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Sanctioning Peace (Or Destruction?)

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

By Pratishtha Mamgain

When not resorting to military action, economic sanctions become an indispensable weapon in America’s limited arsenal for engaging with countries that do not heed American diktat. Sanctions, however, are neither less aggressive nor more accommodating and peaceful than military action. Sanctions rarely have a justifiable cause (more often a murky ulterior motive) and have unintended consequences on both the target country and the sanctioning country.

The authors of ‘Economic Sanctions Reconsidered’ did a major study (Hufbauer 1990)that analysed the effectiveness of sanctions. The study considered many countries during several decades. The conclusion was that sanctions are usually a failure in terms of altering the target country’s behaviour in the right direction. The goal that has the lowest probability of being achieved is military impairment (20%). Only slightly better is the success rate for disruption of military adventures (33%). The goal with the highest probability of achievement, the only one that is achieved more than half the time, is destabilisation (52%) (McGee 2003), and it is questionable whether destabilisation is a worthy goal of sanctions.

Since 2010, Iran has been the target of steadily escalating unilateral U.S. economic sanctions, in addition to the sanctions that have been imposed by the United Nations, EU, Japan South Korea and Canada. Several other countries including India were forced to reduce their imports of Iranian Oil(BBC News). The logic of all of these programs has been to gain leverage on Iran’s nuclear development program via the impoverishment of the Iranian civilian population. Rampant inflation, a currency in freefall, oil exports slashed and a brutal squeeze on the middle class have left the Iranian economy in shambles. Though commentators attribute the negotiations between the West and the moderate Rohani government over the nuclear programme to sanctions, fact remains that losers outnumber the gainers. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tehran has slammed the US sanctions on Iran, saying such sanctions have hindered the humanitarian support that Iran provides for the refugees inside the country. Iran is one of the global record-holders in hosting millions of refugees from neighboring countries for more than three decades. The punitive measures introduced against Iran by the US Department of the Treasury have limited the amount of humanitarian aid that can be transferred into Iran. The sanctions have also complicated efforts to provide shelter, food security, information and legal assistance, water and sanitation, and education to the refugees (Tasnim News Agency 2014).

The sanctions against Iraq have killed perhaps as many as 2 million Iraqis between the early 1990s, when they were first imposed, and April 2003 when they more or less ended. According to a 1995 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report almost half a million Iraqi children under the age of five have died as a result of the sanctions. The main cause of death was the lack of adequate medical supplies and malnutrition and the diseases that emanate from there(Crossette 1995). A major study by the American Association for World Health (AAWH 1997)found that the US embargo dramatically harmed the health and nutrition of a substantial segment of the Cuban population. The study documents a significant rise in suffering and even deaths. Members of the research team visited a paediatric ward that had gone 22 days without metoclopramide, a drug that prevents nausea for patients undergoing paediatric chemotherapy. Because the 35 children in the ward were deprived of the drug, they were each vomiting an average of 28 to 30 times a day (McGee 2003). One wonders how withholding the sale of such drugs is helping to overthrow the Castro regime.

The question that needs to be asked is ‘Is it worth it?’ In fact, Lesley Stahl, a commentator on60 Minutes, an American television programme, asked that very question of Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State under President Clinton in 1996 to which she replied- ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it’ (Hoft 2008).

Clearly, sanctions have tended to hit home against the ordinary people – the ruled – rather than against the rulers who are often the real target for pressure, yet the US stands firm on its pro-sanctions stand. Sanctions haven’t exactly served American interests either. According to the President’s Export Council (an American government council), the US has imposed more than 40 trade sanctions against about three-dozen countries since 1993.The council estimates that those sanctions cost American exporters $15 billion to $19 billion (Griswold 2012) in lost annual sales overseas in 1995 and caused long-term damage to US companies—lost market share and reputations abroad as unreliable suppliers (PEC 1997).

Even the recent sanctions against Russia will most likely prove ineffective (on account of the close economic ties amongst Russia, US and European Union) and will only end up hurting diplomatic ties. So what could be the cause of such stubbornness? Well, the US is in the grip of the Neoconservative ideology which has declared it to be the ‘exceptional, indispensable country’ chosen by history to exercise hegemony over all others. This ideology is buttressed by the Brzezinski and Wolfowitz doctrines (Roberts 2014)that are the basis of US foreign policy.

The Wolfowitz Doctrine (named after Paul Wolfowitz, a neoconservative intellectual who formulated US military and foreign policy doctrine) propounds that any other strong country is defined as a threat and a power hostile to the US regardless of how willing that country is to get along with the US for mutual benefit.

Zbigniew Brzezinski (an important US foreign policy advisor since President Jimmy Carter) has propounded that China and “a confederated Russia”(break up Russia into associations of semi-autonomous states whose politicians can be suborned by Washington’s money) will be part of a “transcontinental security framework,” managed by Washington in order to perpetuate the role of the US as the world’s only superpower (Roberts 2014).

With its hegemony challenged by emerging powers, America’s propensity to repeatedly impose unilateral economic sanctions as a substitute for the rigors of diplomacy may one day backfire completely. As the world learns more about America’s audacious attempts to undermine other nations’ sovereignty and more voices register their dissent, one can only hope that their leaders understand and respect changing power dynamics.


AAWH, The American Association for World Health. “Denial of Food and Medicine-The impact of the US embargo on health and nutrition in Cuba.” March 1997.

BBC News, Middle East. “Q&A: Iran sanctions.” BBC. January 20, 2014.

Crossette, Barbara. 1995. “Iraq Sanctions Kill Children, U.N. Reports.” The New York Times. December 1, 1995.

Griswold, Daniel. “Going Alone on Economic Sanctions Hurts U.S. More than Foes.” Cato Institute.

Hoft, Jim. “Madeleine Albright: “500,000 Dead Iraqi Children Was Worth It”.” Gateway Pundit. March 6, 2008.

Hufbauer, Schott & Elliott. “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered-Case Studies in Sanctions and Terrorism.” The Peterson Institute for International Economics. December 1990.

McGee, Robert W. “The Ethics of Economic Sanctions.” Institute of Economic Affairs (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford), 2003: 41-42.

PEC, The President’s Export Council. “Unilateral Economic Sanctions.” June 10, 1997.

Roberts, Paul Craig. “US hegemonic drive makes war with Russia/China inevitable.” PressTV.

“UNHCR: Anti-Iran Sanctions Affect Refugees.” Tasnim News Agency. June 28, 2014.

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