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date: 12 May 2021

Researching Modern Economic Sanctionsfree

  • Menevis CilizogluMenevis CilizogluPolitical Science, St. Olaf College
  •  and Bryan R. EarlyBryan R. EarlyPolitical Science, University at Albany, State University of New York


Economic sanctions are an integral part of states’ foreign policy repertoire. Increasingly, major powers and international organizations rely on sanctions to address an incredibly diverse array of issues—from fighting corruption to the prevention of nuclear weapons. How policy makers employ economic sanctions evolved over time, especially over the past two decades. The recognition of the adverse humanitarian impact of economic sanctions in the late 1990s and the “War on Terrorism” following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have led to major changes in the design and enforcement patterns of economic sanctions. Academics’ understanding of how these coercive tools work, when they are utilized, what consequences they create, and when they succeed are still heavily shaped by research findings based on observations from the latter half of the 20th century. Insights based on past sanctions episodes may not fully apply to how sanctions policies are being currently used.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the majority of sanctions cases were initiated by the United States, targeted governments, and involved restrictions on international trade. In the last two decades, however, additional actors, such as the European Union, the United Nations, and China, have emerged as major senders. Modern sanctions now most commonly involve targeted and financial sanctions and are imposed against individuals, organizations, and firms. The changing nature of the senders, targets, stakeholders, and economic tools associated with sanctions policies have important implications for their enforcement, effectiveness, and consequences. The legal-regulatory and bureaucratic infrastructure needed to implement and enforce modern economic sanctions has also become far more robust. This evolution of modern sanctions has provided the scholarly community with plenty of opportunities to explore new questions about economic coercion and revisit old ones. The research agenda on economic sanctions must evolve to remain relevant in understanding why and how modern sanctions are used and what their consequences are.


Many aspects of how great powers and international organizations use economic sanctions have fundamentally changed over the past two decades, but how scholars study them largely has not. The shift from imposing large, national-level sanctions to more targeted varieties that focus on individuals, organizations, firms, and economic sectors has empowered policy makers to use sanctions more prolifically, creatively, and—in some cases—successfully than ever before. While broadscale trade sanctions are still deployed in some cases, they may also be accompanied by sophisticated financial sanctions policies capable of cutting off targets from the international system. The increasing use of extraterritorial sanctions provisions and robust sanctions enforcement efforts on the part of the United States has created significant new risks and regulatory burdens for companies around the world. Modern economic sanctions policies also take many new forms that are not captured by existing data efforts nor do the same definitions of success necessarily apply to them either. The existing theories and methods used to study 20th-century economic sanctions appear insufficient for understanding modern variants.

Economic sanctions entail the threat or use of governmental policies designed to adversely affect the economic welfare of their targets in order to weaken them, stigmatize them, punish them, or compel a change in their behavior. Historically, the primary goal of economic coercion is most often to force targets into changing their behavior or weaken them (e.g., Hufbauer et al., 2007; Morgan et al., 2014). With the rise of targeted sanctions, however, policy makers have increasingly used sanctions for normative purposes (e.g., Biersteker et al., 2016; Giumelli, 2011) and as instruments of punishment that are not designed to actually alter their targets’ behavior (Rosenberg et al., 2016). While the impetus for encouraging policy makers to employ targeted sanctions instead of broad-scope sanctions was to reduce the adverse harms they inflict on innocent parties (Cortright & Lopez, 2002), their use has introduced new concerns about the costs they impose, how frequently they are employed, and apathy toward their removal once imposed. Some forms of targeted sanctions, such as financial sanctions, have been surprisingly effective (Drezner, 2015; Rosenberg et al., 2016), but others, like the arms embargoes and individually targeted measures imposed by the United Nations (UN), have been disappointingly ineffective at achieving their coercive goals and doing so more ethically than traditional sanctions (Biersteker et al., 2016; Early & Schulzke, 2019). While there is no singular breaking point for distinguishing a modern era of sanctions usage compared to more traditional uses of sanctions, the early 2000s can be used as an approximate breakpoint to distinguish when modern sanctions policies become more predominate. We identify two main drivers of change in sanctions practices: the widespread recognition of the adverse humanitarian effects of economic sanctions following the international sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s (e.g., Garfield, 1999) and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Our analysis begins by providing an overview of how economic coercion was employed during the latter half of the 20th century. Nearly all of the existing literature on economic coercion is based on analyzing data from this period, as only recently have new data resources with extensive coverage of the 21st century become available (Biersteker et al., 2016; Weber & Schneider, 2020). We then contrast that to the features of the modern forms of economic coercion utilizing targeted/smart sanctions as a potential remedy for humanitarian consequences of sanctions and new sanctioning authorities that began to be used as part of the “War on Terrorism.” The analysis highlights how these changes have altered policy makers’ incentives for using economic sanctions, how they use economic sanctions, the consequences sanctions entail, and how the success of sanctions should be defined. Modern economic sanctions appear to have changed in important ways from the preceding period—requiring the scholars to rethink and reanalyze much of the common wisdom about how economic coercion works. Scholars should place a greater emphasis on studying how specific senders like the United States, China, European Union (EU), and United Nations (UN) are employing sanctions to develop a better inductive understanding of how economic sanctions have changed. Ultimately, scholars need to be as flexible and innovative in how they study sanctions as policy makers have been in how they use them.

