“US Trade Embargoes — Are They Effective Tools to Promote Change?”

by Andrea Klestadt


Trade embargoes, government orders prohibiting trade with specific countries, have been used in attempts to induce changes in government policies of other countries as early as 432 B.C., when the Athenian leader, Pericles, imposed the first recorded sanctions on Megara for violations of sacred land. In the United States, trade sanctions have been used numerous times, but have historically failed more often than succeeded. Although they may seem like a more humanitarian alternative to war, economic warfare through trade embargoes harms the economy, inherently harming civilians, as a means of encouraging governmental change. While this may be effective in a democratic government, many countries against which the United States currently imposes sanctions are autocratic; the people living in these countries have little or no means of influencing their government, and in some cases their government has little or no incentive to relieve their suffering at the expense of accepting U.S. terms. United States trade embargoes are not effective tools to promote change because they ultimately punish a country’s population more than its government and can sometimes be evaded through trade with other countries.


Although an embargo is an interaction between the United States and a foreign country, we do not live in a two-nation world; if the United States does not gain the support of other nations in cutting off trade to an embargoed country, that country can often find new trading partners. For example, the Clinton administration declared a trade embargo against Iran in May 1995, banning virtually all trade with Tehran (by 1994 the U.S. had become Iran’s largest trading partner, and U.S. oil companies were buying nearly one third or Iran’s oil and selling it through overseas subsidiaries). However, U.S. diplomats were unable to convince Europe and Japan to follow suit. Paris, Bonn and Tokyo also relied heavily on Iranian oil and trade, making the U.S.’ s sanctions much less detrimental. In an August 1995 interview in Mideast Insight, Iranian President Rafsanjani even said: ‘What can possibly happen? If they ban trade with us, it is the United States that is going to lose. The things that we are used to buying from the United States we’ll get from other countries...These bans have had no impact on our economy, and they will not affect this country.” In other words, the Iranian embargo failed to affect policy change while depriving our own county of lucrative trade, simply causing a shift in Iranian trading patterns. Similarly, the United States failed to rally its allies to support its embargo against Burma with the purpose of improving its record on human rights. The European Union imposed only limited and symbolic sanctions on Rangoon, declining to go beyond suspending Burma’s access to duty-free entry to its market, and Australia refrained from doing even that.


When a country cannot evade them, U.S. trade sanctions can have disastrous effects on civilians while having little effect on the target country’s government policy. A U.S. embargo narrows the opportunity of private individuals for economic, social, and cultural contacts with American citizens and can often critically undermine the health and well-being of that country’s population. On November 8, 2006, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly supported an end to the embargo on Cuba which Cuba’s Foreign Minister called the “longest and cruelest” in history. The embargo began in February 1962 during President John F. Kennedy’s administration with the purpose of bringing democracy to the Cuban people. In 2006, a draft resolution proposing an end to this more than forty-year-long embargo was adopted by a staggering vote of 183 in favor to 4 against (including the United States), with 1 abstention. This response is not surprising considering the devastating effects the embargo has had on Cuban’s population. An investigation performed in 1992 by the American Association for World Health determined that “the U.S. embargo of Cuba has dramatically harmed the health and nutrition of large numbers of ordinary Cuban citizens…It is our expert medical opinion that the U.S. embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering-and even deaths- in Cuba.” The ban on trade between the U.S. and Cuba affected a wide range of goods necessary for the health sector including medicines, laboratory products, operating tables and surgery equipment, artificial breathing apparatuses, dialysis apparatuses, and even went as far as to prevent the free supply of food for new-born babies and of equipment for pediatric intensive care units. Although in recent years the United States has increased humanitarian aid to Cuba and has relaxed certain aspects of its embargo, if it did not provoke Castro to change his policies at a time when the Cuban people were suffering most, it is unlikely that the embargo will ever succeed.


In some cases, an embargo’s damage to the country’s population can produce undesired change: providing justification for the target government’s anti-U.S. policies. U.S. trading sanctions have not only failed to promote change in Cuba but have also reinforced Castro’s arguments that the United States promotes economic deprivation in Cuba and seeks to abridge Cuban sovereignty. In Burma, too, the U.S. embargo strengthened the hand of the ruling authorities by creating a scapegoat for Burma’s own internal policy failures.


While there are some exceptions, overall U.S. embargoes are not effective in promoting meaningful foreign policy changes and are frequently counterproductive. In many of the cases considered by advocates of sanctions to be successes, other factors that were at play that may have had far more influence than the actual embargo. For instance, in Haiti, political change did not occur until after the United States prepared to invade the country. The U.S. military campaign against Baghdad likely had more influence on forcing Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait than the United Nations-imposed embargo on Iraq did. In South Africa, U.S. sanctions did not achieve their goal until after the end of the Cold War, which changed South Africa’s political dynamic. Furthermore, sanctions on these three countries were imposed by a broad coalition of trading partners, limiting opportunities for evasion.



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