Resolved: The United States ought to remove all or nearly all of its economic sanctions on one or more of the following: Islamic Republic of Iran, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.



The current version of this essay focuses on the general sanctions good/bad debate. We will be updating this with specific resources.  Venezuela |


In the early 2000s, there was a debate topic about whether sanctions should be lifted on a list of countries.

It was easy to be affirmative. Almost all the literature said that sanctions failed to achieve their objectives, that they impoverished target populations, and that they even triggered a “nationalist backlash” that made human rights violations and conflict more likely. To win, negative teams had to be creative, arguing, for example, that economic development is bad.  This is not the best place to be, especially in World Schools debate.

Unfortunately, things have not gotten much better.  Even a new 2024 that reviewed all of the published studies noted that 30 of the 32 studies concluded that sanctions fail

So, what to do? Do you need to panic?

No, I don’t think you need to panic for a few reasons.

First, you have to debate both sides of the topic. So, whatever side bias may exist, it’s offset by this.

Second, each side gets the same amount of time to speak, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that long. There are certainly more negative arguments and there is more negative literature, but the negative can’t make more arguments than the affirmative.

Third, affirmative teams should focus their advocacy on a type of sanctions – “smart sanctions” – which will improve their odds of defending sanctions.

With that all in mind, let’s get started.


During the Cold War, the scope of sanctions was limited by alliances within ideological blocs.  After the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, there was a marked increase in the use of sanctions as an alternative or supplement to military force. Sanctions were often portrayed as a more benign and humane method of conflict resolution compared to war.

Economic sanctions have become an increasingly common tool of foreign policy in recent decades.

Sanctions Defined

Sanctions involve restrictions on customary trade and financial relations imposed by one country or group of countries on another country to induce a change in behavior or policies.. Common measures include trade embargoes, asset freezes, travel bans, and withholding aid and investment. The use of sanctions has evolved, reflecting the changing global economy and geopolitical landscape.

Here’s how sanctions typically work when one country sanctions another:

  1. Restriction of trade and economic activities: The sanctioning country restricts or prohibits certain types of trade and economic activities with the targeted country. This can include bans on imports and exports of specific goods or services, restrictions on investment, and limitations on financial transactions.
  2. Freezing of assets: The sanctioning country may freeze or seize the assets of the targeted country or its officials, companies, or individuals within its jurisdiction. This can include bank accounts, real estate, and other assets held in the sanctioning country.
  3. Travel bans: The sanctioning country may impose travel bans or visa restrictions on officials, businesspeople, or other individuals from the targeted country, preventing them from entering the sanctioning country or its allies.
  4. Restrictions on financial transactions: The sanctioning country may prohibit or limit financial transactions with the targeted country, its banks, or specific individuals or entities. This can include restrictions on lending, clearing of financial transactions, and access to the sanctioning country’s financial system.
  5. Targeted sanctions: Sanctions can be targeted at specific individuals, companies, or sectors of the targeted country’s economy. This allows the sanctioning country to apply pressure more selectively, while minimizing unintended consequences for the broader population.

An example of sanctions imposed by one country on another is the United States’ sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The U.S. imposed a range of sanctions on Russia, including:

  1. Restrictions on exports of certain goods and technologies, particularly those related to the energy and defense sectors.
  2. Freezing of assets and travel bans on individuals and entities associated with the Russian government or the conflict in Ukraine.
  3. Limitations on access to U.S. financial markets and restrictions on lending to Russian companies and banks.
  4. Targeted sanctions on specific individuals and companies involved in the annexation of Crimea or the destabilization of eastern Ukraine.

The goal of sanctions is to usually to push the target to engage in policy change, to prevent war, to resolve territorial conflict, to reduce terrorism, to protect human rights, to end war, to destabilize regimes, and to promote democracy.

Extraterritorial sanctions

As explained, sanctions ordinarily result when one country places a financial restriction on another country. Extraterritorial sanctions, on the other hand, are sanctions that are applied beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the country imposing them. These sanctions aim to prevent foreign companies or individuals from conducting business with the targeted country or entity, even if their activities are taking place outside the jurisdiction of the sanctioning country.

Extraterritorial sanctions can be controversial and potentially alienate allies for several reasons.

  1. Violation of sovereignty: Extraterritorial sanctions are often perceived as a violation of the sovereignty of other nations, as they attempt to dictate how foreign companies or individuals should conduct their business activities outside the sanctioning country’s borders.
  2. Impact on third parties: Extraterritorial sanctions can have unintended consequences for companies or individuals not directly targeted by the sanctions. This can strain relationships with allies who may have economic interests or citizens affected by the sanctions.
  3. Unfair overreach: Some countries view extraterritorial sanctions as an unfair overreach of authority, particularly when the sanctions are imposed unilaterally without the support of international organizations or a broad coalition of nations.
  4. Retaliation and counter-measures: Extraterritorial sanctions can prompt retaliation from affected countries, leading to a cycle of counter-sanctions and escalating tensions, which can strain diplomatic relations and harm economic ties with allies.

