Ethics & International Affairs
Annual Journal of the
Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs

Volume 13, 1999


A Peaceful, Silent, Deadly Remedy: The Ethics of Economic Sanctions
By Joy Gordon


Apply this economic, peaceful, silent deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. The boycott is what is substituted for war.

—Woodrow Wilson 1

In the 1990s, economic sanctions have emerged as one of the major tools of international governance. Although the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions only twice between 1945 and 1990, it has done so 11 more times since 1990. Yet this statistic pales alongside the number of times the United States has imposed sanctions, in concert with other nations or unilaterally. The United States has been “the most prominent practitioner of peace time restrictions on trade and other economic transactions” since World War II, having targeted 35 countries for sanctions just between 1993 and 1996. 2   Because of the increasing frequency with which sanctions are used, and because of the human damage they entail, it is particularly urgent to look at their ethical implications.

This essay examines the ethical complexities of, and justifications for, “indirect” sanctions, that is, sanctions imposed upon an economy at large in order to influence the leadership. It does not consider sanctions that target individuals (for example, by denying them visas) or direct material economic intervention (for example, prohibiting the sale of weapons or of chemicals whose sole use is military).

The ethical problems posed by indirect economic sanctions are especially complex because of the peculiar way in which they have been framed since the end of World War I. Before that time, sanctions were understood as economic warfare, and as such they fell under the rules of war. When the League of Nations was formed, the drafters of the League ’s Covenant reframed economic sanctions as the alternative to war, a “peaceful” instrument of international diplomacy that could effectively prevent military aggression. In the end, economic sanctions were described in odd, paradoxical terms. The history of sanctions since that time reflects this ambivalence: they are “peaceful” yet “deadly,” they are “potent” yet involve no force. They are depicted as civilized and humane, in contrast to military actions, yet devastating and intolerable to leaders engaged in wrongdoing if they are strict enough.

If sanctions were indeed peaceful, there would be no ethical dilemma. If, on the other hand, they were flatly understood as an act of aggression, the framework of the rules of war would offer guidance for their use. It is precisely because they do so much human damage in the name of achieving peace that it so difficult to untangle their ethical ramifications.

In the pages that follow, I assess the moral legitimacy of sanctions in the contexts of just war doctrine, Kantian ethics, and utilitarianism. I make the following arguments: sanctions are inconsistent with the principle of discrimination from just war doctrine; sanctions reduce individuals to nothing more than means to an end by using the suffering of innocents as a means of persuasion, thereby violating the Kantian principle that human beings are “ends in themselves”; and sanctions are unacceptable from a utilitarian perspective because their economic effectiveness necessarily entails considerable human damage, while their likelihood of achieving political objectives is low. Moreover, alternative goals such as punishment or the expression of resolve or moral outrage do not resolve these ethical dilemmas, but instead only offer an unpersuasive attempt to justify sanctions in the face of their failure to achieve their ostensible goals of preventing aggression and bringing about international governance.

Each of these complementary frameworks speaks to a different dimension of sanctions. Although none of them offers a comprehensive treatment, in combination they allow us to address a wide range of issues related to sanctions.


Targeting Innocents: The Principle of Discrimination

In many regards, sanctions are the modern version of siege warfare: each involves the systematic deprivation of a whole city or nation of economic resources. Although in siege warfare this is accomplished by surrounding the city with an army, the same effect can be achieved by using international institutions and international pressure to prevent the sale or purchase of goods, as well as to stop migration. It is sometimes argued that an embargoed nation can still engage in marginal trade, despite sanctions; but in a siege as well there may be marginal ways of getting goods through gaps in the blockade. In both cases, however, the unit under embargo or siege is a mixed population rather than a military installation, or is entirely civilian. In both cases, the net effect is the same: the disruption or strangulation of the economy as a whole.

As Michael Walzer notes, siege is the oldest form of total war; in siege, noncombatants are not only exposed, but in fact are more likely to be killed than combatants, given that the goal of siege “is surrender, not by defeat of the enemy army, but by the fearful spectacle of the civilian dead.” 3   The principle of discrimination in just war doctrine requires the attacker to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants; between combatants who are injured and those who are uninjured; between combatants who are armed and those who have surrendered and are defenseless; and so forth. 4   There has never been a strict prohibition against killing civilians, or killing injured or unarmed combatants, when it is required by “military necessity” or as an unavoidable consequence of an attack on a legitimate military target. A common example is that an ammunition factory is a legitimate military target in wartime; if during the bombing of the factory civilians who live nearby are also killed, no war crime has been committed. What is prohibited is to target civilians, or injured or defenseless combatants, directly, or to bomb indiscriminately where the deaths of civilians are foreseeable. Siege warfare reverses these priorities: civilian suffering is not “collateral” damage, but rather is the primary objective of the siege strategy, or at least the foreseeable and direct result of siege.

Siege operates by restricting the economy of the entire community, creating shortages of food, water, and fuel. Those who are least able to survive the ensuing hunger, illness, and cold are the very young, the elderly, and those who are sick or injured. Thus the direct consequence of siege is that harm is done to those who are least able to defend themselves, who present the least military threat, who have the least input into policy or military decisions, and who are the most vulnerable. The harm done by the enemy ’s deprivation is exacerbated by domestic policy, which typically shifts whatever resources there are to the military and to the political leadership. This is sometimes done for security reasons, in the belief that defending against military attack is the highest priority, more immediately urgent than the slower damage of hunger and illness to which the civilian population is subjected. It may also happen because the leadership is corrupt, or because the desperation creates conditions for black marketeering. Both of these consequences—the suffering of the innocent and helpless, and the shifting of resources to the military and the privileged—are as old as siege itself.

