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Sanctions as a Tool for Peace

Sanctions as a Tool for Peace

Photo credit: Sasha Maksymenko

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: McCormack, D., & Pascoe, H. (2015). Sanctions and Preventive War. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 0022002715620471.

Talking Points

  • Moderate sanctions lower the chance of war, but weak or overly destructive sanctions can increase the chance of war.
  • Sanctions can lead countries to diplomatic negotiations, which in turn contribute to future cooperation.
  • Sanctioning governments convey strength and solidarity through shared condemnation.


Sanctions have the capacity to severely hinder a country’s economic growth and their ability to maintain a strong military presence. This article provides further insight into the important role sanctions play in international politics, especially when used as a tool for military containment.

In this study, the research team creates a war game scenario pining two conflicting countries against each other to test if sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, would have an effect on the likelihood of violent conflict. In this war game, the countries are able to decide whether to impose sanctions or not, and chose to go to war or accept the other country’s terms – depending on the severity of the sanctions. The war game requires the fictitious sanctions to possess two qualities:

  1. they must hurt economic consumption in both the sanctioned country and the country conducting the sanctions; and,
  2. they must shift military power to the country conducting the sanctions.

This study illustrated how sanctions can vary in severity and time, which directly influences their impact on containing the military power of the country being sanctioned. The severity of sanctions is based on how interdependent the involved countries are and their economic dependence on imports and exports. Based on these variables, sanctions can be too weak and therefore fail to disrupt the military power balance, or they can be too severe and force the sanctioned country to rapidly increase their military power, or even preemptively attack, in an attempt to prevent the pending sanctions. However, when moderately severe sanctions are applied to avoid the “too weak/too severe dilemma”, the research team found a drastic decrease in the probability of violent conflict and a reduction of the sanctioned country’s military capabilities.

The study also examined past sanction regimes to compare the results of the war game to historical knowledge. One of the examples used were the U.S. sanctions against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. The sanction balance was strong enough to affect Iranian military power, but not too strong so that Iran would attack to escape the sanctions. The study showed that in the period leading up to the sanctions, Iran’s defense budget and armed forces increased dramatically.

Iran’s former dependence on Western weapons and parts was a major factor in the success of the sanctions. When the sanctioning countries halted trade, Iran had to turn to poor-quality replacement parts that rendered many of their war machines inoperable. By the end of the war, Iran had only 12 operational helicopters from the original 500. The economic effects of the sanctions carried over long after the end of the war as well; resupply orders were cut or canceled, leaving Iran with only 184 of the 1,500 tanks they ordered before the war and less than a quarter of the aircraft originally budgeted for.

The Iranian sanctions provide a good example of the specific outcomes a balanced sanctioning regime can cause to a threatening military presence. This research shows that thoughtful sanction regimes can truly change the outcome or likelihood of war without having to pay the high human and economic costs of military campaigns.

Contemporary Relevance

The channels of communication created during sanction campaigns and in negotiating their end, can lead to more effective paths to conflict resolution in the future. As an example, the agreements made during the nuclear weapons deal between the US and Iran have led to additional cooperation during the recent imprisonment of U.S. Navy personnel arrested off the shore of Iran. This shows that negotiated pathways – which were partially made possible through sanctions – create channels of trust and cooperation when handling potentially volatile situations.

When examining the recent European Union/United States sanctions against Russia, some may suggest the sanctions failed considering Russia is not totally contained in Eastern Europe. However, others would argue the sanctions were successful due to their role in slowing Russia’s advance into Crimea, as well as any further Western military mobilization as a response. The balance of severity in the sanctions, as well as the unified message of support from the sanctioning countries, have so far been successful in preventing a large escalation of violence in the regional conflict.

Practical Implications

Sanctions are a tool of diplomacy that provide governments with a nonviolent method to reduce another country’s military power. The parties involved in conducting and receiving sanctions, as well as those observing the sanction campaign from the outside, benefit from an effective nonviolent method to address conflict. With time, these methods can bring the conflicting parties to the negotiating table. As David Cortright states, “[sanctions] are useful for persuading an adversary to come to the bargaining table, but they must be accompanied by meaningful incentives for cooperation”(*1). Once a successful process of cooperation has begun, it is more likely that agreements and further cooperation can be achieved.

It is important to observe the success of a sanction regime though a wide lens, and not just by the immediately observable results. Just because a country or group of countries failed to meet all of the objectives set before sanctioning does not mean that the sanctions failed. Rather, success should be weighed against the sanctions’ ability to balance power and the human and economic costs from a war that the sanctions may have helped prevent – not the potential hardships that come during a sanction regime.

“Sanctions are means of applying pressure, but their effectiveness depends on offering to lift sanctions as an incentive for reaching a negotiated settlement”. (David Cortright, Peace Scientist)

Continued Reading

Hiller, P. 2015. Deal with the Deal. Nuclear Nonproliferation, Sanctions Relief, Then What? PeaceVoice. 

Keywords: sanctions, nonviolence, war


(*1) The Nuclear Deal and the Success of Sanctions.

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 2, of the Peace Science Digest.


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