The Use of Economic Coercion in the Latter Half of the 20th Century

Using economic pressure to achieve political goals is not a modern phenomenon and has been a part of states’ foreign policy repertoires for centuries. Historical accounts detail economic sanctions predating modern times such as the ones imposed by Athens in 432 BC against the Greek city-states which refused to join the Athenian-led Delian League during the Peloponnesian War (Kern, 2009) or pacific blockades employed by major powers in the 19th century (Davis & Engerman, 2003).

However, sanctions have become a prevalent tool of coercive economic statecraft primarily in the post–World War II era. The Cold War dynamics have put economic sanctions at the forefront of states’ foreign policy repertoires, especially the United States’, as the most prolific sender of sanctions. Following the end of World War II through the end of the Cold War, there were 644 sanctions episodes, and in nearly half of these cases, the United States was the primary sender (Morgan et al., 2014).1 Leveraging a number of Export and Arms Export Acts, the Trading with the Enemy Act, as well as numerous executive actions, the U.S. government used economic sanctions frequently to punish military advances, territorial aggression and any form of alignments with the Soviet Union, to stop the transfer of arms and key technologies to the Soviet bloc, and to destabilize regimes friendly to the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, the United States also resorted to sanctions to promote human rights, democracy, liberal economy, and non-proliferation in line with the American grand strategy during the Cold War. Even if the U.S. government employed targeted financial sanctions and asset freezes in some cases, such as the sanctions imposed on Iran in 1979 in response to the hostage crisis, U.S. policymakers primarily used trade restrictions and embargoes in the pursuit of their political goals. The targets of sanctions regimes were also mostly governments or, to a lesser extent, militant groups.

The end of the Cold War led to changes in the patterns of economic sanctions. Coercion and extracting policy concessions were still the primary goals, but the number of episodes has increased, and sanctions have become more multilateral.2 The role of institutions such as the United Nations has grown after institutions were freed from Cold War constraints and the threat of great power vetos (Cortright & Lopez, 1995). With the end of the Cold War, sanctions became more likely to be mandated by the UN Security Council and more likely to be broad and comprehensive (Elliott, 2009). Use of financial sanctions and targeted efforts have also increased, while primary sanctioning tools remained to be trade restrictions. The post-Cold War years have also brought new challenges to the forefront of international politics, such as regional conflicts, civil wars, self-determination and independence movements, as well as human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. These new challenges also necessitated coercive responses, and sanctions became the default response for many foreign policy challenges.

The popularity of economic sanctions in the post-World War II era through the early 2000s was partly driven by the optimism about how economic sanctions are an effective middle ground between diplomacy and military action (Selden, 1999) and how sanctions allow international crises to be addressed in a peaceful manner and is an alternative to war (Helms, 1999). According to the logic of “compellence” via sanctions, senders aim to create sufficient economic costs on the targeted actor such that sanctions relief is preferred over the continuation of the policy that initially triggered sanctions (Galtung, 1967; Nephew, 2017; Renwick, 1981). This theory equating economic pain to political gain is supported by a number of empirical studies in the literature (Bapat et al., 2013; Drury, 1998; Hufbauer et al., 2007), even if there are different accounts about the mechanisms through which economic pain in the target country is expected to create political gain for the sender country.

Sanctions imposed in the 1945–2000 period primarily created economic costs for the population of the target country, rather than the decision-makers or the elites. In other words, the mechanism through which sanctions were often designed to work was a bottom-up process. The society, burdened by the economic costs, was expected to withdraw support from their government and their policies (Marinov, 2005; McGilivray & Stam, 2004). This was expected to force the target governments’ hands into complying with the demands of the sender, assuming that the primary driver of leaders is to stay in power (Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2003).

However, the optimism around the coercive use of economic sanctions as a nonviolent and peaceful tool of economic statecraft gave way to substantial skepticism over time. First, it has become evident that sanctions often fail to create the desired bottom-up effect, weaken the target government’s leadership, and extract policy concessions. Research on sanctions imposed in the 1945-2005 period manifested the difficulty of creating the desired domestic circumstances conducive to policy concessions. The impact sanctions can have on the survival chances of the targeted leadership was found to depend on the political institutions in the country (Allen, 2005, 2008) and the nature of support for the leader, as well as the policy in question (Escribà-Folch & Wright, 2010). Additionally, a number of studies demonstrated that sanctions do not only fail to create the desired political effects in target countries, but also lead to externalities that actively weaken the sanctions regime. For instance, Grauvogel & Von Soest (2014) show that sanctions can give leaders the much-needed ammunition to employ legitimation and blaming tactics and boost the public support they enjoy. Examples of how sanctions strengthen leaders, instead of weakening them, and increase the public support for the policy in question, rather than decreasing it abound (Frye, 2019; Grossman et al., 2018).