Thus, the argument can be made that siege is a form of warfare that itself constitutes a war crime. In just war doctrine we could demand a justification for a military strategy in terms of the obligation to minimize harm to civilians: the ammunition factory was a legitimate target, and there was no way to bomb it without collateral damage to nearby residential areas. But siege is peculiar in that it resists such an analysis: the immediate goal is precisely to cause suffering to civilians. In the case of the ammunitions factory, we can answer the question, how is this act consistent with the moral requirement to discriminate? In the case of siege, we cannot.

Sanctions are subject to many of the same moral objections as siege. They intentionally, or at least predictably, harm the most vulnerable and the least political, and this is something the party imposing sanctions either knows or should know. To the extent that economic sanctions seek to undermine the economy of a society and thereby prevent the production or importation of necessities, they are functioning as the modern equivalent of siege. To the extent that sanctions deprive the most vulnerable and least political sectors of society of the food, potable water, medical care, and fuel necessary for survival and basic human needs, sanctions should be subject to the same moral objections as siege warfare.

Drew Christiansen and Gerard Powers argue that the just war doctrine does not apply to peacetime sanctions in the same way that this doctrine applies to sieges and blockades imposed as part of a war effort. The fundamental difference, they hold, is that the use of economic sanctions is rooted in the intention to avoid the use of armed force, as opposed to the intent to multiply the effects of war. 5   The distinction between sanctions-as-war and sanctions-as-nonviolent-alternative-to-war goes back to the fundamental question, what kind of “things” are economic sanctions? Are sanctions “a stern but peaceful act”—a punishment that inconveniences or embarrasses, but does no damage of the sort that raises moral issues? Or are they a form of slow-acting but lethal warfare, which targets the innocent and helpless in a way that would constitute a war crime in a military context? The implications of this ontological issue are enormous: in one view, economic sanctions are attractive and can be ethically justified easily and often; in the other view, sanctions do gratuitous, direct human damage that is ethically indefensible.

Christiansen and Powers suggest that warfare is akin to the death penalty, whereas sanctions are more like attaching someone ’s assets in a civil proceeding. 6   In this analogy, the economic domain is seen as fully separate, and of a different nature altogether, from the domain of power and violence. But economic harm, while it is not directly physical, can also be a form of violence. The sanctions-as-mere-seizure-of-assets theory, whether on the level of the individual or an entire economy, implicitly assumes a starting point of relative abundance. Whether the seizure of someone ’s assets is inconvenient or devastating depends entirely on what those assets are and how much is left after the seizure. “Economic deprivation” is not a uniform phenomenon; the loss of conveniences constitutes a different experience from the loss of the means to meet basic needs.

I do not deny that the contexts in which sanctions and sieges occur may be different. The intent of each may differ, the nature of the demands may be different, and the options of the besieged or sanctioned states may be different. But the moral objection to sanctions does not rest on the analogy; sanctions do not have to be identical to siege warfare in order to be subject to condemnation under just war principles. Indeed, if the intent of sanctions is peaceful rather than belligerent, then the usual justifications in warfare are unavailable. I am morally permitted to kill where my survival is at stake; and in war, I am morally permitted to kill even innocents, in some circumstances. But if one ’s goal is to see that international law is enforced or that human rights are respected, then the stakes and the justificatory context are quite different.

Lori Fisler Damrosch has argued that sanctions warrant a particularly high degree of tolerance because of the importance of the international norms they are intended to protect:

Especially in the case of norms such as the prohibitions against aggression and genocide, which are themselves devoted to the preservation of human life, it may be necessary to tolerate a high level of civilian hardship in order to prevent or at least discourage future violations. 7

Yet it is hard to make sense of the claim that “collateral damage” can be justified in the name of protecting human rights; or that international law might be enforced by means that stand in violation of international laws, including the just war principle of discrimination. Thus, if sanctions are analogous to siege warfare, then they are problematic for the same reasons—both effectively violate the principle of discrimination. But if sanctions are not analogous to siege, then they are even more difficult to justify. If the goals of sanctions are the enforcement of humanitarian standards or compliance with legal and ethical norms, then extensive and predictable harm to civilians cannot be justified even by reference to survival or military advantage. Insofar as this is the case, sanctions are simply a device of cruelty garbed in self-righteousness.


The Suffering of Innocents as a Mechanism of Persuasion:

In addition to viewing sanctions within the ethical framework offered by just war doctrine, we should also examine them from a deontological perspective. I refer here to Kant ’s ethical theory, which holds that all rational beings are characterized by “dignity,” the inherent worth of a person that makes him or her irreplaceable and that stands in contrast to those material things with a price, which can be exchanged for other things of equal or greater price without loss. This is the basis for Kant ’s claim that all rational beings have autonomy, the right and the capacity to rule themselves. In Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant says that it is a categorical imperative, an unconditional moral mandate binding on all rational beings, to “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always as an end and never simply as a means.” 8

This ethical framework would arguably have had little to offer in the debate over sanctions at the time that Article 16 of the Covenant of the League of Nations was being set forth as a mechanism of enforcement. The articulated purpose of sanctions was quite narrow: it was to stop military aggression. In that context, there were two innocent populations involved—the nonpolitical/nonmilitary population of the aggressor nation and the entire population of the nation under attack. Because deontological ethics enjoins us to treat all human beings as ends in themselves and not solely as means, it would not offer much guidance in the situation where some innocent population (or at least a sector of the population) will be harmed, and where the issue is whether the innocents who are harmed will be the civilian population of the aggressor nation upon whom sanctions are imposed, or the civilian population of the attacked nations who are the objects of military aggression. In this case, either one population is the means to the military victory of the aggressor, or the other population is the means to interdict the aggressor.

