How to win wars and manipulate world leaders

What are sanctions and do they actually work? Here's how every government's favourite negotiating tactic actually stacks up.

How to win wars and manipulate world leaders

What are sanctions and do they actually work? Here's how every government's favourite negotiating tactic actually stacks up.

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Politics is tricky.

If you’re the leader of a country, what’s the best way to get another country to do what you want, to maybe see things from your point of view…without, you know, declaring full-blown war?

Sanctions are a more diplomatic way to do just that. (Kinda sounds like parenting.)


Simply put, it’s when one country imposes a cost on trade or transactions with another.

If you’ve ever had to show your receipts after a cross-border shopping trip, or been charged duties on your new summer wardrobe because you ordered from an international site, you’ve had a run-in with sanctions.

Their purpose? To shape the behaviour of consumers, businesses and politicians of the nation they’re placed against, by making transactions more difficult, costly or inconvenient.

Countries have a host of sanctions to use if they so choose, from the aforementioned duties and tariffs to quotas (a cap on imports and exports) to embargoes (a total ban on the trade of certain items).

And that’s just to name a few.

Countries can also apply diplomatic or sport sanctions, where they sever ties with another nation by prohibiting travel, cancelling meetings, withdrawing embassies, or preventing athletes from competing in events. 


Sanctions are almost as old as time itself.

One of the first recorded instances of the use of sanctions dates way back to around 430 BC, when the city of Athens enacted a trade embargo on the neighbouring city of Megara.

But let’s fast forward several thousand years to modern history.

In the 1800s and 1900s, the concept of sanctions as we now know them began to take shape. Politicians and academics were seeing the need to create a system to enforce cooperation on an international scale, particularly during wartime (with mixed results…we’ll get to that below).

They’ve been used on occasion by the United Nations, like its mandatory sanctionsagainst the apartheid nations of South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Sanctions are also a favourite of President Trump’s. He likes to use (or threaten to use) them against any country that crosses him (see: the renegotiation of NAFTA, the trade war with China, and now, Iranian oil).


Sort of?

By imposing economic sanctions, you’re hitting a country where it hurts: its GDP.

And raise your hand if you’ve ever filled up your shopping cart on a U.S. site just to abandon it because the extra fees were waaaay too high (🙋🏽‍♀️). 

So why the ambiguity?

Well, transactions are a two-way street. If you’re making it harder for a country to do business with you, you’ll suffer some of the consequences, too. According to one study, only 34% of economic sanctions were considered successful.

Consider this: if you impose a tax on the import of avocados (banish the thought!) to encourage the purchase of more domestically grown produce, the downside is…fewer avocados (and likely higher prices).

But avocados are small potatoes (avocados?) compared to some of the other potential unintended consequences of sanctions.

During the Second World War, one of the reasons why the Japanese decided to enter the fray was due to the economic sanctions the U.S. had placed on them.

And while North Korea is the target of sanctions from multiple countries for its nuclear program, that’s hardly stopped the country from continuing their atom-splitting, at the expense of its citizens’ health and well-being.

“Smart” or “targeted” sanctions are considered to be more effective since they’re imposed on a specific group of people, items or transactions, which limits any unintended fallout. But they’re also much harder to enforce.


Sanctions are often set up by a nation to improve or protect the state of its economy, or to enforce cooperation with international laws and agreements (to protest human rights violations, for instance).

Many countries have enforced sanctions of some sort (it’s the whole concept of “looking out for number one”), but obviously, the impact of those sanctions varies, depending on the country enforcing them. Having a global superpower impose sanctions against a rather small country can have an enormous effect on that country’s economy. 

Here are a few examples of countries that the U.S. and Canada (we’re such followers) have imposed sanctions on:

• North Korea

In an effort to dismantle NoKo’s nuclear program, trade between North America and North Korea has been heavily restricted for decades. U.S. citizens are banned from visiting the country without special authorization. Following America’s lead, many others in the international community have placed sanctions on North Korea as well, limiting the country’s ability to sell some of its most-lucrative exports (like coal) and import much-needed items like flour and rice.

• Russia

The U.S. and Canada placed sanctions on hundreds of Russian citizens and organizations, as a result of the nation’s invasion of Crimea back in 2014. They also developed new packages of sanctions after the Kremlin was accused of poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter last March and Russian warships attacked several Ukrainian vessels last November. 

• Venezuela

Taking effect this month, Washington has enacted sanctions against Venezuela’s oil industry, which accounts for more than 90% of the country’s revenue. The U.S. and Canada have both pledged to continue implementing sanctions against Venezuelan officials and businesses until Nicolas Maduro agrees to step aside and let the internationally recognized president, Juan Guiado, take office. 

• Iran

Iran’s been suffering from the effects of American sanctions since 1979 when a group of students took a bunch of Americans hostage inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran (a.k.a. the Iran hostage crisis). Since then, the sanctions have grown, thanks to Iran’s alleged support of terrorism and its nuclear development program. Just this month, the U.S. announced it was ending the exemptions that allowed certain countries to purchase oil from Iran — a move designed to further cripple the Middle Eastern nation’s economy. 

If you’re still curious, here’s a complete list of countries the U.S. (and Canada) have imposed sanctions on.



When one country can’t make another indulge their whims, however legitimate those whims may be, sanctions can help.


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Image by Hildenbrand/MSC, CC BY 3.0 de, Wikimedia Commons