International Relations Economic Coercion and Sanctions
Tyler Kustra
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0289


Since at least the Athenian trade ban on Megara, in the run-up to the Peloponnesian War, states have used economic sanctions to pursue their foreign policy goals. Using a definition popularized by Hufbauer, et al. (Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 2017, p. 3), political scientists consider economic sanctions to be the “deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of customary trade or financial relations.” Sanctions are imposed by a sender country on a target country. While praised by Woodrow Wilson as a way to force the target government to change its policies while sparing its civilians from the scourges of war, by the end of the 1990s critics charged that sanctions were impotent to change the target government’s behavior but were deadly for civilians. Sanctions have been credited with ending apartheid and preventing nuclear proliferation, and have been criticized for facilitating genocide in the former Yugoslavia and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq (although the latter claim has since been proven to be false). In order to go beyond considering only a handful of examples and consider sanctions comprehensively, political scientists have developed mathematical models to examine how sanctions work in theory, and comprehensive data sets of sanctions cases to study them statistically. They have examined why senders impose sanctions, how targets respond, and what sanctions do to the civilians who live under them.

Why Economic Sanctions?

The obvious reason for sanctions is to influence the target’s behavior. Of course, there are also others paying attention. Peterson 2013 argues that the sender may feel compelled to impose sanctions even if it thinks that they will be ineffective against the target, because not imposing sanctions could convince other states that they could get away with similar behavior. Sanctions are also called upon when governments want to provide a token response. Discussing sanctions imposed on Italy after it attacked Ethiopia, former British prime minister David Lloyd George remarked that the sanctions came too late to save Abyssinia, but just in the nick of time to save the British government. Whang 2011 (cited under Public Opinion) demonstrates that Lloyd George’s analysis also applies to the United States where the president often impose sanctions when he wants to be seen to be doing something in response to the target’s behavior, regardless of their responses’ efficacy. Kaempfer and Lowenberg 1988 shows that sanctions also have distributional consequences, with some factions in the sender country benefiting from trade restrictions, thereby making sanctions a disguised form of protectionism.

  • Kaempfer, William H., and Aton D. Lowenberg. “The Theory of International Economic Sanctions: A Public Choice Approach.” American Economic Review 78.4 (1988): 786–793.

    Canonical model of domestic groups in the sender country lobbying for and against sanctions and domestic groups in the target lobbying for and against the offending policy.

  • Peterson, Timothy M. “Sending a Message: The Reputation Effect of US Sanction Threat Behavior.” International Studies Quarterly 57.4 (2013): 672–682.

    Targets consider whether sender countries followed through on recent threats to impose economic sanctions to assess their credibility; they are more likely to concede at the threat stage when the sender has recently followed through on threats to impose sanctions on recalcitrant countries.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.