But deontological arguments do offer guidance in situations where military aggression is not at issue, and where the choice therefore is not which innocent population suffers harm, but whether an innocent population may be harmed in the service of the political interests of a foreign state, or for the interest of the international community in enforcing norms. Where sanctions impose suffering on innocent sectors of the target country population for an objective other than preventing the deaths of other innocent persons, this is clearly incompatible with deontological ethics, since in these situations, to use Kantian language, human beings are reduced to nothing more than a means to an end, where that end is something less than the lives of other human beings.

It is sometimes argued that sanctions are defensible when the sanctioned population consents, or has leaders who consented, or can be deemed to have consented. If those harmed by sanctions were to consent, then arguably sanctions would be consistent with their autonomy. I will look briefly at a few of the notions of consent that have been invoked in this context: the actual consent of those who will suffer the sanctions; the purported consent of the civilian population to the acts of the national leaders; and the shifting of moral agency, and implicit consent, to the target nation.

Actual Consent

Within the history of sanctions, it is quite rare to find actual consent by those most affected by siege or by the sanctions. 9   The sanctions against South Africa, and arguably Haiti, were perhaps the only instances in the twentieth century that could be defensible on deontological grounds. In the case of South Africa, a number of sectors of the black population, which was directly harmed far more than the white minority leadership, actively supported sanctions, although that view was not unanimous. 10   Similarly, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had strong popular support for his leadership, supported sanctions against Haiti, although, as in South Africa, popular support for sanctions in Haiti was not universal or consistent. According to one observer, there were “three distinct moments.” The first came with the original sanctions; there was great enthusiasm for them among the Haitian people, who were themselves defenseless and thought sanctions would hasten the departure of coup leaders. In the second moment, the sanctions, though not welcomed with enthusiasm, were nevertheless accepted by most of the population because coup leaders opposed them, and because the sanctions were perceived as an act of solidarity by the international community. In the third phase, it became clear to the Haitian people that not only had the embargo failed to achieve its stated goals, but new financial gains were being made precisely by those whom sanctions were supposed to target. 11

Damrosch and others have noted the importance of obtaining support for sanctions from “authentic leaders” within the population that bears the brunt of the economic deprivation. 12   But even that is quite different from actual consent—and from actual authorization. The leader of any movement may well decide that certain sacrifices can be borne by some for the sake of the movement; but that does not mean that those to be sacrificed have consented. By contrast, in Anglo-American law the notion of autonomy is reflected in the requirements that must be met in order for an individual to consent to be harmed. Whether it is authorization for surgery, a waiver of liability for injury, or consent to be a subject in medical experimentation, not only must every particular individual sign an explicit statement of consent, but consent is not valid unless the signator has been informed of the nature and likelihood of the harm; and like every contract, such an agreement is not valid in circumstances of duress or coercion. With sanctions, the risks include malnutrition, lack of emergency medical care, lack of fuel, and deprivation of the necessities of survival, as well as the less visible harms of psychological trauma, lost education, lost job opportunities, and social disintegration. Given the stakes, it would seem that a commitment to autonomy and the integrity of the person would require that those who would be most vulnerable to these injuries must provide actual, explicit, and informed consent. Where that is not the case—which is to say, in almost every case of sanctions in the twentieth century and before—then sanctions are simply the imposition of suffering upon the innocent, against their will.

Imputed Consent

Damrosch frames the question of imputed consent as: “Do we assume that people of the target state are innocent and passive bystanders, victims of their own rules and of sanctions? Or that they have the capacity to exercise free choice?” 13   The question seems to invite the response that, of course, all persons have free will and are therefore accountable for their choices. But we know from the history of sanctions that this is not a realistic depiction of a nation under sanctions. Under sanctions, state control over the media is likely to increase, while nonstate parties have less access to equipment and materials needed to disseminate information. 14   As families are forced to go to the black market for necessities, their savings are eroded and their energies are directed primarily toward meeting their immediate needs. The economic hardship to the middle class and the poor means that they will not have enough resources to consider emigrating. Even in a democratic society, the civilian population has no direct input into particular military and political decisions; and in an authoritarian society, this is even more true.

Thus, the answer to Damrosch ’s question is no, we should not assume that the civilian population freely chooses the decisions made by the military and political leaders; it may not have even freely chosen the leaders themselves. Neither should we assume that it freely chooses to stay, given the burden and cost of emigration. It is not even clear that we can say that a population freely chooses to support national military and political decisions, in a context of limited and distorted information and enormous social and political pressure.

The Shifting of Moral Agency

Walzer notes that siege warfare has historically been justified not only by the assumption of consent on the part of the civilian population, but also by the shifting of agency from the besieging nation to the recalcitrant leaders of the besieged. In Walzer ’s description of the siege of Jerusalem, Titus, commander of the besieging army, “lamented the deaths of so many Jerusalemites, ëand, lifting up his hands to heaven... called God to witness, that it was not his doing. ’ Whose doing was it?” asks Walzer. 15   If the fault lies with the political and military leaders of the city for their failure to surrender, then this “makes Titus himself into an impersonal agent of destruction, set off by the obstinacy of others.” 16   Britain ’s blockade of Germany in World War I caused mass malnutrition among civilians, which greatly increased their susceptibility to illness, although the blockade did not actually cause starvation. According to Walzer, studies indicate that “some half million civilian deaths, directly attributable to diseases such as influenza and typhus, in fact resulted from the deprivations imposed by the British blockade.” 17   Although the British had blockaded the entire German coast, they consistently denied that the economic intervention was directed at German civilians.


