What does imposing sanctions on another country actually do? Is it a powerful slap on the wrist, or does it mean a lot more than that?


What does imposing sanctions on another country actually do? Is it a powerful slap on the wrist, or does it mean a lot more than that?

In: Economics

Most of the time it is a sanction on trading, and are specific. E.g. You can’t buy corn from us, or my people aren’t allowed to import cars from you.

It massively effects the economy of the country on which the sanctions were imposed IF the country imposing them is a large consumer.

So, lets say France is a huge importer of Russian Soy Beans ( I am literally making this up ) and Russia does something to upset France. France puts sanctions on Russian soy beans so no companies in France can import Russian Soy Beans until the sanction is lifted.

There are also asset seizures. Say Chinese companies hold assets in America. America can seize and hold those assets, be it land, buildings, mines, etc.

I’m the only guy in your town that sells chocolate.

You like chocolate?

Well you can’t buy any from me til you’re nice to your brother. Go and say sorry and I’ll let you back in my shop, until then, you’ll go without!
3 choices:

You can have no chocolate

You can go find some in the next town (inconvenience)

You can be nice to your brother.

Well that’s what I thought you’d do, now play nice or next time it’ll be chocolate and juice.

Sanctions on a country are essentially a coercive punishment.

Take North Korea. They have a nuclear weapons program that the US wants them to shut down as it violates UN treaties and poses a danger to the world etc etc.

Now, the US could directly invade North Korea and dismantle the program, but that would be extremely costly and overly aggressive.

However, the US still wants North Korea to change its behavior on the subject, so it turns to economic sanctions. The idea being that you create a larger problem for the target that they’re willing to solve in exchange for something you want.

North Korea doesn’t have a lot of ways to produce power, and they rely on other countries to sell them coal. The US can say “no one is allowed to trade for coal with North Korea”.

North Korea then has to decide what it wants more, its nuclear program, or the ability to generate power. If they decide to dismantle the program the US will lift sanctions, if they don’t, they’ll have to find another way to generate power.

Broad economic sanctions are targeted at the population so that they’ll pressure their Government. If the sanctions work, the population will get upset and think “hey, I’d rather have power than nuclear weapons”, and they’ll complain or protest until their Government gives in. The Government is more scared of being overthrown by an angry populace than it is of giving up its nuclear program.

Sometimes targeted sanctions are used. Russia is a good example. Putin and his lieutenants were involved in invading Crimea and interfering with the 2016 election, and the Obama Administration wanted to make them stop. Putting sanctions on all of Russia would be a huge disruption to global economy and would cause unnecessary suffering average Russian people.

Instead, Obama said “no one is allowed to do business personally with Putin and his lieutenants”. That means they cannot bank overseas, they can’t buy property or assets, they can’t travel etc. etc. It creates a huge annoyance for them and hopefully creates discord between Putin and his friends. The goal is to make the consequences for these actions enough that interfering with or invading other countries isn’t worth the hassle.

For a bunch of first hand accounts of sanctions look into the book “The Great War for Civilisation” by Robert Fisk – the chapter on the sanctions against Iraq in the 90s and 00s. Two huge ones that caused a lot of people to die were sanctions on medicine and components to fix water purification systems. Doctors had to watch children die daily because they couldn’t access common medications and huge populations didn’t have access to clean water.

It can be a slap on the wrist or it can be a passive way to poison a country and allow preventable disease to spread.

The problem is that sanctions do not have much effect against autocratic governments. Sanctions will hurt the people who have little/no power, while those in power can circumvent the restrictions via allies who do not abide by the sanctions.

Countries like North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela are all suffering under U.S. sanctions, but those governments are supported by China and Russia. The people in those countries lack political power, so they continue to suffer with no change in government behavior that led to the sanctions.