One can read constantly in the media, that the West and especially the US announce sanctions against some countries. North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Venezuela are some examples.

In some cases like Cuba and Iran, these sanctions are in force for decades, even for half a century, but the regimes in these two countries haven't been overthrown. The ordinary people in these countries, however, are suffering because of the sanctions.

Has there ever been any successful example, where sanctions lead to desired results like regime changes?

If yes where was that? If no, why are sanctions still imposed so much?

  • 8
    The "desired results" part is slightly unclear. What are the desired results of sanctions? Maybe the aim is not toppling of the regime. One could though refer to stated goals of sanctions. Something like: Do sanctions achieve their stated goals or do they fall short? Or Why are economic sanctions so popular? Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 19:53
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    It might be inferred from this question that the goal of sanctions is most often to "overthrow the regime" so may be important to observe that they may be used for something less.
    – Stančikas
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 16:38
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    @WernerCD It's amazing how US military supported US companies could take whatever they want in these countries, but when the countries get strong enough to push back, the countries get accused of theft, grift and corruption. Gen. Smedley D. Butler said that in the military he was "a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism", specifically mentioning Cuba.
    – prosfilaes
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 13:39
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    Sanctions could dissuade that country or other countries from taking certain actions. Short of starting a war, the only way one can really expect an entire regime to get overthrown (due to sanctions or in any other way) is if the ordinary citizens get fed up enough with their leaders, and the only consequences one can typically cause are things that affect primarily ordinary citizens. While not ideal, this seems preferable to letting every country do whatever it wants to any other country (and to its citizens).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 15:09
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    @TMFG "people are suffering and regimes are continuing" is not sufficient to say sanctions do nothing. To conclusively know whether any given sanction, or sanctions on average, have a positive effect, you'll need to see what things would've looked like with and without that sanction... which is impossible to see, so instead you try to look at patterns and statistics (which is not trivial to do correctly). Also, "How effective are sanctions in overthrowing regimes" is like asking "How effective is food at making you live to be 100": that's not really the goal, nor the only factor involved there
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 8:02

6 Answers 6


Opinions are divided on this. It's because no dictator has quit because his own car was out of gas or out of spare parts. So one can easily claim that sanction don't work (like that). The discussion on indirect effects easily gets complicated by confounders, but at least some academic research finds an effect, mind you, more so in the case of democracies or at least "mixed regimes" (e.g like Milosevic in Serbia) than for the most autocratic regimes.

This study (by Marinov) I know of was published in 2005, so it misses a lot of the more recent instability in the Arab world etc. (Somewhat ironically, it finds Libya to be one of the most stable countries [barely behind China], although that data point claim [Libya] surely look silly with two additional decades of observations added. So there's that kind of caveat emptor with this kind of research.) Anyhow, the main points of the paper are roughly:

The benchmark for measuring success is typically whether economic sanctions can change the behavior of a foreign government at an acceptable cost. The most comprehensive study of the effectiveness of economic sanctions assesses that the measure works about 35% of the time (Hufbauer, Shott, and Elliott 1990).

Critics respond that the success rate has been overstated (Pape 1997). [...] Many explanations can be offered for why the controversy endures. One issue lies with the measurement of “success.” What is success and how is it measured is often contested even by the very participants in an episode. Another issue is whether success should be attributed to sanctions. Economic pressure typically takes place alongside other important events and developments, such as a weak economy or a foreign military intervention. Assigning the relative merits of economic coercion in each case can cause reasonable people to disagree (Elliott 1998). [...]

I take an approach analogous to that in the literature on the relationship between government instability and a country’s level of wealth [...].The main dependent variable is leadership change. I ask whether the presence of sanctions against a state’s leadership in a given year makes it more likely for the leader to be replaced. I include in the test all countries with population over 500,000 (N = 160), and the period 1947 to 1999. I break down the data into country-year observations: a country gives rise to one observation for each calendar year. This makes for a total of 6,782 observations in the full data-set. [...]