The claim “invites ridicule,” Walzer says.

Who did the inflicting? Not the British, though they stopped the ships and confiscated cargoes; they took aim at the German army and sought only military aims. And then, the official historian suggests, the Germans themselves pushed civilians into the front line of the economic war... where the British could not help but kill them in the course of legitimate military operations. 18

This is fundamentally the argument made by Haass and others that sanctions which harm the innocent are permissible if the shortages are “the direct result” of cynical manipulations by the state to get international sympathy. 19   This position invokes the same claim about indirection: that the countries imposing sanctions are not “causing” the harm; rather, the leadership of the target country is “causing” the harm by failing to comply with political demands, or by failing to distribute domestic resources in the way that would most favor the vulnerable sectors of the population.

It is important to distinguish between the imposition of deprivation, and the response to deprivation. Undermining a country ’s economy is still undermining a country ’s economy—it is still the initiating cause, regardless of how the sanctioned country responds. The moral burden may broaden to include the sanctioned state when it exacerbates the shortages; historically, this is how the sanctioned state generally responds. It is not uncommon to hear the argument that agency rests with the target nation, because of its misconduct: “It was Saddam ’s choice to invade Kuwait; it was Iraq ’s fault for refusing to cooperate with UNSCOM.” But the existence of wrongdoing does not somehow “make” sanctions come about in a way that vitiates the moral agency of institutions imposing them. Nations violate international norms quite often; sometimes the international community responds to international wrongdoing by military action, diplomatic protest, sanctions, or other measures. Sometimes it does nothing. The situation itself does not compelany particular response. Indeed, a superpower can violate international norms with considerable impunity. For this reason, the nation or institution imposing sanctions is still the nation or institution that has imposed the deprivation—with choice, with intent, and in the face of other options, ranging from protest to inaction to military invasion.

Thus, it is problematic to hold that sanctions are defensible on the grounds that most of those subjected to their harm have implicitly consented, or have consented under coercion, or can be deemed to have consented by virtue of the state ’s policies or acts. In these contexts, “consent” does not have any content that corresponds to our understanding of what consent is and how it works. Instead, it seems to be a term invoked counterfactually, to attribute choice and therefore responsibility to those who made no choice at all, except perhaps to endure the circumstances in which they found themselves.


Political Efficacy: The Utilitarian Justification of Sanctions

Since the formation of the League of Nations, those defending sanctions have justified them in part on the basis of utilitarian reasons: the argument is that the economic hardship of the civilian population of the target country entails less human harm overall, and less harm to the sanctioned population, than the military aggression or human rights violations the sanctions seek to prevent. Yet if this is so, then—as an ethical matter—we must look at the effectiveness of sanctions. If they do not in fact stop military aggression or human rights violations, then a procedure that harms innocent sectors of the population loses its utilitarian justification.

We might begin by distinguishing between economic effectiveness and political effectiveness. A common view is that the “generally accepted goal” of sanctions is “to influence the conduct of political actors in another country who refuse to conform to the accepted norms of international conduct.” 20   Economic effectiveness concerns “the volume of pecuniary damage or disruption inflicted, while political effectiveness refers to the degree that desired changes, if any, are undertaken by the target state.” 21

Johan Galtung points out that the economic damage done by sanctions in fact tends to have little likelihood of actually achieving the stated goal of forcing the target nation to change its conduct or policies. Instead, he argues, what emerges is an ethos of “conspicuous sacrifice.” 22   Far from undermining the political legitimacy of the target state, sanctions often trigger the opposite response:

Galtung used the term “rally-around-the-flag effect” to argue that leaders in target nations could use the economic pain caused by foreign nations to rally their populations around their cause. Rather than creating disintegration in the target state, sanctions would invoke nationalism and political integration. 23

The relation between economic effectiveness and political effectiveness is not at all clear; indeed, it may be an inverse relation. Many economists and historians hold that, generally, sanctions are politically ineffectual. In the twentieth century, this assessment dates back at least to the first time the League of Nations sought to impose sanctions on a major military power—Italy under Mussolini—and failed quite spectacularly. 24   Rather than impeding Mussolini, the sanctions were reported to increase patriotic fervor and support for his military project. 25   Sanctions were denounced as ineffectual in stopping aggression, 26   and the League of Nations did not survive.

Losman’s study of long-term boycotts against Israel, Cuba, and Rhodesia notes that even where there was considerable economic damage, the only apparent political effect was increased political integration. 27   The common (though not universal) result is that “the morale-killing effects of economic sanctions often operate in the opposite fashion, stimulating xenophobia and strengthening the determination of the target country to maintain its stance.” 28   The scholarship on sanctions has to a large extent documented this phenomenon, though it has also described exceptions.

In the first large empirical study of the success of sanctions in the twentieth century, published in 1985, Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott held that sanctions had in fact been effective in about one-third of the situations in which they were imposed. 29   Theirs is one of the most optimistic estimates. Others question whether sanctions have been effective even one-third of the time. 30   It is not surprising to see historians, political scientists, and economists echoing the observation that target nations cannot generally be expected to change their acts or policies in response to sanctions.

