A peaceful alternative? Examining U.S. sanctions policy

Zachary Murray writes about the history of sanctions, the impacts, and what policy changes are needed.

Old red car parted outside block of residences.
What are sanctions?

Sanctions are penalties that countries and groups of countries impose with the aim of inflicting enough pain to force change. Sanctions can be placed against individuals (such as foreign officials accused of corruption), organizations (such as terrorist groups), sectors (such as an arms embargo, which prohibits the sale of weapons), or against entire nations, blocking most trade with a country. 

In 2023, 54 countries globally are impacted by sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, or the United Nations, according to a recent report from the Center for Economic and Political Research. Sanctions are often viewed as a nonviolent action; however, not unlike a military siege, the purpose of sanctions is to cut off essential supplies in order to force political leaders to give in to demands. 

Seven men gather around a desk.
MCC technician Ken Minoda, left, reviews plans for installing equipment in a soap factory in Kampuchea (now Cambodia) with government official Dee, standing, and members of the Ministry of Industry, in 1984. Cambodia’s recovery in the 1980s was crippled by sanctions imposed by the U.S. because of Vietnam’s occupation in the country. MCC photo/Bert Lobe
Sanctions have long history in U.S. foreign policy

In 1918 at the height of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson stated that, “A nation that is boycotted is a nation in sight of surrender.” Wilson believed that the practice of singling out countries deemed adversarial to U.S. national interests by economically isolating them was a “. . . peaceful, silent deadly remedy, and there will be no need for force.” As a chief architect of the League of Nations, Wilson helped to codify international sanctions policy in the League’s charter, which has similarities to UN sanctions policies today.

President Truman, in 1950, formalized sanctions policy under the U.S. Department of the Treasury and enacted a complete trade embargo of North Korea in response to the outbreak of the Korean War. While sanctions, embargoes and boycotts were used prior to this, it was the post-WWII environment and, in particular, the Korean War, that solidified this U.S. foreign policy tool. 

As the global economy became even more interconnected in the post-Cold war era, sanctions became a tool to economically starve groups the U.S. deemed an enemy or a threat. During the Gulf War in 1991, sanctions on Iraq led to significant shortages of medical supplies and daily necessities for ordinary people.

It was in the post-9/11 context, however, that the use of sanctions by U.S. administrations grew significantly. U.S. sanctions impacted five countries at the beginning of 2001, increasing to 21 countries by 2021— including more than 8,000 additional individuals and organizations.

Boxes and buckets in back of a container.
A container loaded with relief supplies at the Material Resources Center (MRC) in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. MCC photo/Rudi Niessen
Are sanctions effective?

In theory, sanctions work by inflicting pain that pressures nations, organizations or individuals to change their negative behavior. For example, U.S. sanctions against another country may prevent trade with entire industries or sectors—in extreme cases, by banning all commercial imports, exports and information exchange with the country. 

Does this isolation and economic hardship lead to policy change? The answer is unclear. In part, because the U.S. government does not measure the policy impacts of sanctions in a systematic way, nor does it measure the broad impacts of sanctions on the well-being of those living in sanctioned countries. 

U.S. policymakers regularly use the language of human rights as a basis for employing sanctions, but the reality is that sanctions are often used to contain enemies and retain U.S. dominance.

Are sanctions nonviolent?

Decades of strict U.S. sanctions have isolated countries like Cuba, the People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or, North Korea) and Iran. While wealthy elites find ways to evade sanctions, it is ordinary people who suffer from severely weakened economies and isolation from the rest of the world.

For those living in areas threatened by conflict or authoritarian rule, sanctions can be the difference between life and death, restricting access to food and medical supplies, and infrastructure materials for hospitals, schools and roads. 

Humanitarian organizations are also subject to sanctions. Sending basic items such as water filters or hygiene kits can require complicated,time-intensive exemptions from the U.S. government and the UN, limiting the amount of relief work that can be done.

Three people climb on a wind-mill powered waterpump.
MCC partner Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) helped repair water pumps, like the one pictured, and irrigation systems at farms in Cuba after Hurricane Irma in 2017. MCC photo/Bonnie Klassen
Policy solutions

Sanctions should be a last resort and never a first response. Isolation, more often than not, causes enormous hardship for ordinary people. Instead, U.S. policymakers should prioritize diplomacy and locally-led peacebuilding programs. 

When sanctions are used, they should be narrow, targeted, and have appropriate humanitarian exemptions. Exemptions should be broad enough to cover the activities and necessary services that humanitarian organizations rely on to do their work. 

In limited cases, sanctions against individual human rights violators can reduce their legitimacy and power. Care should be taken, however, to consider how even narrow sanctions might affect opportunities for diplomacy or have broader effects as political power shifts.

The potential impacts on vulnerable groups should always be considered when weighing whether and how to impose sanctions and the humanitarian and policy impacts of economic sanctions should be systematically measured.

Lastly, recognizing that sanctions can have unintended economic impacts on non-sanctioned countries, the U.S. should work in broad coalitions of countries when imposing sanctions, rather than acting alone. 

In significant ways, sanctions fail at their stated goals. Sanctions often detract from diplomacy and harm those most vulnerable. Additionally, sanctions have limited the ability for humanitarian organizations such as MCC to supply needed food and medicine, to help communities rebuild after violent conflict, and to be peacemakers and bridge-builders for a better future.

Read a case study on sanctions in Cuba.

Pray about sanctions using a worship guide.

Learn more about policy principles and statistics related to sanctions. 

Download First be reconciled: U.S. policy on sanctions (Peace & Justice Journal, Fall/Winter 2023)

Take action: Send a letter to the White House urging that Cuba be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation which complicates humanitarian aid efforts and impacts the most vulnerable in Cuba.