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What Are Unilateral Economic Sanctions?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 16, 2024
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Unilateral economic sanctions are imposed by one country against another to cut off trade and business relations, such as import and export of goods and financial loans. This is a method of foreign policy instituted when one country disagrees with another country's mode of government, human rights violations, environmental pollution, or other policy. The goal of the sanctions is to punish the targeted nation and give them an impetus to change their policies.

A nation can perpetrate a variety of offenses that would cause others to impress unilateral economic sanctions. For example, they may not tightly regulate environmental pollution or chemical waste, support terrorism directly or by ignoring it, allow unsafe or exploitative employment conditions of children or prisoners, develop weapons that violate international agreements, permit narcotics trade, or otherwise violate basic human rights. The sanctions mean that a company may not do business with the offending country, including employing labor, investing funds, importing raw or consumer goods, or exporting their own products.

The United States government holds the power to institute unilateral economic sanctions against offending states if they fulfill the "rogue and recalcitrant" requirement. The U.S. economically sanctions more countries than any other state. For example, they have or have had unilateral embargoes against China, Vietnam, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Libya, North Korea, and Syria. They hope that the economies of these countries will be so adversely affected that they will work to improve living conditions by changing laws or providing more resources.

Many U.S. businesses and independent analysts question the efficacy of unilateral economic sanctions. They point out that rarely, if ever, have they successfully driven a state to significantly change their policy to meet U.S. demands. They focus on long-term embargoes, such as against Cuba or the Soviet Union, that did not result in improved foreign relations. Yet sanctions almost always adversely impact our domestic economy. Sanctions eliminate the amount of goods that can be exported, resulting in lower revenues and lost jobs.

Instead, some companies insist that their presence in developing countries encourages, by example, better working conditions and higher wages that can be compensated by increased foreign investment. Also, the U.S. spends a lot of money on monitoring and enforcing such sanctions and embargoes. Often their sanctions have invited retaliation from developed countries in Europe that decide to boycott U.S. goods, further weakening the economy, because they do not agree on the method of unilateral economic sanctions.

Proponents proclaim that unilateral economic sanctions establish a clear display of a nation's minimum standards and slowly help to weaken the offending government.

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Discussion Comments
By Markerrag — On Oct 16, 2014

@Terrificli @Soulfox -- Not to be indelicate, but who cares? What I mean is that one of the primary reasons for sanctions is to not pump money into an economy that is supported by a nation that is an enemy to the United States.

That theory makes sense. Why give a nation money if all it plans to do with it is build weapons so that it can use them against your citizens.

Those do have a negative impact on the U.S. economy, but there are times when there are more important things than boosting the economy. When we're fighting enemies of the United States, there is nothing wrong with using every tool at our disposal to defeat them.

By Soulfox — On Oct 15, 2014

@Terrificli -- Agreed, and here is something else. Those sanctions are harmful to American workers.

There was a time when we had sanctions against Cuba, Iraq and Iran. We couldn't import from those countries or export to them. Those three nations, however, once made up the largest foreign market for American rice. All the sanctions did was hurt American farmers and they really did not convince those nations to change a thing politically.

By Terrificli — On Oct 14, 2014

Frankly, sanctions are often a terrible idea because they don't work all that well. Take Cuba, for example. What did the United States do when Cuba went Communist? Imposed sanctions and attempted to starve them out by denying them the ability to sell sugar and tobacco to the United States, the biggest customer for those items.

What happened? "Hey Cuba," the Soviet Union said. "We'll buy your sugar."

The only thing sanctions did, then, was drive Cuba closer into the Soviet camp. How did that help anything?

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