Thus, when we work out the utilitarian calculus of sanctions, we see on one side that there is not a high likelihood that sanctions will succeed in stopping military aggression or human rights violations. On the other side of the calculus, we see the high probability, if not inevitability, that sanctions will harm the most vulnerable population.

Sanctions are a device specifically tailored to harm nations with dependent or weak economies. The economic effectiveness depends heavily on how dependent the target nation is on imports. Where imports are necessary for production or consumption, and import substitution is very costly or impossible, trade interruptions are likely to be seriously disruptive. 31   The greater the inelasticity of demand for imported goods, the greater is the likelihood of economic disruption. Elasticity, in turn, will depend heavily upon whether the imported goods are luxuries or necessities; the availability of foreign or domestic substitutes; and the time period involved. In the short term, demand tends to be inelastic—it is difficult to immediately replace particular goods, or to immediately adapt other goods as substitutes. Over the longer term, the economy may develop alternative means of production, or develop processes of production that do not depend on particular imports. 32   However, this means that the country is shifting resources from other parts of the economy. Gasoline for buses may be shifted to factories in order to maintain production; yet if the transportation system is compromised over the long term, the economy will simply suffer damage from a different source—lack of labor, because people cannot get to work. Thus, over the long term, the effect of economic sanctions is that the economic disruption is redistributed very broadly across the economy. The greater the degree of economic disruption, the greater the degree of damage to infrastructure generally, including food distribution, transportation, and energy. For these reasons a partial embargo is far less effective—it permits greater import substitution, lowers the acuteness of the crisis, and therefore, presumably, decreases pressure on the state. 33

Large and diversified economies are virtually immune to sanctions, since they have the economic flexibility to pay higher costs in the short run, and to make structural changes in the long run. 34   Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott note that nations with weak or unstable economies therefore make the best targets for economic sanctions. In a section entitled “The Weakest Go to the Wall,” they argue that “there seems to be a direct correlation between the political and economic health of the target country and its susceptibility to economic pressure,” and suggest that their data “demonstrate that countries in distress or experiencing significant problems are far more likely to succumb to coercion by the sender country.” 35   They conclude with a list of “dos and don ’ts” for those imposing sanctions, including “Do pick on the weak and helpless.” 36   Their analysis of the cases indicates that sanctions are most effective when the target is much smaller than the country imposing sanctions, and economically weak and politically unstable. In successful cases, the average sender ’s economy was 187 times larger than that of the average target. 37

Thus, sanctions offer themselves solely as mechanisms that strong nations with large economies, or international alliances including strong nations with large economies, can effectively use against countries with weak or import-dependent economies, or countries with unstable governments. The reverse is not true—sanctions are not a device realistically available to small or poor nations that can be used with any significant impact against large or economically dominant nations, even if the latter were to, say, engage in aggression or human rights violations, or otherwise offend the international community. This has been obvious since the reformulation of sanctions as a tool of international law. 38

Therefore, there is a danger that sanctions will be used “opportunistically” by powerful nations 39 —for example, as a response by a superpower to its declining economic hegemony. Here we can understand the particular enthusiasm the United States holds for sanctions; the sheer size of the U.S. economy means that sanctions can be imposed at little cost to itself, and with no likelihood that any other nation could retaliate in kind.

It would seem that we have lost altogether the rationale for sanctions that was articulated in the formation of the League of Nations. It may be that sanctions, and the attendant harm to innocents, can be justified as an alternative to actual warfare; but in order to justify this choice on utilitarian grounds, we would have to have reason to believe that sanctions in fact obtain compliance by the target state. If not, then they simply constitute the gratuitous imposition of suffering on a helpless population, for no ethically defensible reason.


Alternative Goals of Economic Sanctions

As political scientists and historians began documenting the general failure of economic sanctions to achieve political goals of compliance, they also began formulating other theories for what the purpose of sanctions is, or could be. As K. R. Nossal frames the question: “The view that [economic sanctions] are an ineffective tool of statecraft has become almost axiomatic.” Yet, he observes, practitioners are still as inclined to embrace and use them as they are to dismiss their efficacy. But, he asks, “if sanctions do not work, why do states continue to impose them?” 40

To the extent that commentators have pondered the question of why sanctions are still used—and why they are justified—they have generated two main responses: expression and punishment. Galtung and Lundborg, in documenting the failure of sanctions to achieve compliance with the stated political objectives, argue that sanctions should not be seen as “instrumental.” 41   Sanctions are not really designed to achieve compliance, they assert, but rather are “expressive.” A government may consider sanctions useful if they serve to “declare its position to internal and external publics or help win support at home or abroad.” 42   It is common enough to hear sanctions discussed in these terms—”It’s important that we send a message that this type of conduct is unacceptable to the international community.” 43   If we view sanctions in this light, then they are no longer a failure. For example, after Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, President Carter imposed a grain embargo on the USSR, which President Reagan lifted in 1981. The Soviets did not withdraw from Afghanistan until 1988. 44   If we look at sanctions from an instrumental point of view, they were clearly a failure. But sanctions could also “be interpreted as having been motivated in part by a desire to signal resolve and leadership to the domestic public during an election year,” Nossal observes, suggesting that as an act of expression, the sanctions were in fact successful. 45

However, “sending a message,” while ordinarily a legitimate undertaking for a state, becomes ethically problematic if the means of communication consist of depriving vulnerable sectors of a foreign population of basic necessities. While sanctions against aggression might be justified on utilitarian grounds, sanctions as a means of sending a message cannot claim the same moral legitimacy. And while deontological ethics might not be able to raise a particular objection to sanctions that prevent aggression—since in either case, some innocent population will suffer—the same cannot be said of sanctions as expression. Where “sending a message” or “signaling resolve” or “expressing outrage” is the purpose of sanctions, the sanctions patently entail the use of human beings as simply a means to an end; human suffering becomes merely a device of communication. Thus this purpose is unacceptable on deontological as well as utilitarian grounds.

