Economic Sanctions:

Effectiveness as Tools of Foreign Policy

NSIAD-92-106: Published: Feb 19, 1992. Publicly Released: Mar 23, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed economic sanctions, focusing on the: (1) political goals economic sanctions can and cannot achieve; (2) socioeconomic, political, and psychological effects of sanctions; and (3) circumstances in which sanctions are likely to succeed or fail.

GAO found that: (1) since sanctions are imposed to serve multiple goals, their effectiveness should not be measured only by the targeted nation's compliance with publicly stated objectives or demands; (2) economic sanctions can raise the costs of trade and finance to the target nation, but do not wreck its economy, since many countries can undermine export embargoes and redirect trade; (3) sanctions are more effective in achieving such modest goals as upholding international norms and deterring future objectionable actions; (4) sanctions can have collateral effects on the targeted nation's economy and cannot be used effectively to hurt specific groups; (5) economic sanctions are most effective when applied multilaterally or against friendly nations with economic and political ties to the sanctioning country; (6) international publicity can enhance the threat of future measures and is vital when the goal is to deter a nation from unacceptable behavior or show support for political opposition; (7) a sanction's success is more closely related to the threatened damage of subsequent measures than it is to the economic damage it causes; (8) imposing harsh comprehensive sanctions immediately may be counterproductive, since the target government may use the severe economic plan to rally its population against the imposing country; and (9) sanctions are more effective when the target nation's culture is similar to the sanctioning nation's and sanctions generally fail when cultural norms in the target nation demand resistance to save face.

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