Chapter Eight: Successes and Failures of Sanctions and Embargoes

Successes and Failures

Sanctions and embargoes are pivotal tools in the arsenal of international diplomacy, serving as measures imposed by one or more countries against a targeted country, entity, or individual. Sanctions, which can be economic, trade, military, or diplomatic, are designed to coerce a change in policy or behavior by applying pressure through restrictions on trade, financial transactions, and other economic activities. Embargoes, a subset of sanctions, involve a total ban on trade with a specific country or the prohibition of certain goods and services. The primary purpose of these measures within international relations is to maintain or restore international peace and security, often implemented in response to violations of international laws or human rights abuses.

Sanctions and embargoes embody the principle of non-military intervention, offering a means to exert pressure without resorting to armed conflict. They are employed to signal disapproval, isolate offending nations or entities, and compel compliance with international standards. However, their implementation carries a dual nature: while they aim to uphold international norms and encourage positive change, they can also lead to unintended consequences. These may include humanitarian crises, where the civilian population of the targeted nation suffers from shortages of food, medicine, and essential goods, or the strengthening of authoritarian regimes, which can exploit the situation to consolidate power internally. Moreover, sanctions can inadvertently impact the economies of the imposing countries, leading to a complex web of economic and political repercussions. This dual nature highlights the intricate balance between achieving diplomatic objectives and minimizing adverse effects on innocent populations.

Successes of Sanctions

Case Study 1: South Africa (Apartheid Era)

During the apartheid era in South Africa, a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the National Party government from 1948 to 1994, the international community sought to exert pressure for change through a series of sanctions and embargoes. These measures were aimed at dismantling the apartheid regime, which denied fundamental rights to the majority black population and other non-white communities. The imposition of international sanctions against South Africa is a profound case study of how global diplomatic and economic pressures can be mobilized to support human rights and instigate political reform.

The sanctions against South Africa were multifaceted, including arms embargoes, economic sanctions, and cultural boycotts. Initiated in the 1960s with a United Nations arms embargo, the scope of sanctions broadened over the decades. By the 1980s, many countries, including the United States and members of the European Community, had imposed economic sanctions, which significantly impacted South Africa’s economy. These sanctions targeted key sectors such as mining, agriculture, and finance, leading to a sharp decline in foreign investment, a fall in the value of the South African rand, and a growth in political unrest within the country.

Cultural and sporting boycotts further isolated South Africa, highlighting its pariah status in the international community. These actions not only restricted South African teams from participating in international sporting events but also significantly reduced cultural exchanges, further tarnishing the country’s global image.

The impact of these sanctions was profound. Economically, they contributed to a recession and high inflation rates, exacerbating internal pressures on the apartheid government. Politically, the isolation fostered by sanctions and the global anti-apartheid movement bolstered the resolve of internal resistance movements, making it increasingly difficult for the apartheid regime to maintain its policies of racial segregation. These internal and external pressures culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the subsequent negotiation process leading to the end of apartheid, with democratic elections held in 1994.

The South African case underscores the potential of international sanctions to effect significant political change. However, it also highlights that the success of such measures depends on widespread international support and the resilience of internal opposition movements. The dismantling of apartheid through sanctions demonstrates how coordinated global action, rooted in a commitment to human rights and justice, can challenge and ultimately transform entrenched systems of oppression.

Case Study 2: Iran Nuclear Deal (2015)

The Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is a landmark example of how international sanctions can be leveraged to achieve significant diplomatic breakthroughs. Prior to the agreement, Iran faced a stringent regime of international sanctions imposed by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and other countries aimed at curtailing its nuclear program. These sanctions targeted various sectors, including the banking, oil, and gas industries, significantly impacting Iran’s economy by reducing its oil exports, limiting access to global financial systems, and causing a severe drop in the value of its currency.

The cumulative economic pressures exerted by these sanctions played a crucial role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. The JCPOA, reached between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany) along with the European Union, outlined a comprehensive plan for limiting Iran’s nuclear capability in exchange for lifting nuclear-related economic sanctions. This agreement was aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon while providing a framework for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium, limit its level of uranium enrichment, and grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) extensive monitoring and inspection rights to ensure compliance with the agreement. In return, a wide array of economic sanctions were lifted, allowing Iran to regain access to international oil markets, unfreeze billions of dollars in assets abroad, and reconnect with the global financial system. The impact of the JCPOA on Iran was immediate and significant.