The estimation procedure I use is logistic regression with fixed effects. [...] The reason interaction terms between Democracy, Mixed Regime, and the natural log of years in office ln(t) are included is to allow for the effect of political institutions to vary over time. As suggested by Chiozza and Goemans (2004b) and others, we can expect to find varying effects of institutions over time. Because the effect of autocracy is folded in the (nonlinear) baseline hazard, no separate dummy is included.

Economic sanctions are significant as expected. A leader who is subject to economic sanctions in a given year is, on average, more likely to lose office in the following year. The result holds while adjusting for country-specific government instability and for a range of other factors, including the use of force.

All other variables, except for the use of force perhaps, are signed as expected. Lower economic growth hurts the political survival of leaders in office. The effect is strong and statistically significant. This finding is consistent with what we know about government instability in good and bad economic times.

Perhaps surprisingly, the use of force strengthens a leader’s hold on office. The use of force likely generates two types of effects. One, it may weaken a leader. Second, it may generate a “rally around the flag” effect. The finding here indicates that what predominates, or what these two effects average out to, is that a leader is less likely to lose power.

Averaged out over all 136 countries, the risk of losing office, when sanctions are not in place, is 0.146. When pressure is present, the hazard rises to 0.183. This means that sanctions cause a 28% average increase in the risk of losing power. This is, clearly, more than trivial trouble for incumbents.

The theoretical argument stated that one way pressure destabilizes is by lowering economic growth. If this is the case, growth and sanctions are not independent. This suggests that part of the effect of sanctions is currently being picked by economic growth. Dropping growth should strengthen the effect of sanctions. Column 2 on Table 2 shows that this is the case. When economic growth is dropped from the model, the coefficient of sanctions increases from 0.28 to 0.31. The significance level also improves, in line with expectations.

enter image description here

(I'm not going to explain all the variables in the table here. Read the paper for that. The spline coefficients at the end allow for the effect of the duration of the government to [nonlinearly] vary both ways, because there are theoretical disputes whether a leader/regime gets stronger or not after coming in office.)

So, although those imposing sanction won't so readily admit it, making ordinary people suffer via sanctions... is part of the solution they provide in pressuring at least leadership change if not regime change.

There's also the catch that absent the threat of (any) sanctions we might see more "bad behavior" from some governments, but this hard to ascertain because of unobservables.

The problem is, target governments are more likely to have private information on their prospects for surviving in office under pressure. Such information will not be measurable. The selection effect will remain undetected. And it will bias estimates of the impact of sanctions downward. The more prevalent this problem is, the more biased statistical estimates will be.

A newer paper Escribà-Folch & Wright (2010) that I haven't read beyond its abstract has tried to further distinguish between types of authoritarian regimes. It finds

Using data on sanction episodes and authoritarian regimes from 1960 to 1997 and selection-corrected survival models, we test whether sanctions destabilize authoritarian rulers in different types of regimes. We find that personalist dictators are more vulnerable to foreign pressure than other types of dictators. We also analyze the modes of authoritarian leader exit and find that sanctions increase the likelihood of a regular and an irregular change of ruler, such as a coup, in personalist regimes. In single-party and military regimes, however, sanctions have little effect on leadership stability.

I haven't delved into the paper (it's open access though, so you can DIY that), but given the time range, it's possible a lot of that is explained by the single-party regimes being mostly in a block during the cold war. What these studies generally don't seem to model well is whether the sanctioned country also/still has allies that "prop it up" in some way, including threatening [military] counter-intervention in case of regime change (which was definitely the case during the cold war).

Somewhat aside: a 3rd paper Wood (2008) finds that sanctions also tend to increase internal repression in the target at least in the short run (and this is correlated with the severity and extent of the sanctions too, as proxied by their effect on GDP, so e.g. UN sanctions increase repression more than just US ones do.) So one could say that merely alleviating internal human rights abuses in the short term is not really helped by (broad) economic sanctions.

