

European nations have supported sanctioning Iran in the past, but they have continued to have strong trade links with the Iranians. With Bush's presidency close to an end, time is running out for concrete agreements between his administration and European leaders.

What's more, the history of economic sanctions as a tool of foreign policy reveals that they have rarely achieved success. Just look at the long-time failed American economic sanctions against Cuba, in place since 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro took power. They have done nothing to soften Cuba's anti-American stance, and they have failed since their inception to attract the support of other nations.

The policy of economic sanctions is bound to be unproductive when a consensus among allies is not reached. The policy toward Cuba is a prime example. Early in his presidency, John F. Kennedy failed to gain the co-operation of allies when implementing economic sanctions toward Cuba. In 1962 Kennedy further tightened sanctions by restricting travel and trade to the island, but these restrictions did little in the way of injuring the Cuban economy.

In the years immediately following, Castro engaged in trade with Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain, all American allies in Europe. The British, with whom the United States has long enjoyed a "special relationship," supplied Castro's government with several hundred buses as well as a seven million dollar line of credit.

On the issue of Iran, President Bush has been calling for harsher economic sanctions since the beginning of his second term. In 2006 Bush reaffirmed the Iran Sanctions Act, which threatens sanctions against any country that engages in trade with Iran. European nations have ignored the president; European trade with Iran has increased substantially since 2006.

For instance, more than five billion dollars' worth of German goods were exported to Iran in 2007. Switzerland's Swiss EGL energy trading company recently completed a forty-two billion dollar agreement with the National Iranian Gas Export Company.

Though European leaders said the right things on President Bush's recent visit, it remains to be seen if Europeans will carry through with tougher sanctions. Whether the U.S. policy of economic sanctions against Iran will be a success hinges on the full application of the policy Europe has recently announced. The president's recent and likely last official trip to Europe may prove to be nothing more than European leadership telling a lame-duck U.S. President what he wants to hear.

Bush's last months in office will determine how effective sanctioning Iran can be. Economic sanctions against Cuba, enacted more than 40 years ago, have failed because of a lack of commitment among allies. The same fate awaits the United States today regarding Iran if U.S. and European policies are not completely unified. Without full cooperation, the policy of economic sanctions is rendered useless.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Arnold Shcherban - 7/13/2008

<The embargo is a punitive measure that was put in place in response to the largest expropriations of U.S. assets in history.>
Mr. Gomez is right on the money in the reasons for the US anti-Cuban stance under Castro.
But this contradiction between his and the author's interpretation of the
primary sources of animosity between Castro's and the US regimes continuing up to this day is caused by the Washington's official propaganda campaign all the time emphasizing the ideological and social
polarities of the regimes in question, not the economic ones.
To put it simply: Americans have been brainwashed by the US political and economic elite that controls the most of the US media to believe that ours and supporters' of Castro's communist regime (and those constituted the majority of Cubans living in Cuba) corresponding ideals are polar opposites, and they have been a prime cause of the split between Cuban and American goverments, not the Cuban expropriation of American businesses on Cuba.
To put it even in stronger terms: provided Castro's government had not taken those wide-scale expropriations, i.e. nationalization actions, keeping Cuba's economy well in kilwater of the US corporate policies, the latter would have implicitly allowed any kinds of human rights and democracy violations by Castro's regime, as they allowed the same and worse kind of those violations to happen in many other Central and Latin American countries under pro-US dictatorial regimes.
Now, let's turn to the issue of sufficient justification for those nationalization measure. There are two major points of view at this issue: one is of absolute sanctity of individual economic rights, another is of prevalence of the economic and social interests of national majority. Mighty arguments can be thrown on the both sides of the scale. Different national majorities historically would decide in favor of one or another of the two choices.
So, if we claim to be supporters of a real democracy, i.e. the power of majority, we have to respect either choice of the respective majorities, even though it might not be our own.
The majority of Cubans at the time of
Cuban revolution chose the nationalization path, since they wanted to get rid of the status of subseviant to its mighty neighbor country, becoming a genuinely sovereign country, in which equal social and economic opportunities would become the national priorities, not the possession of the small minority, as they used to be previously.
To what degree and whether Cubans succeeded accomplishing that tall task at all is another issue and a question of a long and fierce debate, but that was the choice of the majority of Cuban population then.

Henry Louis Gomez - 6/29/2008

The embargo on Cuba was not implemented to "soften Cuba's anti-American stance" and ascribe such a goal to it is a fallacy. The embargo is a punitive measure that was put in place in response to the largest expropriations of U.S. assets in history. Unless and until Cuba acknowledges that such expropriations violate the norms of international trade and offer to make at least some sort of settlement (as China did in 1979) there is simply no reason for the U.S. to trade with Cuba unless it's to prove to the world that you can steal from America and if you are belligerent enough for long enough the U.S. will eventually capitulate.

What your analysis doesn't contemplate is that there are regimes and individuals that simply can not be negotiated with because their objectives are in stark contrast to ours.