The lifting of sanctions led to a surge in oil exports, improved economic growth, and increased foreign investment prospects. However, the deal also showcased the complexities of diplomacy and sanctions as international policy tools. While it demonstrated the potential of sanctions to bring about negotiated outcomes on critical security issues, the JCPOA also highlighted the challenges of maintaining consensus among international actors and the vulnerabilities of diplomatic agreements to shifting political landscapes, as evidenced by the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the deal in 2018. The Iran Nuclear Deal serves as a compelling case study of the power and limitations of sanctions in diplomacy, illustrating that while they can be effective in achieving negotiation outcomes, the sustainability of such agreements requires ongoing international cooperation and commitment.

Failures of Sanctions

Case Study 1: Cuba

The U.S. embargo on Cuba, initiated in 1960 and codified into law in 1992 with the Cuban Democracy Act and later expanded by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, represents one of the longest-standing examples of sanctions intended to induce political change. Aimed at isolating the Cuban government economically and diplomatically, the embargo sought to pressure Cuba into transitioning towards democracy and respecting human rights. The comprehensive sanctions have restricted trade, investment, and most forms of economic interaction with the island nation, aiming to weaken the communist regime led by Fidel Castro and, following his death, his brother Raúl Castro.

Despite these intentions, the embargo’s effectiveness in achieving its primary goal of political reform in Cuba has been limited. While it has undoubtedly contributed to economic difficulties, including shortages of goods and a significant impact on the standard of living for the Cuban population, the Cuban government has maintained its one-party system without substantial moves towards democratization. The resilience of Cuba’s political structure against external pressures highlights the complexities of using economic sanctions to promote political change.

Furthermore, the embargo has faced international criticism, with many arguing that it has harmed the Cuban populace more than the government itself. Annual resolutions by the United Nations General Assembly have called for its end, reflecting global consensus against the embargo. This case study underscores the limitations of long-term economic sanctions when not paired with constructive diplomatic engagement. It highlights the capacity of targeted states to adapt to and resist external economic pressures over extended periods.

Case Study 2: North Korea

North Korea presents a stark illustration of the challenges inherent in using sanctions to influence state behavior, particularly regarding non-proliferation and human rights. The international community, led by the United Nations Security Council, has imposed a series of stringent sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear tests and missile launches. These measures aim to restrict the flow of goods, technology, and financial resources that could support North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs alongside sanctions intended to address egregious human rights violations.

Despite the extensive sanctions regime, the impact on North Korea’s strategic calculations has been limited. The country has continued to develop its nuclear capabilities, conducting several nuclear tests and missile launches in defiance of international norms. Sanctions have undoubtedly strained North Korea’s economy, contributing to periods of significant hardship and exacerbating humanitarian concerns. However, the regime has developed sophisticated methods to evade sanctions, including illicit trade networks, cyber theft, and covert maritime transfers.

Support from key allies like China and Russia, through economic ties and political backing, has further enabled North Korea to mitigate the impact of sanctions. These relationships provide North Korea with economic lifelines and diplomatic cover, complicating efforts to apply uniform pressure.

This case study underscores the limitations of sanctions in compelling regime change or policy shifts in the absence of comprehensive international cooperation and engagement strategies. It highlights the need for a multifaceted approach that combines pressure with diplomatic outreach to address the complex security and humanitarian issues presented by North Korea. The persistence of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and human rights abuses despite sanctions illustrates the challenges of using economic measures alone to achieve strategic international objectives.


Sanctions reveal the intricate balance between coercing policy changes and unintended consequences. Their success hinges on precise targeting and broad international support, aiming to minimize harm to civilian populations while pressuring regimes. Effective sanctions require global cooperation to prevent circumvention and ensure uniform enforcement.

As history shows, when sanctions are comprehensive and well-supported, they hold the potential to catalyze significant political and economic reforms, underscoring their value as a tool for international diplomacy and policy enforcement.

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