The results of Marinov (recall they are for pre-2000 data) have been somewhat reproduced by Soest & Wahman (2014) using a newer dataset covering 1990-2010, and which additionally is more discerning of the type of sanction imposed and its stated goal(s). So, e.g. sanctions that nominally request compliance with some WMD demand aren't put in the same bin as those that demand multi-party elections, for instance. Likewise they look at more outcomes than mere leader change, e.g. a change in democratic index value ("a combined Freedom House and Polity IV score"). This is a fairly long paper (more than twice the number pages compared to Marinov's) so I'm not going to be able to capture its findings here except in part, but towards the end they have models fairly similar to Marinov's. I'm quoting this mostly for the concrete examples they illustrate their findings with (after the table).

enter image description here

Model 8 shows no general relationship between sanctions and a higher probability of ruler exit. However, looking at only democratic sanctions in Model 9, we see a significant positive relationship. Our findings reaffirm Marinov’s conclusion that sanctions generally increase the probability of leadership exit. Looking at the models for regime change, we once again see no significant effect of sanctions generally (Model 10), but we find a significant effect for imposed democratic sanctions (Model 11).

A brief glimpse at some sanction cases reveals that different mechanisms may account for increased democracy levels in targeted authoritarian regimes, with the two major ones being (1) elite splits (and, in turn, regime changes and leadership exit) and (2) democratic concessions without regime and/or leader change. In Guatemala (1993), for instance, the military ousted President Serrano – who had unconstitutionally dissolved parliament and the judiciary – after the US and its allies imposed sanctions. An interim president took over, and the country’s democratic institutions were restored. In Nicaragua (1996) and Thailand (1993), sanctions similarly contributed to regime change. However, democratic sanctions rarely create liberal democracies instantly; rather, they lead to multiparty autocracies. In addition, democratic sanctions have different effects on autocratic rulers and regimes. In Peru, sanctions contributed to democratization without ruler change. When President Fujimori suspended the legislature and introduced rule by decree in 1992, the US withheld military assistance and economic aid and blocked Peru’s efforts to obtain loans from international financial institutions. In response, Fujimori agreed to hold elections and to reinstate formally democratic institutions. Although his presidential dominance persisted until 2000, Peru’s political system was liberalized to some extent for the remainder of his time in office. In this particular case we could, hence, observe both institutional change and democratization, without change in leadership.

Interestingly, Table 6 also shows that FDI decreases the chances of both ruler exit (Models 8 and 9) and regime change (Models 10 and 11). However, this might be due to international investors’ aversion to investing in politically unstable countries in the first place. Regarding sanctions, it is interesting to see that comprehensive sanctions decrease the likelihood of regime change in Models 9 and 11. We also see that (1) larger countries are more stable in terms of both leadership exit and institutions and (2), as expected, that richer countries experience fewer regime changes (Models 10 and 11). Reaffirming the idea of the resource curse, we also see more regime stability in regimes with larger oil production (Models 8 – 11). There are several instances where regime change has been preceded by sanctions, although we would not argue that the relationship between sanctions and institutional change was causal in all these instances. [...] Changes in regime type rarely lead to full democracy, and countries sometimes transition from what could generally be perceived as a more democratic regime type to a less democratic one. However, most of the instances where change in regime type is preceded by democratic sanctions show signs of at least limited liberalization (such as the implementation of multiparty elections).

Another (sizeable) part of their paper--meaning the models <8 are linear ones, in the style of Peksen and Drury (2010) (also Peksen 2009), but unlike those papers (which use pre-2000 data) Soest & Wahman find that if one accounts for the declared goal of the sanction, those specifically aimed at obtaining some democratic improvement have been successful at least in the sense of achieving statistical significance

enter image description here

... although that mere threats of sanctions have been much less so; in particular mere threats of sanctions to obtain democratic concessions are significantly less successful than those aimed at obtaining other kinds of concessions.

Our analysis using the TIES [it's a sanctions database] data demonstrates that democratic and human rights sanction threats are rarely effective. Only 10% of sanctions related to democracy or human rights accomplished complete or partial concession by the target country at the threat stage. The corresponding number for sanctions with other goals is more than double (22%). Moreover, sanction senders are generally serious about their democratic sanctions. Where targets did not comply, 85% of all democratic sanction threats were carried out, compared to 79% for the rest.