One example of the extraterritorial application of sanctions causing problems is the US sanctions on Cuba. The United States has maintained a comprehensive economic embargo against Cuba for several decades, which includes both domestic and extraterritorial components. The extraterritorial aspects of these sanctions have been a source of tension and have alienated Cuba as well as some of the United States’ allies.

One of the main extraterritorial elements of the U.S. sanctions on Cuba is the Helms-Burton Act, also known as the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, which was enacted in 1996. This act includes provisions that allow U.S. nationals to sue foreign companies that “traffic” in properties that were confiscated from U.S. citizens during the Cuban Revolution.

The Helms-Burton Act has extraterritorial reach because it seeks to penalize foreign companies and individuals for conducting business in Cuba, even if their activities are legal under the laws of their respective countries and do not involve U.S. entities or citizens directly.

This extraterritorial aspect of the sanctions has been highly controversial and has alienated Cuba, as well as some of the United States’ allies,

Potential Benefits of Sanctions

Proponents argue that sanctions can be a powerful instrument for achieving important foreign policy goals without resorting to military force. By inflicting economic damage on target countries, sanctions aim to coerce governments into changing objectionable policies and behavior. Sanctions have been used to combat nuclear proliferation, terrorism, human rights abuses, and to support pro-democracy movements, among other objectives.

Some research indicates that sanctions, when well-designed and enforced, can be effective at achieving concessions from target governments. For example, a study by Bapat and Kwon (2015) presents a bargaining model showing that sanctions are more likely to succeed when senders can credibly threaten significant costs on targets. Case studies have documented instances where sanctions contributed to policy changes, such as Iran’s agreement to limit its nuclear program and Serbia’s acceptance of a peace agreement.In particular, some evidence suggests that sanctions explicitly aimed at promoting democracy and human rights in authoritarian countries can have a positive impact.

One study analyzing a new dataset of US, UN and EU sanctions from 1990-2010 found that, contrary to the prevailing skeptical view, democratic sanctions are often effective at increasing democracy levels in the targeted countries. The authors theorize this may occur by imposing costs on authoritarian elites, signaling international norms, and strengthening domestic opposition.Another potential benefit is that sanctions provide a flexible option for countries to register strong condemnation and impose consequences for violations of international norms, short of war.

Sanctions can be scaled up or down in severity, and lifted quickly if the target complies. They allow senders to take concrete action when diplomacy alone is insufficient but military intervention is undesirable. Sanctions can also complement and enhance the effectiveness of diplomacy by creating leverage.Some argue that even when full compliance is not achieved, sanctions can still serve important functions by constraining a target’s capacity for undesired actions, deterring future misbehavior, and sending a symbolic message. For example, while sanctions have not yet compelled North Korea to fully denuclearize, they impose heavy costs that limit the resources available for weapons programs.

Benefits of  “Sanctions”

Smart sanctions aim to more precisely target the political elites, decision-makers, and entities responsible for objectionable policies or actions, while minimizing the impact on the general population. This contrasts with comprehensive sanctions that often devastate public welfare.Some evidence suggests smart sanctions explicitly aimed at promoting democracy and human rights can be effective at increasing democracy levels in targeted authoritarian countries. For example, one study found that from 1990-2010, democratic sanctions were often successful in this regard.Smart sanctions provide a more flexible and adaptable policy option compared to comprehensive sanctions or military force. They can be scaled up or down in severity and lifted quickly if the target complies. This allows senders to take concrete action short of war when diplomacy alone is insufficient.Even if smart sanctions do not fully achieve their objectives, proponents argue they can still constrain a target’s capacity for undesired actions, deter future misbehavior, and send an important symbolic message upholding international norms.

Drawbacks and Limitations of Sanctions

Critics argue that sanctions are often ineffective at changing target state behavior and can have severe unintended consequences that undermine their goals. Numerous studies have found that sanctions have a low success rate, especially when applied unilaterally by one country. Hufbauer et al. (1990) concluded in an influential study that US sanctions achieved their stated policy objectives in fewer than one in five cases.A key reason for the limited effectiveness is that globalization has made it easier for target countries to find alternative suppliers and markets, reducing their vulnerability to trade disruptions. When sanctions are not universally adopted, other countries may step in to fill the void, decreasing the economic pressure.

Sanctions can also backfire by provoking a nationalistic “rally around the flag” effect that strengthens the targeted regime.Even when sanctions do cause economic damage, authoritarian governments are often able to insulate themselves and their key supporters from the impacts, while passing on the costs to the general population. Comprehensive trade and financial restrictions can devastate public welfare by disrupting the supply of food, medicine, clean water and other essential goods.