It has also become evident that sanctions are not inherently nonviolent and peaceful, but on the contrary, they can create substantial harm, suffering, and even casualties. Sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s have been particularly noteworthy for sanctions scholars and policy makers alike. In an influential and eye-opening piece, Garfield (1999) linked sanctions to up to 227,000 deaths among young Iraqi children between the years 1991 and 1998. This has revealed that sanctions can be as deadly as militarized conflicts or even weapons of mass destruction (Mueller & Mueller, 1999), rather than being a nonviolent tool of economic statecraft. Even in cases where sanctions are not linked to casualties in target countries, numerous research findings have demonstrated that they create significant humanitarian consequences and routinely lead to the suffering of innocent people (Peksen, 2009). Attempts to weaken the target government inevitably shorten their leaders’ perceived time horizons in office and trigger reactions to ensure their survival. Therefore, sanctions are found to increase the use of repression by authoritarian leaders to minimize protest behavior (Wood, 2008) as well as increase political violence (Lektzian & Regan, 2016; Peksen & Drury, 2010). Women and minorities are disproportionally impacted by these externalities (Drury & Peksen, 2014). Overall, targets’ quality of democracy is likely to be depleted under sanctions, which does not only create additional unintended humanitarian and political consequences but is also against the sanctioning goals of most prolific senders.

Sanctions also have a significant negative impact on public health and societal well-being in target countries. Economic sanctions force target governments to reallocate their budget resources such that sanctions will fail to generate political cost for the leadership and weaken them. This reallocation often leads to cuts from public health spending (Kokabisaghi, 2018; Peksen, 2011), creating consequences that are substantively similar to those associated with major military conflicts (Allen & Lektzian, 2013). These public health related consequences can also continue to impact the targeted society even after sanctions are lifted. Gutmann et al. (2020) show that an average episode of UN sanctions reduced life expectancy by about 1.2–1.4 years in the target country. Similarly, McLean and Whang (2019) find that economic sanctions lead to reduced disaster preparedness spending, which results in preventable human losses by natural disasters in target countries. In line with these scholarly findings, many rights advocates have pointed out how countries targeted with economic sanctions are disproportionally being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and called for easing of sanctions to enable targets’ access to essential resources in the fight against the novel coronavirus (see Human Rights Watch, 2020a, 2020b, for HRW’s call to ease U.S. sanctions on Iran and Venezuela, respectively).

Moreover, research has shown that 20th-century sanctions fail more often than they succeed. Examination of sanctions imposed between 1945 and 2000 reveals that the success rate of sanctions is only 36% (Morgan et al., 2014, p. 546).3 One of the main reasons why sanctions do not have a higher success rate is their inability to inflict substantial economic cost on the target economy. Targets can adjust their economies to shield themselves from the costs of economic sanctions. They can find alternate trade partners who are politically or economically motivated (Early, 2015; McLean & Whang, 2010), resort to domestic or international financing (Cilizoglu & Bapat, 2020; Dom & Roger, 2020) or bolster their domestic and international black-market activities (Andreas, 2005; Early & Peksen, 2019). Target governments and third parties are not the only actors responsible for the low success rates of sanctions. Senders’ policies are also important determinants of whether sanctions will work. Senders do not always prioritize sanctions success when they are choosing to impose economic sanctions on an adversary but aim to signal dissatisfaction and resolve to their domestic and international audiences (Drury, 2001; Webb, 2018; Whang, 2011). These symbolic sanctions might be doomed to fail, since they are not necessarily designed to succeed in the first place. But for most sanctions imposed for the purposes of coercion, intimidation and extracting policy concessions, monitoring the compliance of domestic and foreign firms and enforcing sanctions regimes have been a major challenge (Bapat & Kwon, 2015; Early, 2016; Morgan & Bapat, 2003), even for senders that allocate significant amount of resources on monitoring and sanctions enforcement programs, such as the United States. Without strong enforcement programs, senders often fail to obtain compliance from their domestic firms and third-party sanctions-busters (Early, 2015).

Taken together, significant humanitarian and political harm sanctions inflict on innocent populations in target countries and their poor track record have led scholars and policy makers to vocally criticize the use of economic sanctions as a default reaction to international disagreement and to call for reimagining economic sanctions at the turn of the century (Cortright & Lopez, 2000; Haas, 1997). During that time, the optimism about sanctions as a panacea for international challenges has faded. Consequently, policy makers have faced substantial criticism for employing such blunt coercive tools that inflict harm on innocent people to achieve political goals. Many have argued that the use of economic sanctions is amoral and unethical (Marinov & Nili, 2015; Pierce, 1996; Winkler, 1999) and called for reform with an eye toward minimizing adverse consequences while maximizing the effectiveness of sanctions. By the century’s end, a new consensus had coalesced against the use of broad-scope trade sanctions like those used by the UN against Iraq.

