Early History and Well-Known Embargoes

Embargoes have a fairly lengthy history. Even in the ancient world, kingdoms sought to prevent technologies, such as the know-how to make iron weapons in the era of bronze weapons, from spreading to other states. During the age of exploration, maps of the New World or the African coast were jealously guarded. Efforts to use such economic weapons have carried over into the modern world.

One early attempt at an embargo as a weapon of foreign diplomacy occurred when Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States early in the 19th century. He declared an embargo on trade with Great Britain since the Royal Navy was interfering with trade by neutral countries with France and its allies that were at war with Great Britain. While the United States accepted that war materials could not be carried on neutral shipping, the British used an extremely liberal definition of “war materials.” Jefferson hoped that the embargo would keep Britain from benefiting from being the only remaining major trade partner of the United States. This embargo was not especially effective. Smuggling became widespread in both directions, depriving the national government of tariff revenues, and the economy suffered major losses from reductions in foreign trade. Ultimately, the United States needed the industrial goods of Britain much more than the British needed American raw materials.

Napoleon Bonaparte undertook a similar policy once he consolidated power in France. In his struggles with Great Britain, he attempted to use economic sanctions. He established his Continental System, which was intended to deny the British access to European markets and raw materials. The Continental System failed in part because smuggling was rampant and in part because in many cases British goods were seen as better and cheaper than their French or European equivalents.

Embargoes were used by the United States during the Cold War. The United States limited the shipment of strategic goods (broadly defined) to the Soviet Union and its allies. American allies supported this action, although they eventually disputed the lengthy list and did not observe all the prohibitions. The Soviet Union managed to acquire technology through theft of industrial secrets and often was able to purchase some materials through countries that legally had access to the technology. Although the United States and its allies had significant difficulty in preventing important technology from getting to the Soviet Union, the embargo on strategic goods did slow down Soviet efforts to develop technology in some areas or to quickly modernize its economic system. There were higher costs to gaining technology or creating Soviet versions, and Soviet efforts at effective central economic planning would no doubt have been greatly enhanced by open access to Western computer and software technologies that were on the prohibited list of strategic goods.

The United Nations placed embargoes on many economic goods for Rhodesia after the minority white government declared its independence from Britain unilaterally in 1965. This embargo was not very effective since goods reached Rhodesia through the neighboring Portuguese colonies or South Africa. Portugal and South Africa paid lip service to the embargo but chose not to enforce it, and there was no effective surveillance. There was a series of economic sanctions directed against South Africa that occurred later, especially when the government implemented its harsh apartheid system of race separation. These sanctions were only partial and were honored to differing degrees by different countries, but they did have an economic impact. A variety of factors played a role in the transition to majority rule in that country, and economic considerations were one of them.

After the liberation of Kuwait, sanctions remained in place as part of an effort to force Iraq to destroy its chemical and biological weapons and to permit international inspections to guarantee compliance. These sanctions included an embargo on the purchase of Iraqi oil, later changed to permit limited sales of Iraqi oil on the international market so that Iraq could provide food and medicine for its citizens. The sanctions did not work as anticipated. Hussein used the revenues available to the state to strengthen his security apparatus rather than for purchases of food and medicine or for rebuilding sanitation facilities. The hardships and increased fatalities from inadequate health care actually led to calls for an end to the sanctions. The failure of sanctions to lead to any improvement in the Iraqi regime contributed to the United States’ decision in 2003 to invade Iraq to remove Hussein from power.

Iran also faced a variety of economic embargoes in the aftermath of the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and then due to Iranian efforts to develop its nuclear capacity. These sanctions have clearly harmed the Iranian economy in numerous ways. In conjunction with domestic political events inside Iran, the economic sanctions contributed to the increased willingness of the government in 2014 to consider negotiations on the discontinuation of the program or its continuation under strict international surveillance, which would provide an element of security for those concerned about Iran becoming a nuclear power.


Embargoes and sanctions have obviously not always succeeded, and effective surveillance can be an important element in their success. They have also been a prelude to military action in many cases. Their imposition can also have additional negative effects. The costs can be passed on to a minority group, to the population in general, or perhaps to the most vulnerable members of society, while the government relies on security forces to deal with any discontent. This creates a moral dilemma for countries imposing embargoes, especially if they are designed to achieve humanitarian goals. Embargoes can also encourage smuggling and other evasions. In earlier times, smugglers were considered heroes, and they could again gain increased status in modern times as nationalists fighting against foreign interference. In today’s world, however, the successful smugglers are often part of well-established criminal networks, and the increased status may provide them with opportunities for increased influence or chances to use the wealth from smuggling to corrupt government officials.

James M. Lutz

See also Cold War ; Iran ; Iraq ; South Africa

Further Readings

Andreas, Peter. “Criminalizing Consequences of Sanctions: Embargo Busting and Its Legacy.” International Studies Quarterly, v.49/2 (2005).

Baldwin, David A. “The Sanctions Debate and Other Political Uses: The Logic of Choice.” International Organization, v.24/3 (1999–2000).

Drezner Daniel W. “Sanctions Sometimes Smart: Targeted Sanctions in Theory and Practice.” International Studies Review, v.13/1 (2011).

Hufbauer, Gary and Jeffrey Schott (with Kimberly Elliot). Economic Sanctions Reconsidered: History and Current Policy. Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 1983.

Pape, Robert. “Why Sanctions Do Not Work.” International Security, v.22/2 (1997).