Economist Andrey Elinson on the Impact of Sanctions on International Relations

Over the past century, European countries and the United States have developed and honed new ways to “softly” influence particular political institutions and entire nations. The upheavals of the 20th century (the rise and fall of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, two world wars with their horrific death toll, and the threat of nuclear conflict) motivated politicians to devise instruments of influence on their foreign opponents that could prevent new crises and wars.

By the beginning of the 21st century, it turned out that the most effective tools of this kind were sanctions, says economist and political analyst Andrey Elinson. “Although sanctions can lead to unexpected scenarios in international relations, the world is yet to come up with something more effective,” the expert notes. However, errors in analyzing the restrictive measures and assessing their consequences and risks may render them meaningless.

 The purpose and effectiveness of sanctions

It would be a mistake to think that the sole purpose of sanctions is to completely “paralyze” the country against which they are being imposed. If a regime violating international treaties has enough resources to continue pursuing its policies, then introducing sanctions can at least slow down its development, frustrate its plans, and allow other countries to prepare for the future crisis. “This is a well-known paradox. The more impact a country under sanctions has on the global economy, the more impact these sanctions will have on other countries as well, but the more effective they will be,” explains Andrey Elinson.

There are numerous historical examples to support the thesis about the multipurposeness of sanctions. In most cases, sanctions are preceded by prolonged negotiations and diplomatic protests. When these steps fail, but the country is not ready for full-scale war, the decision is made to introduce economic measures.

As an example, Andrey Elinson cites the sanctions imposed against Mussolini’s regime by the League of Nations in 1935. After the invasion of Ethiopia by the Italian army, the dictatorial regime faced a package of sanctions: a freeze on financial transactions, a ban on the import of some food products, an arms embargo, and a ban on the export of raw materials used by the military sector. The impact on the world economy was significant and included a sharp rise in the price of food and certain manufactured goods. But the effect was not long in coming. In six months, Italy’s industrial output fell by 21%, while exports plunged by 47%. The U.S. and Germany, however, did not join the sanctions; Italy did not stop importing oil and coal and ended up conquering Ethiopia anyway. Historians and economists still wonder if sanctions could have changed Mussolini’s intentions had the world’s first economy joined them…

A few years later, Western countries imposed sanctions against Japan’s policy toward China. First, Tokyo lost its European trading partners. Then, at the beginning of World War II, America, Britain, and the Netherlands imposed a complete oil embargo and froze the country’s yen reserves in the United States. Japan played a vital role in the global economy, and the sanctions could not help but affect other states, notes Andrey Elinson. For Tokyo, however, the blow was even more painful. Japan’s trade volume fell by a quarter. The country was forced to adjust its plans and take reckless steps that ultimately affected the outcome of the war.

These examples show that the purpose of sanctions may vary and that a country’s ability to adapt to them is not necessarily indicative of their ineffectiveness. As a rule, political analysts and historians identify several goals countries and international institutions pursue by imposing sanctions. “They do it not just to end hostilities or change the regime. Sanctions may also be imposed to demonstrate resolve, send a signal to third countries, show solidarity with the victim of military aggression, change the “perpetrator’s” policy on a particular issue, destabilize the regime, destroy a country’s military potential, etc.,” says Andrey Elinson. For example, the U.S. and Japan did not aim to change China’s regime when they imposed sanctions on it after the dispersal of the Tiananmen Square protests. And sanctions against India and Pakistan were imposed to bring closer the end of hostilities during the struggle for the independence of Bangladesh. In the second half of the 20th century, governments imposed sanctions against Third World countries to prevent the development of nuclear weapons. Andrey Elinson also notes that targeted sanctions are increasingly being imposed on specific entities and individuals responsible for violating international law.

The goals pursued by sanctions may be combined or changed over the course of the campaign. For example, in 1990, the U.S. tried to force Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, but then its goal changed to the complete dismantling of his power. Therefore, when analyzing the effectiveness of various sanctions, we always need to consider their purpose. History shows that this tool has almost never helped the global community to end hostilities. However, if an end to hostilities was not the goal in the first place, then the sanctions can hardly be called failed. Sanctions against Italy or the late-period Soviet Union stalled their development and drained their economies. And it was often through sanctions that a country’s political course could be adjusted.

 The issue of international relations

Assessing the long-term effects of sanctions is not easy, notes Andrey Elinson. Especially when it comes to international relations. Such measures may give birth to new alliances, isolate countries, or, conversely, bring countries under sanctions together. For example, during the Cold War, sanctions imposed against small states by the superpowers (the United States and the Soviet Union) automatically pushed them into the opposite camp, as was the case with Cuba and Yugoslavia. In addition, attempts to circumvent sanctions and reorient trade were sometimes quite successful, helping regimes to offset commercial damage. Sanctions could also affect the interests of third countries engaged in the import and export of goods under contracts with the sanctioned states.

Andrey Elinson is convinced that any sanctions program can be successful if the following conditions are met: compliance with international law; transparency and absence of double standards; institutional support for the measures taken; a political consensus among the allies; and alignment between the actor’s goals and capabilities.

“Given the value of human life in modern society, we can predict that this instrument will continue to gain momentum. One would like to believe that it will replace wars as such. So far, it seems improbable, but let’s look at Europe’s history. Not long ago, it was impossible to imagine that Germany, France, the UK, Spain, and Italy would learn to settle their disputes with each other without weapons. But today, it is the reality we live in,” argues Andrey Elinson, admitting, however, that in global politics, “getting along” will be a much slower and much more painful process.

Andrey Elinson is an expert in war and economic sanctions from Azerbaijan. He earned his PhD in economics from Georgetown University and is a research assistant at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, specializing in the economic impact of war sanctions. Andrey has published various papers on the topic and is highly respected in his field. He is a proponent of diplomacy, negotiation, and international cooperation to resolve conflicts and avoid the need for sanctions or military action. Andrey is also a vocal advocate for human rights and social justice.