South Africa, arguably, had a major change in their government after internal and external pressure (and they resisted purely internal pressure for a long time). The Netherlands was forced by sanctions to change their colonial policy. I'm pretty sure there were more, but those come to my mind. And Iran is less wealthy than it would be without sanctions, which might have limited their regional impact.

Keep in mind that in previous centuries, nations would declare wars or send troops over various issues. Compared to that, a refusal to trade is a minor step.

  • 10
    Worth noting that in the case of South Africa (which was also first to come to mind for me) that sanctions were in place for a very long time before regime change occurred and that the sanctions were accompanied by domestic political dissent and civil disobedience at extreme levels although not a military insurgency.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 1:41
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    Which regime was overthrown in the Netherlands?
    – convert
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 9:58
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    @convert, the desired result was a policy change regarding their colonies and the desired result was achieved. The question was not just about regime changes.
    – o.m.
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 16:53
  • This answer could be improved by making it more self-contained, instead of implying something by way of external links.
    – hkBst
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 10:33
  • @hkBst, I added two half sentences. I'm always reluctant to condense entire paragraphs that way ...
    – o.m.
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 10:59

It's worth considering the contextual differences between nations which have been under heavy sanctions for a long time and survived (North Korea, Iran, Cuba), and the notable example where they definitely contributed (South Africa).

North Korea and Cuba were part of the Soviet Union's trade network. But when the USSR ceased to exist, in spite of widespread hunger and poverty, neither system collapsed.

Both North Korea and Cuba have been one party dictatorships for a long time. North Korea in particular has effectively been dynastic Stalinism. Stalinist Communism is very authoritarian, and is synonymous with state terror; thus purges, gulags, personality cults, etc.

It's essential to remember that the features of Stalinism are effective at suppressing internal dissent, as the system does not promise to improve people's living standards. In the Soviet Union this transition, from Revolutionary to Post-Revolutionary state, was due to Destalinization. The leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced Stalin, and thus his repressive policies.

However, in doing this Khrushchev did not reject the one-party-state or secret police - those were essential features of Soviet Communism until the end. But he did reject Stalinism's extremes, and changed the narrative. Instead of talking about a life or death struggle, for the Revolutionary state to survive against its enemies, he wanted to talk about the benefits Communism was bringing the Soviet people.

Apartheid South Africa and Saddam's Iraq, like North Korea and Cuba, were both focused on group survival. Individual empowerment was not the point of the state in any of these cases. But while Saddam's Iraq was similar to Stalin's Soviet Union, South Africa was not.

South Africa's racist ideology was grounded in Dutch Protestantism and white supremacy. As a result, they viewed themselves as God's chosen people fighting against an essentially satanic conspiracy of godless Communists and Liberals. Importantly, this limited their trading options. Unlike many present day dictatorships, who seem to have no ideological consistency. Communist China is friends with Islamic Iran, which makes as much sense as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Naturally, these ideologies should be mortal enemies.

Because Apartheid South Africa viewed all non-Protestant factions as evil, they were never able or willing to offset western sanctions with eastern opportunities. This caused problems.

Western nations began to sanction South Africa after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. Initially this involved banning weapons sales, but over time sanctions were designed to target South Africa's economy. In 1967 South Africa began minting the Krugerrand. This gold coin flooded the global marketplace, providing significant revenue for the Apartheid state, as South Africa utilised their gold mines to support the war effort. It was only in 1985, when the United States created an import ban on Krugerrands, that South Africa's economic options dwindled. The previous year over $600m USD worth of the coins had been marketed in America, which had been the coin's largest market.

This was only one part of it. South Africans had been fighting a Bush War in Angola, and conscripted most of the nation's young men to provide the necessary manpower. With the Soviet Union gone, Apartheid was no longer palatable to the west as an anti-Communist means to an end.

A confluence of factors contributed to the end of Apartheid: the demise of the Soviet Union, war in Angola (plus the influence of Cuban troops in the conflict), western sanctions targeting military and economic options, changing Christian attitudes to racism, and growing instability and insecurity within South Africa itself.

In the end the sanctions were an important factor for South Africa, because the nation had no other options for trade. South Africa was also a democracy (admittedly only for the white minority), and so there was public debate about the nation's future.

