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Exploring the erosion of impact in US sanctions on several countries

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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research scholar, and counterterrorism specialist. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers.

Sanctions have long been used as a foreign policy tool by the United States to exert pressure on countries perceived as threats or violators of international norms. While sanctions have proven effective in some instances, there is a growing recognition that their impact is diminishing in several countries. This article examines the reasons behind the erosion of the effectiveness of US sanctions and the challenges they face in achieving their desired outcomes.

According to Brookings Institute, the widespread use of economic sanctions constitutes one of the paradoxes of contemporary American foreign policy. Sanctions are frequently criticized, even derided.

It further said: “Sanctions alone are unlikely to achieve desired results if the aims are large or time is short. Sanctions – even when comprehensive and enjoying almost universal international backing for nearly six months – failed to get Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. In the end, it took Operation Desert Storm. Other sanctions have also fallen short.

The Iranian regime continues to support terrorism, oppose the Middle East peace process, and press ahead with its nuclear weapons program. Fidel Castro could not be removed from power. Pakistan was not deterred from testing nuclear weapons by the threat of draconian penalties. Libya refused to produce the two individuals accused of the destruction of Pan Am 103. Sanctions could not persuade Haiti’s junta to honor the results of an election. Nor could they dissuade Serbia and others to call off their military aggression. Lately, sanctions on Russia have already backfired.

According to a report published in NPR:

US sanctions against Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, China and Venezuela have all made the news in recent weeks. That may seem like a lot countries that the US is sanctioning. But they’re just five of the roughly 23 countries that the US is currently sanctioning around the world.

The Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) at the US Treasury says sanctions use trade restrictions and the blocking of assets to accomplish foreign policy and national security goals. Some of these sanctions date back to 1996. So how successful have they been?

Not very, says Agathe Demarais, in her new book Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against US Interests.

Demarais works at the Economist Intelligence Unit, as its global forecasting director. Previously, she worked on sanctions for the French government, as a senior policy advisor to the Treasury. She says a review of all US sanctions since 1970 shows that targeted countries altered their behavior in a way that the US hoped they would just 13 percent of the time.

“The reality is that sanctions are sometimes effective, but most often not, and it is hard to accurately predict when they will work”, she says.

According to Professor Mark Beeson, “Despite Washington’s continuing enthusiasm for sanctions, however, the results of American policies have often been counterproductive. Not only has the unilateral and arbitrary use of sanctions undermined the international standing of the US, it has had material consequences”.

He further said: “Many countries have been scarred by America’s unilateral use of sanctions. Indeed, the collateral damage inflicted by the Trump era, in particular, means it is not obvious that even Western allies such as the EU will automatically side with the US against any country in a contest for economic or otherwise supremacy.

Commenting on US sanctions on Russia, Agathe Demarais wrote in an article in Journal of Democracy: “There is no shortage of evidence that sanctions against dictatorships are an imperfect tool at best. As such, sanctions against Russia are unlikely to persuade the Kremlin to change course in Ukraine. But that does not mean that Western governments should abandon them. In the absence of other viable options, sanctions still serve a purpose. They send a strong message, filling the gap between empty diplomatic declarations and deadly military interventions. While they may not persuade dictators to change course, they still circumscribe autocrats’ abilities to achieve their goals or wage war against their neighbors”.


According to the Atlantic Council, US sanctions on Syria has already fallen flat. It said, “Eleven years after the eruption of the Syrian uprising in 2011 and the subsequent conflict, the United States’ Syria policy has constrained political pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime to broad economic sanctions. But, despite an expansive approach that targets entire economic sectors, these sanctions have had little to no effect in pushing the regime to offer political concessions, engage meaningfully in a peaceful settlement of the conflict, or improve its human rights record”.

In my opinion, in an increasingly interconnected world, economic interdependence has weakened the efficacy of US sanctions. Many countries targeted by sanctions have diversified their trade partners and strengthened their economic ties with nations that are not aligned with US interests. This economic diversification provides a cushion against the impact of US sanctions, as countries can mitigate the effects by redirecting their trade and investments to alternative markets.

The global financial system has evolved, making it easier for targeted countries to circumvent US sanctions. Nations subject to sanctions have developed sophisticated methods to evade restrictions, including utilizing alternative financial channels, conducting trade through intermediaries, and utilizing cryptocurrencies. Such evasion techniques make it increasingly difficult for US sanctions to achieve their intended economic pressure on targeted countries.

Sanctions imposed by the United States are not always universally supported by its allies and the international community. In some cases, allies may be reluctant to fully enforce sanctions due to their own economic interests or differing geopolitical considerations. Furthermore, the lack of broad international support weakens the effectiveness of US sanctions and limits their impact on the targeted countries.

Sanctions often lead to unintended consequences, such as strengthening anti-US sentiment and fostering nationalistic resistance within targeted countries. The perception of being unjustly targeted by the United States can rally public support behind their governments, allowing them to maintain popular legitimacy. In such cases, sanctions may inadvertently bolster the resilience of regimes and hinder the desired political or behavioral changes sought by the United States.

Targeted countries have demonstrated adaptability and resilience in the face of US sanctions. They have developed strategies to mitigate the impact of sanctions, including implementing economic reforms, diversifying their economies, and seeking alternative partnerships. Over time, this adaptability has diminished the potential economic shock and reduced the leverage of US sanctions.

The diminishing impact of US sanctions in several countries is a complex issue influenced by factors such as economic interdependence, evolving financial systems, international cooperation, rising anti-US sentiment, and the adaptability of targeted countries. As the effectiveness of sanctions erodes, policymakers must carefully consider alternative strategies that go beyond economic coercion.

Engaging in meaningful dialogue, diplomatic negotiations, and promoting constructive multilateral approaches can provide more sustainable solutions to address global challenges while preserving American interests.

Considering above circumstances, it can be easily said – sanctions imposed by the United States is gradually becoming a toothless tiger – if not a paper tiger, for which America should be held mainly responsible as it has been using this ‘sanction weapon’ against targeted nations, organizations and individuals almost en masse without considering the consequence of it.

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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research scholar, and counterterrorism specialist. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers.
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