Economic sanctions have long been a tool of U.S. foreign policy -- and equally long a subject of controversy as to their desirability, effectiveness, and morality. With the world now integrated economically but not politically, policymakers may be tempted to rely on sanctions even more. But before doing so, they should acquaint themselves with the substantial literature in this area that has accumulated in recent decades.

Economic Statecraft. By David A. Baldwin. Princeton University Press, 1985.
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The starting place for serious discussion of the use of economic power for political purposes is David Baldwin's Economic Statecraft. A wide-ranging disquisition on the myriad symbolic and substantive ways sanctions can be used to advance the national interest, it is also grounded in practical sense. More than any other author on the subject, Baldwin takes pains to compare sanctions to alternative policy options, and by doing so, makes a persuasive case that they often get a bad rap. While they rarely succeed in forcing major policy changes in the target country, he argues, the same can be said of all other policy options short of the direct application of military force. And properly employed, sanctions can indeed achieve a number of other objectives, including the deterrence of future transgressive behavior.

Coercive Cooperation. By Lisa L. Martin. Princeton University Press, 1992.
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There is now a general consensus that multilateral cooperation is necessary for economic sanctions to carry any real bite. This naturally leads to the question of how a sanctioning state can ensure multilateral support. In this book, Lisa Martin offers the most comprehensive answer available, relying on both sophisticated statistics and rigorous case studies. She finds that two factors help to ensure the creation and maintenance of a sanctions coalition: first, the endorsement of the sanctions by an international institution, and second, the incurring of significant costs by the primary country enacting the sanctions. The latter may at first appear counterintuitive but is an important point: by taking on high costs, the primary sanctioner sends a signal to others about its seriousness.

"Are Smart Sanctions Feasible?" By Arne Tostenson and Beate Bull. World Politics 54 (April 2002): pp. 373-403.

The comprehensive United Nations sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s were a humanitarian disaster, leading policymakers to recognize that for any future sanctions regimen to be politically sustainable its human costs would have to be limited. Thus was born the concept of "smart sanctions" -- tailored measures, such as asset freezes, travel bans, and arms embargoes, that would supposedly target an offending regime while minimizing collateral damage to the country's population at large. The question now is whether smart sanctions can achieve significant results with fewer downsides than more conventional forms of economic coercion. Arne Tostenson and Beate Bull review the evidence and conclude that the answer is no: "Although smart sanctions may seem logically compelling and politically attractive, such regimes are difficult to establish and enforce because of numerous inherent operational problems and the intricacies of the Security Council's political processes."

Shrewd Sanctions: Statecraft and State Sponsors of Terrorism. By Meghan L. O'Sullivan. Brookings Institution Press, 2003.
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A superb example of how to marry social science and rigorous policy analysis, Meghan O'Sullivan's Shrewd Sanctions is a sharp contrast to most academic work on the subject.  Scholars tend to lump all sanctions cases together as efforts to impose costs on the target country. O'Sullivan dissents from this view, pointing out the wide variation in cases and purposes. Sanctions should be tailored precisely to achieve a particular goal, she argues. Those designed to elicit a change in behavior should be much more flexible than those intended to change the target's regime, and those devised for longer-term containment should look different still. O'Sullivan's case studies are written with great accuracy and care, and her chapter on the United Nations sanctions regime imposed on Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait is the best account available.

"Criminalizing Consequences of Sanctions," Peter Andreas, International Studies Quarterly 49 (June 2005): pp. 335-60.

One of the biggest flaws of the sanctions literature has been the failure to discuss unintended consequences. Humanitarian costs have been raised above, but what about other side effects? Peter Andreas looks at the consequences of the multilateral sanctions directed at the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s and finds a disturbing legacy. Economic sanctions, it turns out, can unintentionally contribute to the criminalization of the state, economy, and civil society of both the targeted country and its immediate neighbors. By trying to evade the sanctions, private entrepreneurs and public officials are encouraged to disregard the rule of law. This fosters an unhealthy symbiosis among political leaders, organized crime, and transnational smuggling networks. These criminal networks can persist even after sanctions are lifted, contributing to public corruption and undermining governance.

  • DANIEL W. DREZNER is Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
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