In conclusion, it's important to remember that for societies guided by group survival instead of individual empowerment, economic hardship will not force regime change. For those nations which do have a semblance of freedom or government accountability, economic pressure can restrict government options, forcing them to change tactics.

In Russia's case, referring to the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map, we have a society that consistently identifies with 'Survival' (not 'Self Expression') values, and 'Secular-Rational' (not 'Traditional') values. Sadly, the Russian people expect corruption and hardship, and the Russian government cynically exploits this pessimism.

The irony here, is that while Russia is governed by a defacto dictatorship, Putin's Russia is not Saddam's Iraq. Moscow has to carefully control the public narrative (jailing journalists for calling the invasion of Ukraine a war, jailing opposition politicians for exposing corruption, etc). This is because Putin fears the Russian people. If he didn't, and if they actually believed what he said about Ukraine, then Moscow would call for a general wartime mobilisation. But there have already been reports of arson attacks on recruitment centres in Russia, recruitment efforts failing to acquire volunteers, multiple reports of Russian army units refusing orders or actually becoming mutinous, and a car bombing meant to kill Putin's chief ideologue (allegedly by a faction of militantly anti-Putin Russians called the 'National Republican Army')... a general mobilisation could escalate into a civil war.

Sanctions against Russia, like sanctions against South Africa, on their own would not be sufficient to change anything. But just like South Africa, Russia is dealing with multiple problems at once: economic sanctions, war exhaustion, and internal unrest. Sanctions in this context, especially when targeted against financial options, military-industry, and elite persons, do have consequences.

Edit: US intelligence claims that Russia is buying artillery from North Korea. This implies that international sanctions are having an effect, as it's unlikely that North Korea would be their supplier of choice.

  • With regard to the last paragraph, what category falls current Russia more likely into? Group survival or individual empowerment. Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 11:17

This is probably a frame challenge answer, but the aim of the sanctions is not necessarily to end the regime itself. Some sanctions may be put in place to steer a regime towards a less destructive course of action.

Scott Adams, a Trump supporter and a frequent commentator on Trump's administration, has described Trump's efforts to ease hostilities (without actually ending them) between North Korea and South Korea as an ever-escalating sanction regime.

The aim of the sanctions, as he described them, was not to stop any one activity, but to convey to North Korea a sense of inevitability of sanctions, gradually getting worse unless certain de-escalation targets were met.

It's difficult to gauge if the targets were in fact met because some of the progress, of getting North Korea to abandon its weapons program, has been rolled back.

But at the time of Trump and Jong Un Kim meeting on the armistice line between N. Korea and S. Korea, Trump's administration did publicly message that the desired de-escalation targets were met.


Sanctions alone are not really useful for overthrowing any regimes, but they can be helpful to weaken the regime. Iraq was under sanctions from 1990 till the US invasion. The same thing with sanctions on Afganistan. Libya was also under sanctions for a long time, and even if these sanctions were lifted some years before the conflict in Libya started, they harmed the country enough to achieve a fast regime change in 2011 by the NATO invasion.

  • Did the regime in Lybia come around, or should we call it a collapse instead?
    – alamar
    Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 23:35
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    @alamar There was no colapse, Gadafi was owerthrown by external force.
    – convert
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 9:55
  • I'm referring to tge fact that Lybia went downhill from there.
    – alamar
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 10:43
  • @alamar It was defenetly not able to buy modern weapons.
    – convert
    Commented Aug 27, 2022 at 10:49

In answer to the question of "Has there ever been any successful example, where sanctions lead to desired results like regime changes?" the case of Japan between 1938 and 1941 is a probable contender. In the context of the question, it is a particularly interesting example because it was one of the earlier instances of the USA using sanctions to try and achieve its broader foreign policy goals.