The Tools of Modern Economic Coercion

How global policy makers leveraged economic sanctions changed significantly at the turn of the century—both in terms of the tools used to sanction parties and their targets. National governments and international bodies innovated with new sanctions alternatives to broad-scope trade sanctions. Via the “Interlaken Process” from 1998–1999, for example, academics and policy maker explored how the UN Security Council could make more effective use of targeted financial sanctions (Targeted Financial Sanctions, 2001). The movement to promote the use of targeted (“smart”) sanctions in the early 2000s (e.g., Cortright & Lopez, 2002; Drezner, 2011) also coincided with a new set of authorities and initiatives created to counter the financing of terrorism following the September 11, 2001 attacks (Zarate, 2013). For the United States, the synthesis of these efforts was creation of sanctions policies that looked very different than 20th-century variations, targeting individuals and organizations more than governments, focusing more heavily on the imposition of financial restrictions, and backed by more robust enforcement efforts. At the international level, the UN Security Council and EU converted over to the use of targeted sanctions policies almost exclusively since the early 2000s (Biersteker et al., 2016; Giumelli, 2015). At the UN, for example, counter-terrorism sanctions have empowered bodies like UN Security Council Committee 1267 to impose sanctions restrictions on individuals that apply wherever they are in the world (de Goede, 2011, p. 500). While sanctions still continue to be imposed against governments and target trade flows, only examining those types of cases overlooks the substantial efforts that governments have invested in newer targeted sanctions policies. Changes in the form and function of economic sanctions have, in turn, altered how policy makers use the tools of economic statecraft and at least some of the effects that they have. Given these changes, many of approaches and theoretical frameworks for understanding 20th-century sanctions policies may no longer apply to understanding contemporary economic sanctions (Drezner, 2015; Early & Cilizoglu, 2020; Morgan et al., 2020).

Changes in the Imposition of Sanctions Policies

One of the major changes in modern sanctions policies is that the rise of targeted sanctions policies has made imposing sanctions far cheaper and easier. The definition of what measures constitute targeted sanctions vary somewhat, with some including measures focusing on individuals, non-governmental organizations, or specific government agencies to those also that include broader sector-specific restrictions on entire countries—such as arms embargoes or financial sanctions (Portela, 2014). The more narrowly focused form of targeted sanctions comprises the category of sanctions policies that are most different from most 20th-century sanctions policies and that have become far more prevalent in the past two decades.

Figure 1 depicts a comparison of the targeted sanctions designations imposed by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) compared to the national-level sanctions imposed by the United States from 2001–2019. As Figure 1 illustrates, the United States normally has only imposed national-level sanctions a handful of times per year (with 2003 as the exception) since 2001. By contrast, OFAC makes at minimum several hundred targeted sanctions designations per year that are not captured by the national-level measure. If scholars only pay attention to the sanctions imposed against governments, they will miss a significant portion of the sanctions activity taking place in the international system. Yet, the standard practice with the sanctions literature is to ignore the targeted sanctions policies and only focus on the national-level sanctions that the United States imposes. While the UN Targeted Sanctions data set compiled by Biersteker et al. (2016) provides granular data at the episode level, even that unique resource does not track individual- and entity-level designations. As such, a lot remains unknown about the causes, consequences, and outcomes of individually targeted sanctions.

Figure 1. U.S. national sanctions versus targeted sanctions designations by OFAC.

Note: The data for this figure were obtained from Gibson Dunn and Crutcher (2020) and Weber and Schneider (2020).

The marginal costs of imposing targeted sanctions imposing restrictions on individuals and/or organizations tend not to be very high. There are exceptions to this, such as the sanctions the United States imposed against the Russian company Rusal in 2018 that caused turmoil in global aluminum market. Generally, though, targeted sanctions against individual firms or organizations do not create market disruptions that have nearly the same magnitude of effects as more comprehensive forms of sanctions. This diminishes the thresholds that previously constrained senders from employing sanctions as actively, given that such considerations may limit the pain they wanted to inflict on their own constituents as part of sanctioning efforts (Early & Schulzke, 2019). The diplomatic fallout of targeted sanctions is also weaker than that of broad sanctions, as both the stigma and adverse consequence of the sanctions are more focused on their individual targets as opposed to entire governments/populations. For policy makers, the use of targeted sanctions creates few perceived downsides to adopting a “sanction first, ask questions later” approach to foreign policy problems for which coercive responses are an option. Targeted sanctions allow policy makers to demonstrate that they are “doing something,” even if the nature of those responses is more symbolic than actually capable of helping to resolve the problem (Biersteker et al., 2016). While policy makers previously used sanctions for similar domestic purposes during the 20th Century (e.g., Whang, 2011), this became even cheaper and easier to do with targeted financial sanctions than broad-scope trade sanctions.

