Unwilling to invoke military might, President Joe Biden has orchestrated an astonishing array of sanctions on Russia and its power brokers with lightning speed. On Thursday, with the ruble worth only a cent, he claimed that they were working. “The severe economic sanctions on Putin and all those folks around him, choking off access to technology as well as cutting off access to the global financial system—it’s had a profound impact already,” he said, before a cabinet meeting.
The tough reality, however, is that sanctions often fail to sufficiently or efficiently squeeze regimes, whether the goal is to end a war, stop genocide, limit the bomb, or undermine oppression. They have a long and mixed history, dating back to ancient Greece, when Pericles sanctioned other city-states. The obstacles are many. In 1806, Napoleon imposed sanctions to curtail European trade with Britain, but even his own brother, who assumed the Spanish throne, couldn’t enforce them. Sanctions were not wielded as an independent instrument of foreign policy until the twentieth century. Since the Second World War, they’ve become the most popular tool short of military intervention. Globalization has magnified the interdependence of nations, and sanctions provide a low-risk, high-profile response to aggression. Yet sanctions generate meaningful change only about forty per cent of the time. Years of sanctions failed in North Korea, Venezuela, and Iraq. Cuba has faced layers of U.S. trade and arms embargoes since 1960. The Communist regime is still in power. The Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, faced multiple sanctions for his brutal repression after the Arab Spring uprising, in 2011, turned into a civil war. Hundreds of thousands have died, yet Assad is still firmly entrenched in Damascus. Sanctions are often sagas. Success in South Africa took three decades. The Iran model, which the U.S. has invoked for Russia, has had gyrating effects. Sanctions also produce heartbreak. The agony is the differential in timing. A gun, shell, or bomb can kill in seconds. Sanctions take a comparative eon in the scheme of war or a humanitarian crisis. “They rarely work,” Benn Steil, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “But, when they do work, they tend to take a very long time.”