The effectiveness of sanctions as a tool of international diplomacy in the 21st century

By Leonardo Bandarra.

International sanctions are severe coercive actions designed to be imposed on countries that disrespect International Law or jeopardize International peace and security. Today, however, they have become overstretched, which suggests that they are losing their effectiveness. This poses a mammoth problem for the international community, since the best alternative to sanctioning is the military means, for sanctions are already the last resort to be used when diplomatic solutions fail. In order to know how to manage them effectively, a country ought to focus on the rational and instrumental purposes of imposing sanctions.

Analysing the rational purposes of sanctions simply means asking whether their purposes are attached to any goal pursued by the sanctioning country, and how they will possibly affect its National Interests in the long run. Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations specifies that sanctions should only be applied as the final expedient and shall be imposed by the United Nations Security Council. Today, however, several countries choose to leapfrog the torpid decision-making process led by the United Nations Security Council by imposing sanctions themselves. This is especially true to the world’s greatest powers. Lacklustre American-European sanctions against Russia are only the tip of the iceberg amid the confusing net of sanctions currently being applied worldwide. What is happening today is a return to the premises of realism, since imposing sanctions has become closely related to the acquisition of power. On the one hand, the more a country imposes sanctions, the more carefully its opinions will be considered. On the other, however, the more sanctions are being applied, the less effective they are.

The second way to analyse the imposition of sanctions is through its instrumental purposes. The first characteristic to be considered is how powerful the sanctioning country is. Following the realist thinkers, such as Kenneth Waltz and Henry Kissinger, powerful countries are more capable of using this tool efficiently to damage their target. This is clear when analysing the great impact of the American sanctions against North Korea. A sanction imposed by a weak country is, ultimately, a clumsy turmoil, even if it has praiseworthy objectives, such as the Angolan sanctions against racist South Africa in the 1970’s. Moreover, in an increasingly multi-polar world, sanctions tend to become even less effective, for new ways of overcoming them through the support of emerging countries are becoming available. This point is well illustrated by the close relations between Brazil and Cuba, which have become more and more dynamic since President José Sarney re-established diplomatic relations between both countries, in 1986.

To be effective, the implementation of sanctions must be rational, i.e., it must have a lucid goal that justifies expenditure of time and funds, and it must be instrumental, i.e., it must have an effective impact on its target. Today, however, the application of sanctions is becoming increasingly common and, therefore, gradually less efficient. Countries must deal with this problem in order to ensure a peaceful world.

zLeonardo C. L. A. Bandarra is a master candidate in the field of International Relations at the University of Brasilia, Brazil, and a CAPES (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel) Foundation fellow (

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