The ways in which parties subject to economic sanctions are selected and how the sanctions against them are managed have also changed. Rather than the targets of sanctions being directly identified by sanctions legislation, executive orders, or UN Security Council Resolutions, the authority to impose sanctions on individuals and organizations has increasingly been delegated to bureaucratic agencies. For example, the United States’ Global Magnitsky (2016) legislation and E.O. 13818 (2007) delegate authority to the U.S. Departments of Treasury and State to identify and impose sanctions on individuals engaged in significant human rights abuses and corruption. At the United Nations, sanctions committees are delegated responsibility for overseeing the lists of target entities subject to UN Security Council Sanctions Resolutions. This means that a potential sanctions target does not have to first gain the attention of policy makers at the highest levels of governments in order to be subject to sanctions. The delegation of sanctioning responsibilities to bureaucratic authorities makes it far easier for new parties to be added to sanctions lists.

The reasons for which targeted sanctions are imposed may also differ from those imposed against governments, with implications for evaluating what constitutes “success” and how long they can be expected to last. The use of targeted sanctions against individuals and organizations differ substantively from state-focused sanctioning efforts because many of them are designed to punish rather to coerce. As Rosenberg et al. (2016, p. 6) surmise, “the distinctions between sanctions designed to compel and sanctions designed to deny or contain do not cleanly map onto the distinction between sanctions targeting states versus non-state actors.” In the case of counter-terrorism sanctions for example, the sanctions are designed to impose costs on individual terrorists, terrorist organizations, and their supporters to weaken them and make it harder for them to act. The measures are also intended to impose a stigma and hardships on those actors for their behaviors, both to make them suffer and to serve as a potential deterrent to others. In some cases, for example, the U.S. government relied on sensitive intelligence as its motivation for sanctioning particular targets that it kept private. As such, it can be difficult—if not almost impossible—for some sanctioned individuals and entities to know what behavioral changes can get themselves removed from sanctions lists. In such cases, compellence cannot be achieved because actors have no way of knowing what acts of compliance will lead to the measures’ removal. While justifying that type of open-ended sanctions against a fellow government may be politically costly (e.g., the U.S. sanctions against Cuba), individuals and entities subject to such sanctions have few recourses.

The Form and Functionality of Modern Sanctions

The ways in which modern economic sanctions are designed requires different forms of implementation and creates new challenges in trying to obtain the compliance of private sector actors responsible for implementing them. Whereas 20th-century sanctions were blunt instruments that tended to restrict commerce at the national level or instead affected entire sectors of a target’s economy, modern economic sanctions often specify individual actors or entities or may be designed to affect particular types of transactions. The increasing complexity and sophistication in way modern sanctions are designed (Bapat et al., 2020) means that governments must make increasingly robust investments in implementing and enforcing sanctions and the private sector must make larger investments in managing their compliance with them.

Economic sanctions that seek to disrupt commercial relations are not self-implementing: they require private sector actors to implement their provisions in order for them to work. One of the criticisms of older forms of trade-based sanctions was that their effectiveness was substantially diminished by the sanctions-busting activities of parties that refused to comply with them (Early, 2015). Recognizing this problem, senders like the U.S. government have both sought to design targeted sanctions that are more difficult to evade and increasingly invested in implementation and enforcement programs designed to promote sanctions compliance. On behalf of the United States, OFAC has emerged as a powerful international regulatory body that monitors compliance with U.S. sanctions and imposes civil penalties on violators. It is empowered to impose massive penalties against sanctions violators, including foreign firms that violate extraterritorial sanctions provisions. While initial research into OFAC’s enforcement strategies have evolved to increase their effectiveness over time (Early & Preble, 2020a, 2020b; Rosenberg & Tama, 2019), more research is needed to understand how enforcement efforts affect sanctions compliance and how that, in turn, influences sanctions success.

Another reason that governments and international bodies have had to make more robust investments in sanctions compliance is due to the complexity of managing sanctions portfolios. The growth in the number of countries that are subject to national-level sanctions and the sheer number of individuals and entities that are subject to sanctions wherever they are in the world requires a bureaucratic infrastructure in order to manage. OFAC is responsible for managing the United States’ list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List, updating the lists sometimes multiple times a month. Similarly, the EU maintains its own “Consolidated List of Persons, Groups, and Entities Subject to EU Financial Sanctions,” the UN has its “United Nations Security Council Consolidated Sanctions List,” and Japan has its “Economic Sanctions and Target List.” Managing additions to and removals from these lists that have hundreds of individual entries requires a greater investment of resources to oversee effectively. Given the sheer volume of the number of parties being sanctioned, it can become an overwhelming challenge to keep sanctions policies from becoming a “convoluted” morass (Fishman, 2020).

