Why Sanctions Rarely Work
When I was a kid, the boy next door once played a nasty trick on my brother Paul: our neighbor held his cat in his arms, brought it within a few inches of Paul’s face, and pulled its tail. The suddenly angry cat bit Paul’s face. My brother and I were upset; the cat, we thought, should have bitten the perpetrator’s face. I think of that incident whenever I hear people call for economic sanctions against a whole country.
When governments impose sanctions, the officials implementing the policy want to harm the dictator or bad guy heading the other country’s government. That’s the goal. What they do to achieve it is intentionally harm many innocent people in those countries by cutting them off—if the sanctions are effective—from food, medicine, and other goods that they need or value. The sanctions almost always work in a limited sense: they impose some harm on innocent people in the target country. But that’s not the goal. Nor is the goal to cut off the dictator from food, medicine, et cetera. You can be sure that Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro are not hurting for antibiotics or high-quality food. No. The harm that the advocates of sanctions want to inflict on the bad guys is indirect. They are yanking innocent people’s tails so that those people, like our neighbor’s cat, will lash out at whoever’s face is right in front of them. They want those people to see their own government as the enemy and to try to overthrow it.
But people are smarter than cats. When people suddenly find food, clothing, medicine, and other goods in short supply, when they find themselves a lot poorer and focusing desperately on day-to-day survival, they will take the time to find out who is responsible. And guess what? They do find out. Although governments in embargoed countries like Iran, Iraq, and Cuba strictly control what newspapers, radio, and television report, one piece of information that is sure not to be censored is the role of outside governments in the country’s economic distress.
This is from David R. Henderson, “Why Economic Sanctions Don’t Work,” which I wrote in 1998.
Later in the piece, I wrote:
To understand how people in embargoed countries feel, you will have to use your imagination. Picture yourself back in 1974. President Nixon’s popularity has hit bottom. Many Americans want him out, but he holds on. Now imagine that the head of a freer country—say, Switzerland—thinks Nixon is a vicious leader and imposes sanctions on us. Because of these sanctions, we can’t get medicine and we can’t feed our families adequately. We spend our days scraping for the basics we need to survive. (Of course this is implausible in the United States, which is why I said you would have to use your imagination.) Now ask yourself: Is your first thought that you should organize and try to overthrow the president?
I bet it’s not. For one thing, you don’t have much of a shot at succeeding. The Nixon administration is probably in charge of allocating the scarce medicine and food. But more important, you’re furious with the Swiss government. “Who are they to interfere in our country’s affairs?” you ask. So if Nixon offers you a war against the Swiss infidels, you’re likely to say, “Hell, yes,” and postpone thoughts of getting rid of your president until you’ve gotten those foreign bums off your back. And that’s probably how Iraqis are feeling right now about the United States and other governments that are participating in the embargo.
I thought of all this when I read this article: David Lawler, “Inside wartime Russia, Putin isn’t losing,” Axios, April 11, 2022.
Russian shoppers can no longer buy many Western products or use certain payment methods, and many goods they can buy are now more expensive thanks to the sanctions. But they don’t blame Putin, says Yana, a journalist in Moscow who asked that we not use her last name.
Note: When I put the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics together, I had 3 experts on sanctions, Kimberly Ann Elliott, Gary Clyde Hufbauer, and Barbara Oegg, all of the Institute for International Economics, write the piece. This Institute is now called the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Their piece is more nuanced than mine, but I think they would agree that the kind of sanctions imposed on Russians will not cause people to overthrow Putin.