The second major alternative justification of sanctions is punishment. If we consider retribution to be the purpose of sanctions, Nossal argues, then we have another means of solving the problem presented by the “failure” of sanctions. Sanctions are a failure only if we expect them to achieve changes in policies or conduct of other nations, whereas “retributive punishment, by its very nature, always ‘works ’”; and, he suggests, “the desire to punish will always be an integral factor in sanctions.” 46   Frederik Hoffman says that sanctions assume that there are “morally ‘good ’ and morally ‘bad ’ nations, and it is implied in the very term ‘sanction ’ that this measure is not just any political action; it is intended to be used against nations that deserve ‘punishment. ’” 47   Yet it is not clear that the notion of “good” and “bad” nations is a plausible one, despite the ease with which terms like “rogue nation” are used. Indeed, the notion of a “rogue” nation is highly contrived, and rooted more in the institutional interests of political actors than in any fundamental concept of international ethics. 48   Moralistic claims are deeply intertwined with geopolitical gamesmanship, with tendencies toward nationalistic self-congratulation, and with the tendency to mistake one ’s own political strength for moral superiority. Nossal observes that in the absence of a superordinate moral authority, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish legitimate accusations of wrongdoing from self-serving political realism—acts that are virtually identical can be deemed outrageous and an offense to international law, or a misfortune for which no one is to blame, depending on whose interests are at stake. 49

But let us assume that particular acts, such as military aggression, are inherently wrong, and that it is appropriate for the international community to condemn these acts. Is it appropriate to view a nation as analogous to a person? Punishment—entirely aside from the issue of its ethical legitimacy or deterrent effect—is a coherent undertaking only when the wrongdoer is the same entity as the one who is punished. There is no “punishment” when the person punished is separate from the wrongdoer and bears no responsibility for the wrongful acts. Yet “punishing the wrongdoer” is very much the language by which sanctions are often justified:

Complete and immediate severance of all relations may appear at first... to be too severe.... But it should not be forgotten that the aggressor is fully aware in advance of the consequences of its act. 50

However, if the wrongdoer is not the same person who is punished, then the theory of retribution is not coherent. No punishment has taken place when A commits a crime, and B—his grandmother or employee or neighbor who had no involvement and no voice in the matter—bears the consequences. Instead, a wrongdoer remains untouched and an innocent person is gratuitously harmed.

If the intent is to punish the wrongdoer, under what circumstances can we say that the wrongdoer includes the sectors of the population who do not participate, directly or indirectly, in the decisions and policies of the government? This question becomes more acute in authoritarian regimes where information is highly controlled by the state and popular participation is actively suppressed; and more acute still when the costs of the sanctions are shifted by the ruling elite to those who are already politically disenfranchised and economically marginal. Indeed, this is the likely outcome of sanctions.

The consistent failure of sanctions to achieve political ends undermines the utilitarian justification. When we consider goals other than political compliance—specifically, expression and punishment—we encounter equally disturbing problems. If the goal of sanctions is expression, then we are using the suffering of innocents as a mere means of expressing a viewpoint, and we have lost altogether the utilitarian justification. If the goal is punishment, then we are improperly relying on the analogy of the single person, insofar as we are treating leadership and civilians indiscriminately as part of the same entity. This would be inconsistent with, among other things, the just war principle of discrimination.



Many of those who defend sanctions do not argue that damage to innocents is morally acceptable, but rather that this damage is not inherent in sanctions and could in principle be mitigated or avoided altogether. Where measures are taken to minimize civilian harm, the argument goes, sanctions are ethically defensible. But this optimism is inconsistent with the nature of economic sanctions, as well as with the history of sanctions and the logic of the vested interests created by sanctions. If economic sanctions are motivated by an intent to do economic damage, then partial sanctions and humanitarian exemptions will allow the target nation to adjust its economy to minimize the overall damage, undermining the intentions of the political actors imposing the sanctions. The more complete the sanctions, the more effective they will be, in terms of economic damage; but that in turn means that the economy as a whole will be undermined. The greater the degree to which the economy is generally undermined, the greater the damage to the civilian population, outside the military and political leadership. The greater the damage to the civilian population, the more serious the harm will be to the most vulnerable sectors—infants, the elderly, the sick, the handicapped, pregnant women, widows with children. Sanctions that are economically effective necessarily entail the greatest harm to those who are the most vulnerable and the most disenfranchised from power.

The ethical dilemma is not resolved by placing blame on the target state for its initial wrongdoing or for its response to economic crisis. We know from the history of sanctions, and of sieges and blockades in wartime, that the state will generally increase the proportion of the economy that goes to the support of the political leadership and to the military, for any of a number of reasons: because national security is legitimately seen as the highest priority, or because the nature of the “siege mentality” is that the leadership will first protect itself, or because desperate need for basic goods creates opportunities for black marketeering. This may shift part of the moral responsibility to the target state, but it does not vitiate the moral agency that resides in the state that initiated the crisis by imposing sanctions in the first place, particularly in light of the predictability of the outcome.

The use of sanctions is even more troubling if we acknowledge that the odds are not good that anypolitical ends will be achieved by sanctions. Even if the end is one that could justify the human cost of sanctions—such as stopping military aggression—the one thing we know about sanctions is that they are generally unlikely to achieve their goal. Alternatively, we could frame the “goals” of sanctions not in terms of political ends, but in terms of punishment or symbolic expression. However, these cannot claim the ethical justification that was invoked when sanctions were seen as the means of stopping war—that harm to innocents may be justified when it is for the purpose of preventing a far greater harm.

Establishing criteria for the ethical use of sanctions does not resolve these contradictions, but instead masks them. To say that sanctions are ethical as long as we make sure to minimize civilian harm is to mask the fact that sanctions by their nature cause harm to civilians directly and primarily. It is like using a pick-axe for brain surgery: the nature of the instrument suggests that targeting certain areas with precision and effectiveness, without killing the patient in the process, is not going to happen. It is disingenuous to be surprised or apologetic when sanctions turn out to do no harm to a ruling elite, to achieve none of the ostensible goals of the sanctions regarding “unacceptable behavior” or “punishment of international outlaws,” and to be generally ineffectual for much of anything besides rhetorical posturing and the psychological gratification of having done something.



Note 1: Hamilton Foley, ed., Woodrow Wilson’s Case for the League of Nations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1923), p. 71.  Back.

Note 2: David Leyton-Brown, “Extraterritoriality in United States Trade Sanctions,” in David Leyton-Brown, ed., The Utility of International Economic Sanctions (London: Croom Helm, 1987), quotation at p. 255; and a 1997 study by the National Association of Manufacturers, cited in Richard Haass, “Sanctioning Madness,” Foreign Affairs 76 (November–December 1997), p. 74.  Back.

Note 3: Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 161.  Back.

Note 4: See generally Ian Clark, Waging War: A Philosophical Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 87–97; James Turner Johnson, Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); and Telford Taylor, “War Crimes,” in his Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy (New York: Times Books, 1970).  Back.

Note 5: Drew Christiansen, S.J., and Gerard F. Powers, “Economic Sanctions and Just-War Doctrine,” in David Cortright and George A. Lopez, eds., Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World? (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), pp. 102–3.  Back.

Note 6: Ibid., p. 107.  Back.

Note 7: Lori Fisler Damrosch, “The Collective Enforcement of International Norms Through Economic Sanctions,” Ethics & International Affairs 8 (1994), pp. 74–75.  Back.

Note 8: James W. Ellington, 3d, trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), p. 36.  Back.

Note 9: It is not unusual, however, for sanctions to trigger a “siege mentality” in which the populace joins with the state in a kind of nationalistic determination to endure the sanctions at any cost. This is quite different from an expression of actual consent by the citizenry to endure sanctions in order to eventually and indirectly pressure the state into changing policies.  Back.

Note 10: See the overview of the internal debate over sanctions described in chapter 2 of Africa Research Centre, The Sanctions Weapon (Cape Town: Bucho Books, 1989).  Back.

Note 11: Claudette Antoine Werleigh, “The Use of Sanctions in Haiti: Assessing the Economic Realities,” in Lopez and Cortright, eds., Economic Sanctions, p. 162.  Back.

Note 12: “The Civilian Impact of Economic Sanctions,” in Lori Fisler Damrosch, ed., Enforcing Restraint: Collective Intervention in Internal Conflicts(New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993) p. 302.  Back.

Note 13: Ibid., p. 302.  Back.

Note 14: For example: “Milosevic... consolidated much of his power by implementing tight controls and limiting both the flow and the content of public information. Although one radio and television station and two independent papers existed, they had few resources and were greatly limited in what they could report.” Julia Devin and Jaleh Dashti-Gibson, “Sanctions in the Former Yugoslavia,” in Thomas G. Weiss et al., eds., Political Gain and Civilian Pain (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), pp. 180–81.  Back.

Note 15: Walzer, p. 162, note 4, citing “The Wars of the Jews,” bk. VI of The Works of Josephus, Tho. Lodge, trans. (London, 1620), chap. XIV, p. 722.  Back.

Note 16: Ibid., p. 162.  Back.

Note 17: Ibid., p. 173.  Back.

Note 18: Ibid.  Back.

Note 19: “Sanctioning Madness,” p. 82.  Back.

Note 20: Lawrence J. Brady, “The Utility of Economic Sanctions as a Policy Instrument” in Leyton-Brown, ed., The Utility of International Economic Sanctions, p. 298.  Back.

Note 21: Donald L. Losman, International Economic Sanctions(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979), p. 1.  Back.

Note 22: Johan Galtung, “On the Effects of International Economic Sanctions, with Examples from the Case of Rhodesia,” World Politics 19 (April 1967), p. 395.  Back.

Note 23: Ivan Eland, “Economic Sanctions as Tools of Foreign Policy,” in Lopez and Cortright, eds., Economic Sanctions, p. 32.  Back.

Note 24: The League imposed sanctions on Italy in 1935 to prevent Mussolini from annexing Ethiopia, but did not embargo coal, oil, or steel. Furthermore, the United States did not participate in the sanctions (and in fact increased its sales of oil to Italy from 6.5 percent to 17 percent), nor did Austria, Hungary, or Germany. Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered: Supplemental Case Histories, 2d ed. (Washington, D.C.: Institute for International Economics, 1990), p. 36.  Back.

Note 25: “Far from imposing on the Italian people a desire to reverse their government ’s policy, sanctions made the Ethiopian war popular.” George W. Baer, “Sanctions and Security: The League of Nations and the Italian-Ethiopian War, 1935–1936,” International Organization 27 (Spring 1973), p. 179.  Back.

Note 26: On June 10, 1936, Neville Chamberlain said in a public speech that sanctions had “failed to prevent war, failed to stop war, failed to save the victims of aggression”; on June 18, Anthony Eden told the House of Commons that “the fact has to be faced that sanctions did not realize the purpose for which they were imposed.” Robin Renwick, Economic Sanctions (Cambridge: Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, 1981), pp. 17–18.  Back.

Note 27: Losman, International Economic Sanctions, pp. 125–26.  Back.

Note 28: Diane B. Kunz, “When Money Counts and Doesn ’t: Economic Power and Diplomatic Objectives,” Diplomatic History 18 (Fall 1994), p. 461.  Back.

Note 29: Updated in Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 2d ed.  Back.

Note 30: Robert Pape challenges Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott ’s evaluation, arguing that in almost all of the situations judged to indicate the efficacy of sanctions, there were in fact other factors (such as military intervention) to which the efficacy could also be attributed. Pape concludes that of the 115 cases of sanctions cited in the study, a reading of the data with a higher degree of methodological integrity shows that in fact sanctions themselves have brought about political compliance less than 5 percent of the time. Robert Pape, “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work,” International Security22 (Fall 1997), p. 106. The Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott analysis has also been criticized on methodological grounds by A. Cooper Drury in “Revisiting Economic Sanctions Reconsidered,Journal of Peace Research 35 (1998).  Back.

Note 31: Losman, International Economic Sanctions, pp. 14–15.  Back.

Note 32: Ibid., p. 15.  Back.

Note 33: Note that if a sanctions regime builds in extensive humanitarian exemptions—for example, by allowing enough economic activity to avoid large-scale unemployment—then the sanctions will be reduced to a partial embargo.  Back.

Note 34: For example, when the United States imposed a grain embargo on the USSR in 1980, in response to Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Soviets bought grain instead from Canada and Argentina, albeit at a higher cost. M. S. Daoudi and M. S. Dajani, Economic Sanctions: Ideals and Experiences (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 160. Likewise, the Arab oil boycott against the United States caused only economic inconvenience but not devastation, and in the long term arguably resulted in greater economic self-sufficiency, as was the case with Germany in World War II.  Back.

Note 35: Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, pp. 97–98.  Back.

Note 36: Ibid., rule number (3), p. 114.  Back.

Note 37: Kimberly Ann Elliott, “Factors Affecting the Success of Sanctions,” in Lopez and Cortright, eds., Economic Sanctions, p. 53.  Back.

Note 38: “Sanctions,” in Evans Clark, ed., Boycotts and Peace: A Report by the Committee on Economic Sanctions (New York: Harper & Bros., 1932), p. 104.  Back.

Note 39: Jack T. Patterson, “The Political and Moral Appropriateness of Sanctions,” in Lopez and Cortright, eds., Economic Sanctions, p. 90, quoting Richard Falk.  Back.

Note 40: Kim Richard Nossal, “International Sanctions as International Punishment,” International Organization 43 (Spring 1989), pp. 301–2.  Back.

Note 41: Johan Galtung, “Pacifism from a Sociological Point of View,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 3 (March 1959), pp. 67–84; and Per Lundborg, The Economics of Export Embargoes: The Case of the U.S.-Soviet Grain Suspension (London: Croom Helm, 1987).  Back.

Note 42: Renwick, Economic Sanctions, p. 85. Kaempfer and Lowenberg join them in rejecting the “traditional” view of sanctions as instrumental, and argue that “sanctions might have an altogether different goal”—which is to serve the interests of pressure groups within the sanctioning country, and to obtain some utility from taking a moral stance against the objectionable behavior of other nations. William H. Kaempfer and Anton D. Lowenberg, “The Theory of International Economic Sanctions: A Public Choice Approach,” American Economic Review 78 (Sept. 1988), p. 786.  Back.

Note 43: See, for example, “UN Sends a Message to Iraq, Suspends Review of Sanctions,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 10, 1998; or “Nuclear Crisis Sparks Call for Tougher Sanctions, Advocates Want the Clinton Administration to Send a Message,” Journal of Commerce, June 1, 1998.  Back.

Note 44: Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, pp. 163–66.  Back.

Note 45: Nossal, “International Sanctions as International Punishment,” p. 316.  Back.

Note 46: Ibid., pp. 315, 321.  Back.

Note 47: “The Functions of Economic Sanctions: A Comparative Analysis,” Journal of Peace Research 4 (April 1967), p. 144.  Back.

Note 48: See Michael Klare ’s discussion in his Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995) of how the “rogue doctrine” came to be articulated by the U.S. military as a conceptual framework that would provide a justification for the size and nature of the U.S. military in the face of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Eastern bloc.  Back.

Note 49: Nossal mentions “the markedly different international reaction” to the destruction by a Soviet fighter of Korean Airlines flight 007 in September 1983 (which triggered diplomatic retaliation and limited sanctions by the United States and several other countries) and the destruction by a U.S. cruiser of Iran Air flight 655 in July 1988. “Many Western leaders called [the KAL incident] an act of ‘murder.’... In 1988, by contrast, the downing of 655, with the loss of 290 lives, was widely characterized as a ‘tragic accident.’” Nossal, “International Sanctions as International Punishment,” p. 307, n. 29.  Back.

Note 50: Whitton and Gonsiorowski, “Sanctions,” p. 95.  Back.