The burdens that modern economic sanctions create on the private sector have grown far larger than preceding eras. Part of how governments have managed the increasing challenges associated with implementing modern sanctions is by transferring the burden over to companies—much to their chagrin (Arnold, 2016). By far, U.S. sanctions policies backed by robust enforcement efforts and extraterritorial provisions have created the largest set of compliance obligations on the private sector. While extraterritorial and secondary sanctions were employed on a limited basis during the 20th century (Rodman, 2001; Shambaugh, 1999), the scope, ambition, and enforcement efforts supporting their use by the United States in the 2000s goes way beyond previous eras. Twenty-first-century U.S. sanctions require companies to make substantial investments in sanctions compliances, lest they run the risk of running afoul of OFAC and facing significant penalties (Early & Preble, 2020a). It is not sufficient for companies simply to refrain from trading with sanctioned governments like North Korea or Iran, they must also ensure that they are not doing business directly with any parties on the U.S. SDN List or entities they own a controlling stake in wherever in the world they may be. This means that modern economic sanctions impose secondary costs in terms of the regulatory burdens they create for the private sector. The compliance burden is especially high for financial institutions, who have to screen high volumes of transactions to ensure they are not doing business with sanctioned individuals or entities (Deloitte, 2009). Whereas the marginal costs associated with any given individual or entity being sanctioned are small, the aggregate costs of managing compliance with sanctions imposed against long lists of individual parties are substantial. Indeed, a cottage industry has grown up around helping firms comply with U.S. sanctions obligations (Early & Preble, 2020a).

A final challenge associated with studying modern economic sanctions is that nontraditional policy instruments are being used like sanctions. In the United States, for example, policy instruments created to address the problems posed by money laundering have been applied for foreign policy purposes. Section 311of the USA Patriot Act authorizes the U.S. Department of Treasury to designate countries and entities as posing money-laundering risks—effectively blacklisting them from being able to do business with U.S. financial institutions. Arnold (2019, pp. 60–65) explains how policy makers have increasingly leveraged Section 311 authorities as a form of “non-sanction sanction.” The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has also exploited its economic clout in targeted ways against individuals and organizations that are critical of it in ways that may not count as traditional sanctions. In response to members of the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) criticizing the PRC over its response to protests in Hong Kong in 2019, China suspended the NBA’s ability to broadcast games in the country. The intent of this action was to compel the NBA to retract its criticisms or at least remain silent on the issue in the future, even though the action did not involve the typical form or function that economic sanctions take (Kharpal, 2019).

Success, Symbolism, and Suffering: The Consequences of Modern Sanctions

Although some financial sanctions have proven to be surprisingly successful, other forms of targeted sanctions seem to work only at inflicting stigma and suffering as opposed to achieving instrumental objectives. In Weber and Schneider’s (2020) combined data set of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, UN, and EU, their aggregate success rate was 37.6% from 2001–2015. Looking at U.S. sanctions specifically, Rosenberg et al. (2016) conclude that U.S. sanctioning efforts since the mid-2000s were surprisingly effective relative to preceding eras. The data from both studies suggest that the success rate of modern economic sanctions is higher than the success rate of sanctions episodes from the 20th century (e.g., Hufbauer et al., 2007). Rosenberg et al. (2016) ascribe this effect to the United States’ increasing reliance on financial sanctions, leveraging U.S. dominance within the international financial realm.4 In their study of the UN’s targeted sanctions, however, Biersteker et al. (2016, p. 32) find that the UN’s sanctions succeeded in realizing their instrumental objectives less than 10% of the time. The UN targeted sanctions appear to achieve their symbolic goals 27% of the time.5 Notably, the UN’s sanctions tended to involve either limited sectoral sanctions, such as arms embargos, or involved more limited individual sanctions like travel bans and asset freezes (Biersteker et al., 2016, p. 26). Together, these findings suggest that financial sanctions constitute an especially effective form of targeted sanctions when leveraged by economically dominant states like the United States, but other forms of targeted sanctions are far less effective at compelling changes in their targets’ behavior. Although non-financial targeted sanctions can send signals about particular norms, it is not clear how much more effective such acts are compared to the use of non-coercive diplomacy.

Whereas measures of success exist at the national level, scholars have yet to explore how effective targeted sanctions are at influencing non-state targets. Being placed on the U.S. government’s SDN list constitutes the global business equivalent of the “Scarlett Letter”—causing individuals and entities on the list to be shunned by any firms that have any U.S. ties or business connections. Clearly, being subject to these sanctions can have a harmful economic impact on many of their targets, but it’s not clear how much they make targets change their behaviors in beneficial ways. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to get removed from the U.S. SDN list even if the relevant behavior demonstrably improves. This suggests that sanctions imposed against individuals and entities are more about inflicting punishments and creating a broader deterrent effect than actually compelling changes in their targets’ behavior. This makes it much harder to evaluate what such policies achieve, if inflicting harm is the primary goal unto itself.

