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What Are Sanctions—and Do They Work?

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Research Associate Ethan Kessler explains the benefits and drawbacks of what’s become a major US foreign policy tool.
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The West slapped broad sanctions on Russia over a year ago in response to its invasion of Ukraine. But what are sanctions, and do they really work? Here’s what you should know. 

The West slapped broad sanctions on Russia a year ago in response to its invasion of Ukraine. We've been using sanctions for a long time now. But do they really work?

Let's start with the basics. A sanction is any economic or diplomatic action short of war that
punishes another country, group, or person. When a country bans certain imports or exports with another party, that’s a sanction. When a country embargoes all trade with another party, that’s also a sanction.

Sanctions can hurt their targets by cutting them off from trade and freezing their US-held assets. The US can also go further by sanctioning banks that continue trading with sanctioned parties.

Sanctions can work if they have buy-in from other major countries. In the 1980s, Western sanctions on South Africa isolated its economy, reducing domestic support for the apartheid regime, which soon fell.

Similarly, in the '90s, US-led sanctions successfully weakened Iraq because other powerful countries joined in. But the Iraqi people suffered as a result, and global support for the sanctions dropped.

Now, if sanctions target a country or group that can turn to outside help, they will be less effective. For example, US sanctions on North Korea have not kept it from building nuclear weapons because China has helped it acquire money, fuel, and other goods.

Overall, sanctions may be less effective going forward. As China’s economy continues to grow, it’ll be able to help other countries weather Western sanctions, just like it’s done for North Korea and now Russia.

But sanctions on specific products and industries dominated by the US and its allies will likely remain effective. US-led restrictions on chip exports to China are a good example of this.

Sanctions have become a major tool of US foreign policy. Understanding what they are and when they are most effective can help us better understand our foreign policy and its impact on the world.

About the Speaker
Ethan Kessler
Former Research Associate
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Ethan Kessler joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 and was a research associate in the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy.
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