To give a brief summary of the history:

  • 1931-1932: Japan invades Chinese Manchuria and establishes the puppet state of Manchukuo, leading to condemnation from the League of Nations.
  • 1937: Japan commences its invasion of the remainder of China, occupying major cities on the East coast.
  • 1938: The US State department advises American banks not to extend credit to Japanese businesses and aviation firms to stop doing business with Japan.
  • 1940: The USA terminates its 1911 Commercial Treaty with Japan. US exports of steel, machine parts, refined petroleum etc. to Japan cease.
  • July 1941: Japan de facto occupies French Indochina, following negotiations with Vichy regime.
  • August 1941: USA and other Western powers cease all oil exports to Japan.
  • November 1941: USA delivers Hull Note ultimatum to Japan.
  • December 1941: Japan declares war on USA.

In summary, the USA and allied states imposed increasingly severe sanctions on Japan, between 1938 and 1941. The Japanese leadership apparently considered these sanctions to be such a serious threat, that they decided to go to war with the Western Allies, despite already being committed to a total war in China and being at a great disadvantage to the USA in industrial output.

To what extent did the USA ultimately achieve its "desired results"? It is difficult to know exactly what the American leadership hoped to achieve by its sanction regime, and there is still controversy over whether they genuinely hoped that Japan would acquiesce to their demands (broadly, the orthodox position), or were attempting to provoke Japan into a war (the heterodox position). Nevertheless, the Hull Note provides some indication of the US government's goals, namely:

The Government of the United States and the Government of Japan propose to take steps as follows:

  1. The Government of the United States and the Government of Japan will endeavor to conclude a multilateral non-aggression pact among the British Empire, China, Japan, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, Thailand and the United States.
  2. Both Governments will endeavor to conclude among American, British, Chinese, Japanese, the Netherlands and Thai Governments an agreement whereunder each of the Governments would pledge itself to respect the territorial integrity of French Indochina and, in the event that there should develop a threat to the territorial integrity of Indochina, to enter into immediate consultation with a view to taking such measures as may be deemed necessary and advisable to meet the threat in question. Such agreement would provide also that each of the Governments party to the agreement would not seek or accept preferential treatment in its trade or economic relations with Indochina and would use its influence to obtain for each of the signatories equality of treatment in trade and commerce with French Indo-China.
  3. The Government of Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indo-China.
  4. The Government of the United States and the Government of Japan will not support-militarily, politically, economically-any Government or regime in China other than the national Government of the Republic of China with capital temporarily at Chungking.
  5. Both Governments will give up all extraterritorial rights in China, including rights and interests in and with regard to international settlements and concessions, and rights under the Boxer Protocol of 1901. Both Governments will endeavor to obtain the agreement of the British and other Governments to give up extraterritorial rights in China, including rights in international settlements and in concessions and under the Boxer Protocol of 1901.
  6. The Government of the United States and the Government of Japan will enter into negotiations for the conclusion between the United States and Japan of a trade agreement, based upon reciprocal most favored-nation treatment and reduction of trade barriers by both countries, including an undertaking by the United States to bind raw silk on the free list.
  7. The Government of the United States and the Government of Japan will, respectively, remove the freezing restrictions on Japanese funds in the United States and on American funds in Japan.
  8. Both Governments will agree upon a plan for the stabilization of the dollar-yen rate, with the allocation of funds adequate for this purpose, half to be supplied by Japan and half by the United States.
  9. Both Governments will agree that no agreement which either has concluded with any third powers shall be interpreted by it in such a way as to conflict with the fundamental purpose of this agreement, the establishment and preservation of peace throughout the Pacific area.
  10. Both Governments will use their influence to cause other Governments to adhere to and to give practical application to the basic political and economic principles set forth in this agreement.

By the end of WWII, the situation was largely as outlined in the Hull Note. Of course, sanctions per se had not been enough to achieve this, as Japan ultimately only agreed to similar terms after a total military defeat. However, successful sanctions almost always need to be underwritten by violence, to a lesser or greater extent, otherwise the sanctioned party can simply use force to take what the sanctioner is refusing to sell them. That the Japanese leadership chose to declare war on the USA in an attempt to break the sanctions imposed on Japan indicates that they believed they would be unable to survive the sanctions. My contention, therefore, is that sanctions did lead to the "desired result", from the American perspective, if not necessarily via the most desirable route.

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