Beyond what modern economic sanctions directly accomplish, a driver of the targeted sanctions movement in the early 2000s was to make sanctioning efforts more humane by reducing their adverse consequences on civilian populations. Taking stock of the comparative ethics of using traditional sanctions versus targeted sanctions using just war theory, Early and Schulzke (2019) find that targeted sanctions do not appear to be much more ethical—they just make a different set of tradeoffs than traditional sanctions do. Their findings show that many of the adverse social, political, and economic side effects associated with traditional sanctions are also associated with national-level forms of targeted sanctions (also see Biersteker et al., 2016, p. 29). Financial sanctions, in particular, can have just as devastating effects on their targets’ economies as broad-based trade sanctions.

All this suggests that policy makers have developed types of economic sanctions that are more effective at achieving their instrumental goals, but they have also increasingly adopted forms of targeted sanctions that appear to have none beyond the punishments they inflict. In order to understand the aggregate success of sender’s sanctions policies, it is increasingly necessary to study both their use against states and non-state actors. Traditional ways of operationalizing success for sanctions imposed against state targets do not apply to non-state actors as well, suggesting that further theory-building efforts are needed in this area. Modern forms of economic sanctions also do not appear to represent a more ethical version of coercion than their predecessors despite being marketed as such.

Implications for the Study of Economic Coercion

A significant divide has emerged between how policy makers use modern sanctions compared to the theories, data, and methods that scholars use to study economic sanctions. Most of the existing large-n quantitative studies that seek to understand why sanctions are threatened or imposed, what the consequences of their use are, and what explains their degree of success come from 20th-century sanctions cases in which governments are the targets of sanctioning efforts. Many existing explanations for how sanctions work will not be as effective at explaining modern sanctions policies that predominately target non-state actors. The amount of variation in terms of what constitutes modern sanctions policies also make them difficult to study. It is also unclear whether the sanctions employed by individual governments versus international bodies like the EU and UN are conceptually equivalent to one another. Answering the same fundamental questions about the use of targeted sanctions measures that exist for national-level sanctions may thus require a completely new set of theories, data, and approaches, and it will likely be harder to arrive at universal conclusions about them.

There are some potential options for reconciling older approaches for studying sanctions with new forms of sanctions. For example, the Targeted Sanctions Consortium’s data set of the UN Security Council Sanctions continues to employ national-level sanctions episodes as its unit of analysis (Biersteker et al., 2016). The creators focus on the attributes of the overarching sanctions episodes and their goals, rather than focusing on the individual applications of targeted sanctions that may be a part of each episode. Following this approach would emphasize ways of reconceptualizing modern sanctions so that they fit traditional theories and methods of analysis that are meant to be universally applicable. Yet, this approach would not work if one wanted to study the effectiveness of the United States’ Global Magnitsky sanctions that involves targeting individual corrupt actors and human rights abusers around the world. For those sanctions, understand that variation in the individual outcomes of targeted sanction measures is more interesting and valuable than evaluating the sanctions legislation at solely an aggregate level.

An alternative pathway for future scholarship is to refocus the study of sanctions from an emphasis on the nature of their targets to instead focus on the sanctioning policies of senders. Rather than focusing on developing general frameworks to explain how all national-level or targeted sanctions policies work, this approach emphasizes understanding how major senders, such as the United States, EU, UN, and China, employ a mixture of sanctions policies. This approach also recognizes that there are fundamental differences in the form, function, and force of sanctions policies deployed by the United States, EU, UN, and China. It emphasizes understanding “non-sanction sanctions” policies (Arnold, 2019), other forms of informal economic coercion, and how those efforts may complement traditional sanctions approaches. It would also allow scholars to invest in developing more in-depth understanding into the role played by sanctions implementation and enforcement in shaping senders’ sanctions policies. Finally, this approach would encourage tailored data collection efforts that emphasize a holistic approach to understanding how individual senders are employing sanctions policies. Although this approach would potentially yield less “generalizable” knowledge about sanctions, there could be significant gains in terms of the descriptive accuracy of sender-specific theories, their empirical validity, and their policy relevance.

