Economic Sanctions and War in US Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran

2 A PhD Candidate in International Relations, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran


The adoption of coercive instruments by governments has a longer history than foreign policy itself. In the absence of diplomacy, armed conflicts were the primary means of communication among countries. Over time and with the growing interdependence of countries, military means (i.e., armed conflicts) as the sole conduit of coercion in foreign policy were supplanted by a wide range of coercive means available for governments to use. However, war as the ultimate inevitable option or the last resort has remained relevant. Economic sanction has been one of the most important non-military coercive instruments of foreign policy that has increasingly been used by the United States in recent years.
Many questions have been raised regarding the relationship between this coercive economic tool of foreign policy and the traditional tool of coercion (i.e., war). These questions seek to examine the role of sanctions as an independent or complementary tool of foreign policy, and to explain how sanctions play a role in substituting or preparing the grounds for war. In this paper, the authors attempt to find an answer for the following questions: What role do economic sanctions play in U.S. foreign policy? How is sanction used as the forerunner of war or its alternative? In the research hypothesis, it is asserted that understanding economic sanction as an alternative to war leads to decreasing the pressure of sanctions in response to targeted government’s cooperation, while perceiving economic sanction as a complement (and precursor) to war leads to maintaining (or increasing) the pressure of sanctions, despite the targeted state’s relative acceptance of the demands of the coercive state.
To answer these questions, the authors first explain the importance of coercive tools in US foreign and security policy based on the differences between  military-civilian  coercive  tools, and the distinction between soft power, athard power and “power to coerce” (P2C). Accordingly, we distinguish between the forced “use of force” to defend and the “use of force” to initiate wars. Also, the boundaries between implicit coercion and absolute coercion are drawn. In the next step, we identify the relative position of economic sanction (and war) as the coercive tools of US foreign policy; and the relationship between coercive diplomacy and economic sanction is also explained. Then,  the typology of sanctions and specifically the distinction between bargaining and punitive sanctions are explored. Sanctions are not used in a vacuum, and are primarily imposed against adversaries, the next section provides a chronology of events showing the nature of US relations with two of its nemeses, namely North Korea and Iraq in order to collect data required to test the research hypothesis, using event data analysis.
The findings show that economic sanction can play a role as either the precursor or an alternative to war. Given the US government's ultimate strategy toward the targeted state and the latter’s potential to create significant costs for the US, this role is defined at three levels: regional, international and US domestic arena. The event data analysis of US-North Korean relations shows that the high destructive power of the North Korean government (given its possession of nuclear weapons) led to the role of economic sanction as an alternative to war against that country. In contrast, the case of Iraq reflects the strategy of regime change towards that country, a strategy that was facilitated by the use of economic sanction as an instrument of weakening an adversary before waging a full-scale war to accomplish foreign policy objectives.


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