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Political Effectiveness, Negative Externalities, and the Ethics of Economic Sanctions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 September 2019


As part of the roundtable “Economic Sanctions and Their Consequences,” this essay discusses whether economic sanctions are morally acceptable policy tools. It notes that both conventional and targeted sanctions not only often fail to achieve their stated objectives but also bring about significant negative externalities in target countries. Economic dislocation and increases in political instability instigated by sanctions disproportionately affect the well-being of opposition groups and marginalized segments of society, while target elites and their support base remain insulated from the intended costs of foreign pressure. Sanctions might also incentivize target governments to use repressive means to consolidate their rule and weaken the opposition. Given these serious shortcomings, I argue that sanctions are ethically problematic tools of foreign policy. Nonetheless, this does not mean that sanctions should be rejected outright, as there might be cases where sanctions are the only viable option, and they might work effectively under certain circumstances. Rather, the essay suggests that policymakers should apply more caution in considering the use of sanctions given their low probability of success, and should be more concerned with the delicate balance between political gain and civilian pain before levying sanctions, whether comprehensive or targeted.

Roundtable: Economic Sanctions and their Consequences
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2019 

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1 The list of U.S. sanctions is available at

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3 The list of UN sanctions can be found at

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15 Ibid.

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19 Galtung, “On the Effects of International Economic Sanctions”; and Peksen, “Better or Worse?”

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25 Biersteker, Eckert, and Tourinho, Targeted Sanctions.

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35 Natasha Turak, “Europe, Russia and China Join Forces with a New Mechanism to Dodge Iran Sanctions,” CNBC, updated September 26, 2018,