As a blunt tool of diplomacy, the concept of sanctions has been around at least from the time of the ancient Greeks, when Athens imposed a trade embargo on its neighbor Megara in 432 B.C. Since then, there has been a long history of countries blockading their enemies to compel a change in behavior. But how did this tactic morph into today's "targeted" or "smart" sanctions -- measures such as arms embargoes, asset freezes, and travel bans on key individuals and organizations -- now aimed at Iran and Syria? They may be more humane and high-tech than a flotilla at sea, but are sanctions any more effective today than they were 2,400 years ago? After all, Athens's embargo didn't cow Megara into submission -- it helped trigger the Peloponnesian War.
In a series of conferences, European pacifists debate how the decisions of a proposed international system of arbitration would be enforced. Belgian international law professor Henri La Fontaine persuades delegates to endorse peaceful "sanctions," borrowing a legal term that originated in the 17th century but had yet to permeate statecraft.
After World War I, French statesmen Léon Bourgeois and Paul Henri d'Estournelles de Constant call for a "society of nations" that could isolate a "recalcitrant nation" by applying sanctions -- a "diplomatic expression," they explain, "meaning the various steps for enforcing compliance."
Promoting the League of Nations, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson advocates "absolute" boycotts, in which all citizens of an aggressor country would be unable to trade, communicate, or do business with League members.
Wilson's theory flunks its first major test as League of Nations sanctions against Italy -- defanged by British and French noncompliance -- unsurprisingly fail to persuade Benito Mussolini to withdraw his troops from Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia).
U.S. trade sanctions against Japan contribute to Tokyo's decision to enter World War II. Japanese Foreign Minister Teijiro Toyoda denounces "this ever-strengthening chain of encirclement" months before the Pearl Harbor attack.
The United Nations enshrines sanctions in its charter and centralizes the act of decision-making in the Security Council. But it will impose mandatory sanctions only twice -- against white-minority governments in Rhodesia and South Africa -- during the Cold War, when superpowers jockey for influence by adopting unilateral sanctions such as the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung assails the prevailing wisdom that sanctions should inflict maximum harm on a country's economy, arguing that people adapt to the measures and may rally around their leaders. "The collective nature of economic sanctions makes them hit the innocent along with the guilty," he observes.
International sanctions against apartheid are strengthened by a grassroots divestment campaign from civil society groups that withdraws some $20 billion from companies doing business in South Africa, placing unprecedented private pressure on the country's government.
The Security Council, united by alarm over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, imposes "comprehensive sanctions" on Baghdad. The most powerful sanctions in history -- intended to cripple Saddam Hussein's regime and prevent the development of weapons of mass destruction -- inspire sweeping measures against the former Yugoslavia and Haiti later in the decade.