In Depth

Do economic sanctions actually lead to change?

Joe Biden is threatening action against Myanmar following military coup

Economic sanctions are a favourite approach of governments seeking to force change abroad without direct confrontation.

Intended to hit a nation’s pocket, they are commonly threatened - most recently by Joe Biden in response to Myanmar’s military coup - but just as frequently criticised as ineffective.

The US had set about removing sanctions on Myanmar after the country’s military junta set out a roadmap to democracy in 2008. But the extent to which they influenced political decisions in Myanmar - or in other nations where they have been applied - is contested within policy-making circles.

Why are they often unsuccessful?

Imposing sanctions on Myanmar may be difficult for the Biden administration as they would probably push the country further into China’s orbit.

World Bank figures show that the nation does $5.5m (£4m) worth of trade with the Asian superpower each year, making up 33% of all of its imports and exports. Since China has a policy of non-intervention on domestic issues, it is unlikely to change its policy as a result of the coup. By contrast, the US is not in the country’s top five trading partners

In one of the most comprehensive studies on sanctions to date, academics examined more than 100 cases and concluded that the measures were partially successful only 34% of the time.

But this success rate was heavily influenced by the type of policy change pursued, according to Newsweek. “Where it is modest - the release of a political prisoner, for example - the rate jumps up to half of cases,” the site says. “Regime change or efforts to disrupt a military adventure fare less well.”

Among the most notable failures was the US trade and travel embargo on Cuba, which lasted for more than five decades and achieved none of Washington’s policy objectives.

“More than a half-century of sanctions have not sparked a popular uprising, forced the Castros and allies from power, moderated the regime, delivered democracy, promoted economic liberalisation, cut regime ties with other communist systems, stopped foreign investment, or achieved much else of note,” Forbes reports.

The evidence suggests that the longer sanctions last, the less likely they are to succeed, says Colin Rowat, professor of economics at Birmingham University, in an article on The Conversation. “This reflects a fatigue in the countries imposing them”, as well as the target state’s “growing experience evading the sanctions”, he writes.

Sanctions also often have little impact on the ruling or military elite, argues BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus. They have “tended to hit home against the ordinary people - the ruled - rather than against the rulers who are often the real target for pressure,” he says.

Have sanctions ever been successful?

Yes, at least in part. Experts say targeted sanctions helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table in 2015 and to agree to scale back its nuclear activities.

But The New Yorker claims the credible threat of military action was also likely to have been behind the decision. “Israel’s sabre rattling and Barack Obama’s refusal to rule out a strike on Iran’s nuclear reactors must surely have played a role,” the magazine says.

Many analysts also argue that the widespread economic sanctions, boycotts and private divestment imposed on South Africa during the 1980s contributed to the demise of the apartheid regime.

But, again, other major factors appear to have been at play. Lee Jones, author of Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work, argues that South Africa’s economy actually expanded under international sanctions, reports The Washington Post.

“The impact it had was only a modest addition to the pressure that was being brought to bear on the regime by a highly mobilised black-led coalition,” Jones says. “That was what ended apartheid in South Africa, not sanctions.”

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