In Box

Smart Sanctions: A Short History

How a blunt diplomatic tool morphed into the precision-guided measures we know today.

Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

As a blunt tool of diplomacy, the concept of sanctions has been around at least from the time of the ancient Greeks, when Athens imposed a trade embargo on its neighbor Megara in 432 B.C. Since then, there has been a long history of countries blockading their enemies to compel a change in behavior. But how did this tactic morph into today’s “targeted” or “smart” sanctions — measures such as arms embargoes, asset freezes, and travel bans on key individuals and organizations — now aimed at Iran and Syria? They may be more humane and high-tech than a flotilla at sea, but are sanctions any more effective today than they were 2,400 years ago? After all, Athens’s embargo didn’t cow Megara into submission — it helped trigger the Peloponnesian War.

In a series of conferences, European pacifists debate how the decisions of a proposed international system of arbitration would be enforced. Belgian international law professor Henri La Fontaine persuades delegates to endorse peaceful “sanctions,” borrowing a legal term that originated in the 17th century but had yet to permeate statecraft.

After World War I, French statesmen Léon Bourgeois and Paul Henri d’Estournelles de Constant call for a “society of nations” that could isolate a “recalcitrant nation” by applying sanctions — a “diplomatic expression,” they explain, “meaning the various steps for enforcing compliance.”

Promoting the League of Nations, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson advocates “absolute” boycotts, in which all citizens of an aggressor country would be unable to trade, communicate, or do business with League members.

Wilson’s theory flunks its first major test as League of Nations sanctions against Italy — defanged by British and French noncompliance — unsurprisingly fail to persuade Benito Mussolini to withdraw his troops from Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia).

U.S. trade sanctions against Japan contribute to Tokyo’s decision to enter World War II. Japanese Foreign Minister Teijiro Toyoda denounces “this ever-strengthening chain of encirclement” months before the Pearl Harbor attack.

The United Nations enshrines sanctions in its charter and centralizes the act of decision-making in the Security Council. But it will impose mandatory sanctions only twice — against white-minority governments in Rhodesia and South Africa — during the Cold War, when superpowers jockey for influence by adopting unilateral sanctions such as the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung assails the prevailing wisdom that sanctions should inflict maximum harm on a country’s economy, arguing that people adapt to the measures and may rally around their leaders. “The collective nature of economic sanctions makes them hit the innocent along with the guilty,” he observes.

International sanctions against apartheid are strengthened by a grassroots divestment campaign from civil society groups that withdraws some $20 billion from companies doing business in South Africa, placing unprecedented private pressure on the country’s government.

The Security Council, united by alarm over Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, imposescomprehensive sanctions” on Baghdad. The most powerful sanctions in history — intended to cripple Saddam Hussein’s regime and prevent the development of weapons of mass destruction — inspire sweeping measures against the former Yugoslavia and Haiti later in the decade.

Following Washington’s lead, the Security Council slaps financial sanctions on members of Haiti’s military junta — the first time it targets specific leaders rather than government assets. But U.N. action is erratic and sluggish, and U.S. officials make several blunders, at one point sanctioning a Haitian pastor when they intended to target a military lieutenant with the same name.

As evidence of the collateral damage inflicted by sanctions on Iraq mounts (a U.N. study — later discreditedestimates that more than half a million Iraqi children have died because of the embargo), the terms “smart” and “targeted” sanctions gain traction. In one of the first public references to the new lingo, British Ambassador David Hannay warns the United Nations not to “be seduced” by “smart sanctions” because “they are notoriously hard to enforce.” The Security Council, meanwhile, pokes its first hole in the sanctions regime against Iraq by establishing the Oil-for-Food Program, allowing Baghdad to sell oil in exchange for humanitarian goods.

The United Nations forges a template for targeted sanctions by aiming travel bans, asset freezes, and blood-diamond embargoes at the Angolan rebel group UNITA and empowering a committee and expert panel to monitor violations. “We will propose sanctions [in Angola] with no humanitarian consequences,” boasts Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s U.N. ambassador.

Weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the United Nations imposes unprecedented counterterrorism obligations on its 189 member states, mandating that they freeze the assets and restrict the movement of designated terrorists and their supporters — no easy task given that terrorist networks conduct many transactions in cash or through informal hawala money-transfer systems. U.S. President George W. Bush threatens to bar any foreign bank that refuses to freeze terrorists’ assets from doing business in the United States. Smart sanctions, says Bush aide Juan Zarate, go “on steroids.”

Two months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Security Council formally ends comprehensive sanctions against Baghdad. While the measures never curtailed Saddam’s WMD program enough to satisfy the Bush administration, they had, as political scientist Daniel Drezner wrote, “hung like a millstone around the practice of economic statecraft” for more than a decade.

The United Nations and United States lift targeted sanctions imposed on Libya in the 1980s and 1990s after leader Muammar al-Qaddafi renounces terrorism and dismantles his WMD program. Postmortems characterize sanctions as just one of several factors that swayed Qaddafi.

The United Nations raises human rights concerns about individuals who face targeted sanctions for alleged ties to terrorism but have little recourse to challenge the opaque decisions that land them on U.N. blacklists. (It’s not even easy, a panel chair says, to “get dead people off the list.”)

In response to a North Korean nuclear test, the Security Council rolls out a largely toothless embargo on Kim Jong Il’s favorite luxury goods, including Hennessy cognac and Rolex watches, in the first trade sanctions personally targeting a head of state.

U.S. Treasury Department official Stuart Levey meets with dozens of foreign banks to persuade them to comply with U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Targeted sanctions against Qaddafi and his associates during the Libyan uprising highlight the difficulty of freezing assets in the 21st century despite more sophisticated tactics and technology. Bank software struggles to recognize the numerous spellings of Qaddafi’s name, while state funds are intertwined with dirty cash and ownership is obscured by vague and elaborate offshore vehicles and trusts that prove difficult to unwind. The new Libyan government begins the thorny legal process of reclaiming Qaddafi’s estimated $200 billion in assets around the world after the leader’s death.

The United States and Europe impose their toughest sanctions yet on Iran — including an oil embargo and sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank — over its nuclear program, though countries like China resist such efforts. Nearly a year of targeted sanctions against Syria, meanwhile, fails to end a bloody crackdown on regime opponents. “They cannot isolate Syria,” President Bashar al-Assad declares. “We are not [an] oil-producing country. We are not like Iraq.”

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF