CRF Blog

What Are Economic Sanctions?

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on What Are Economic Sanctions?

Governments and multinational bodies impose economic sanctions to try to alter the strategic decisions of state and non-state actors that threaten their interests or violate international norms of behavior. Critics say sanctions are often poorly conceived and rarely successful in changing a target’s conduct, while supporters contend they have become more effective in recent years and remain an essential foreign policy tool. Sanctions have become the defining feature of the Western response to several geopolitical challenges, including North Korea’s nuclear program and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

Economic sanctions are defined as the withdrawal of customary trade and financial relations for foreign and security policy purposes. They may be comprehensive, prohibiting commercial activity with regard to an entire country, like the longstanding U.S. embargo of Cuba, or they may be targeted, blocking transactions of and with particular businesses, groups, or individuals.

Since 9/11, there has been a pronounced shift toward targeted or so-called “smart” sanctions, which aim to minimize the suffering of innocent civilians. Sanctions take a variety of forms, including travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, capital restraints, foreign aid reductions, and trade restrictions. (General export controls, which are not punitive by nature, are often excluded from sanctions discussions.) [more]