Advocating that a field of study become less generalizable may appear counterproductive, but this movement has already begun as the study of leading sanctioners have already developed subfields of study. Many sanctions studies already focus exclusively on the United States’ use of economic sanctions, given that it relies on economic sanctions more than any other country (Early, 2015; Early & Preble, 2020b; Nephew, 2017). Other scholars have begun focusing specifically on the EU’s sanctions policies (Giumelli, 2011, 2017; Portela, 2014) or UN Security Council sanctions (Biersteker et al., 2016; Giumelli, 2015; Wallensteen & Grusell, 2012). Last, China has begun to receive an increasing amount of attention for its use of economic coercion, such as its restriction of rare earth metal exports and its creative economic punishments against states and non-state actors that criticize it (e.g., Kolstad, 2020; Norris, 2016). By focusing on specific senders, scholars can improve their understanding of the roles played by how and why economic sanctions are used, how they are implemented and enforced, and the strategies behind their use.

A field that emphasizes comparatively analyzing different senders need not be siloed nor eschew the pursuit of broader insights—there will still be a strong need for theoretical and empirical efforts that seek to identify and explain generalizable trends and inferences. Indeed, the proposed strategy will hopefully provide the foundations for inductively developing new generalizable theories about how states and international organizations utilize the modern tools of economic coercion in the future. The academic community that studies economic sanctions may become irrelevant if it cannot adapt to how economic sanctions have changed. Further research into how senders’ use of sanctions has evolved will ultimately allow the field to follow suit.


Economic sanctions have been and continue to remain an indispensable part of foreign policymaking despite criticisms over their humanitarian impact and success rate. The design of sanctions policies has evolved over time to address these criticisms in an effort to minimize humanitarian costs while maximizing their success. First, in the 21st century, individuals, private firms, entities, and sectors are targeted with economic sanctions much more frequently than entire states. This also has led sender governments to identify more low-level issues in which sanctions may be used, making imposing sanctions far cheaper and easier. Second, many targeted sanctions appear to be designed to punish their targets rather than coercing them into a behavioral change. Third, modern sanctions are much more demanding to implement, comply with, and enforce than the broad-based trade sanctions that were more commonly applied in the 20th century. Sender governments must invest in managing expansive sanctions lists and monitor whether both domestic and, in some cases, foreign firms are complying with them. To comply with targeted sanctions, firms must invest in robust compliance programs that ensure that none of their transactions run afoul of either national-level or individual-level sanctions. And finally, senders have developed new forms of nontraditional sanctions policies (e.g., Arnold, 2019) that would not be captured under existing operational definitions used to code for the presence of sanctions in many existing data sets. In sum, the ways that senders employ modern sanctions have undergone fundamental changes and the way that scholars study them need to change as well.

Most of the existing theories that shape academics’ understanding of how sanctions work are based on 20th-century sanctions cases that are very different from the form, function, and targets associated with modern sanctions policies. This evolution in policymaking has provided the scholarly community with plenty of opportunities to ask and answer new questions. Scholars of economic statecraft have yet to systematically explore the effectiveness of modern targeted sanctions policies; their impact on global trade, investment, and finance; and indirect consequences.

The analysis in this article gives rise to numerous paths forward in sanctions research. The dearth of data on modern sanctions policies constitutes a major challenge to their study (Morgan et al., 2020). For example, the most commonly used data sets within academia (Hufbauer et al., 2007; Morgan et al., 2014) are not appropriate for studying targeted sanctions. New sources of data for studying modern sanctions are necessary, but they need not take the same form as previous efforts. As a potentially more feasible and fitting alternative, the authors of this article recommend a research agenda focused on the sanctioning policies of senders instead of immediately trying to generalize about how all targeted sanctions would work. This approach would recognize that there are fundamental differences in the form, function, and force of sanctions policies deployed by the United States, UN, EU, China, and others. The Targeted Sanctions Consortium’s data collection effort for the UN Security Council sanctions represents a useful model in that regard (Biersteker et al., 2016). Collecting data on and developing a more in-depth understanding of how different sanctioners utilize modern sanctions will allow sanctions scholars to create a strong foundation of knowledge from which inductive, generalizable theories can eventually be built. To study modern sanctions, the academics can learn from the strategies that yielded valuable insights about 20th-century sanctions, but they need not be constrained by the same approaches.

Further Reading


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  • 1. U.S. sanctions include cases where the United States is the sole sender or leads a multilateral sanctioning effort with other countries or through an international organization.

  • 2. Earlier research examining Cold War sanctions has shown that unilateral sanctions are more effective than multilateral ones (Hufbauer et al., 1990; Miers & Morgan, 2002). With the advancement in data and the field’s understanding of how sanctions work, more recent work has shown that multilateral sanctions have a higher rate of success than unilateral ones (Bapat & Morgan, 2009). This insight has also shaped sanctions policymaking.

  • 3. This assumes that successful cases are ones that end with partial or full target concessions or a negotiated settlement.

  • 4. Shagabutdinova and Berejikian (2007) find that financial sanctions were also more effective when used during the 20th century as well.

  • 5. Note, the Biersteker et al. (2016) data on targeted sanctions extends from 1991–2015, but authors largely consider the UN’s use of targeted sanctions to be analytically similar, and most of the targeted sanctions observations are from after 2000.