The humanitarian toll of sanctions has been extensively documented. Studies have linked sanctions to increased poverty, malnutrition, disease, and mortality in countries like Iraq, Haiti, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela. The UN estimated that sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s contributed to hundreds of thousands of excess child deaths. Sanctions can also fuel criminality and informal economies as people turn to illicit activities to cope with scarcity and unemployment.This disproportionate civilian impact has led many to question the ethics and legality of broad sanctions. Critics argue they amount to collective punishment and violate human rights. 

Some contend that sanctions are often driven more by the sender’s domestic politics than a genuine aim to help foreign populations. The UN has stated that sanctions should always be targeted, temporary, and accompanied by humanitarian exemptions.However, even when sanctions include carve-outs for essential goods, research shows that overcompliance by businesses, banks and agencies can still severely impede access to exempted items. The complexity of sanctions regulations creates legal risks and uncertainty that deter many firms from engaging in any trade with sanctioned jurisdictions. Over time, sanctions can also degrade infrastructure, financial systems, and human capital in ways that take years to recover from after they are lifted.

Another critique is that sanctions are often too blunt of an instrument to selectively pressure specific individuals and entities most responsible for wrongdoing, leading to disproportionate collateral damage. 

Problems with “Smart Sanctions”

In response, a trend in recent decades has been toward more targeted or “smart” sanctions, such as arms embargoes, asset freezes, and travel bans on political and military elites. But research is mixed on whether smart sanctions are consistently more effective.Some argue that sanctions have become overused, weakening their credibility and impact over time. Sanctions fatigue can set in for senders while targets learn to adapt. The growing use of secondary sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction to compel third-party compliance has also generated backlash from governments and companies concerned about sovereignty violations and excessive compliance burdens.

Many studies have found smart sanctions still have a low success rate, especially when applied unilaterally by one country. Hufbauer et al. (2007) estimated UN targeted sanctions achieved their goals only around 22% of the time on average.Globalization has made it easier for targets to find alternative suppliers and markets, reducing their vulnerability to smart sanctions unless they are universally adopted. Overcompliance by businesses and banks can also impede access to exempted humanitarian goods.

Authoritarian governments are often able to shield themselves and their supporters from the impacts of smart sanctions while still passing costs onto the general population. The civilian impacts, while smaller than comprehensive sanctions, can still be severe.

Each type of smart sanction has implementation challenges:

  • Arms embargoes suffer from poor coordination and enforcement.
  • Financial sanctions risk violating due process rights.
  • Sectoral/trade sanctions on key goods can still have major economic impacts.

Over time, smart sanctions have become increasingly comprehensive in cases like Iran, Syria and Venezuela – leading to many of the same negative humanitarian consequences they sought to avoid. Critics argue this shows their conceptual flaws.

Economic Impacts on Senders

In addition to the humanitarian costs for target populations, sanctions can also carry significant economic costs for sender countries. Several studies using gravity models have found that sanctions substantially reduce bilateral trade between senders and targets, with possible spillover effects.For example, Hufbauer et al. (1997) estimated that US sanctions reduced exports to 26 target countries by $15-19 billion in 1995, potentially costing over 200,000 jobs in the export sector. 

Some business groups argue the true costs are higher, as sanctions cause US firms to be seen as unreliable suppliers, driving away customers. Sanctions that penalize third-country firms for doing business with targets, like the Helms-Burton Act, have provoked threats of retaliation against US companies.At the same time, the overall economic impact of sanctions on senders is often relatively small as a share of total trade. And certain domestic industries, such as agriculture, may benefit from exemptions that boost their exports. The economic costs are asymmetrically distributed, however, falling heavily on particular firms and communities involved in trade with sanctioned countries.

Assessing Sanctions Effectiveness

Ultimately, views on the utility of sanctions depend heavily on how effectiveness is defined and measured. While the economic impacts of sanctions are increasingly well-documented, it is more difficult to determine their political efficacy. Sanctions often have multiple, ill-defined objectives beyond just coercing policy changes, such as deterrence, punishment, or satisfying domestic audiences. Even when sanctions do not fully achieve their aims, they may still be seen as useful for constraining or stigmatizing targets.

The empirical evidence on sanctions effectiveness is mixed, sensitive to different analytical approaches, and still evolving. Early studies relying on case studies and datasets of primarily US and UN sanctions tended to find low success rates. More recent research using refined data and methods suggests success rates may be somewhat higher, especially for certain categories like democratic sanctions. But there is no consensus on whether sanctions work on average.

Comparative research indicates that many factors influence the effectiveness of sanctions, including the relative economic and political vulnerability of the target, the determination and multilateral cooperation of senders, the severity of sanctions, and their specific design. In general, sanctions are more likely to succeed when they impose high costs on targets, senders are committed to enforcement, objectives are limited and clearly defined, and the target is politically unstable. 

Sanctions aimed at modest policy changes tend to be more effective than efforts to fundamentally transform a regime.However, even when these conditions are met, targets may still resist sanctions due to ideological resolve, domestic political imperatives, or the value placed on the disputed issue. Sanctions operate through complex economic, political and social channels that make their outcomes highly context-dependent and difficult to predict.