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Sanctions are now the preferred economic weapon that the United States uses to pressure, discipline and coerce enemies and even allies.  Sanctions restrict targeted states from importing, exporting and receiving investments; they prohibit US corporations and banks from dealing with those countries, and they limit the economic activities of individuals in sanctioned countries. The U.S. began using sanctions widely during the Cold War and their deployment expanded greatly after its end. Sanctions have become a powerful tool in the US foreign policy arsenal, a weapon to alter the behavior of governments, bring about regime change or simply punish a state and its people. Today the US is an “empire of sanctions,” as well as an “empire of bases.” Several dozen countries are subject to US sanctions as are many individual political figures and business people and the list appears to expand daily. With growing opposition to direct US military intervention, sanctions are presented as a “more peaceful” form of coercion.  Yet, they seldom change the policies of targeted countries and individuals even as they severely harm the civilian population.

The syllabus introduces general debates about the forms, legality, effectiveness and ethical or unethical character of economic sanctions. It explores a variety of case studies, past and present, from the early Cold War sanctioning of Russia, Eastern Europe, China and Cuba, to the post-Cold War targeting of Iraq, Iran and more recently Venezuela and once again Russia and China.  It looks as well at cases where non-state actors have sought to have sanctions imposed—against apartheid South Africa and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel. The syllabus draws material from a variety of disciplines—history, political science, and law among others, and from the rich journalism on sanctions. It combines analyses and first person experiences, written sources as well as videos. The syllabus seeks to educate, but it also wants to promote activism around. this dangerous and counterproductive weapon of the U.S. Thus, it concludes with discussions of blowback from US sanctions coming from abroad and the growing movement against the unchecked use of US sanctions by the United States within both Congress and civil society.

The materials for each week range from short newspaper articles and web posts to academic analyses and interviews.  Some weeks have videos and films.  All materials assigned are available on the web.  We have also suggested supplementary materials; some of these are freely available on the web; others require access through a university or college library.

Table of Contents

What are sanctions and how should we study them

  1. What are sanctions and how prevalent are they?
  2. Are sanctions legal?
  3. Are sanctions effective?  Are they ethical?

Sanctions and warfare, hot and cold

  1. Economic warfare in the first half of the 20th century
  2. Sanctioning communism in the Cold War
  3. Cuba

Sanctions since the 1990s

  1. Iraq
  2. Iran
  3. Russia and China
  4. Other 21st century US Sanctions

Non-state sanctions, divestment and boycott campaigns

  1. Confronting apartheid South Africa
  2. Israel-Palestine and BDS-Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions


  1. Blowback
  2. Resistance 

The full syllabus can be found here.

Renate Bridenthal is a Faculty Emiritus at CUNY; Molly Nolan is a Professor of History at NYU; and Prasannan Parthasarathi is a Professor and Chairperson of the Department of History at Boston College. They are all members of the Historians for Peace and Democracy, an organization with the mission of educating the world about peace, democracy, diplomacy, and human rights.