It's not a good idea to get on the United States' bad side. As the wealthiest country in the world, the U.S. also lays claim to the world's most powerful military.  But military might is nothing compared to the repercussions that economic and trade sanctions from the U.S. can bring about.

Economic sanctions are a way for large governments to exert their disapproval over one another. While wars are costly—both economically and politically—economic sanctions tend to be somewhat less tangible, at least for the country doing the sanctioning.  But for the country being sanctioned, the results can be enormous and long-lasting.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. sanctions countries that sponsor terrorism or perpetrate human rights violations on their people.
    The U.S. can sanction an entire nation or specific individuals or entities within that nation.
  • Countries with the longest-standing sanctions against them include Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

Who Receives U.S. Sanctions?

What does a country need to do to attract the ire of the United States? Overwhelmingly, the U.S. sanctions countries that sponsor terrorism or perpetrate human rights violations on their people.

As of Aug. 2020, sanctioned countries (either unilaterally or in part) include the Balkans, Belarus, Burundi, Central African Republic, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Nicaragua, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine/Russia, Venezuela, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

Here are some details on four of the longest-standing sanctioned nations.

Cuba

One of the U.S.'s longest-standing and most well-known sanctions is against one of our neighbors to the south, Cuba. In Feb. 1959, Fidel Castro became Prime Minister of Cuba, unseating a post-revolution Cuban government that was favored by the United States. Ironically, the previous Batista regime was defeated in part because of a U.S.-imposed arms embargo.

Since the Cuban dictator took power, the U.S. has had trade embargoes in place as a punishment for impediments to democratic rule. While Americans aren't generally allowed to trade or travel with Cuban interests, the close geographic proximity—and large Cuban-American population—have ensured that a number of exemptions exist for humanitarian work and visiting relatives.  The tax-free zones might sound appealing, but the consequences often aren't.

Iran

Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Western-friendly Shah of Iran was deposed in favor of a theocratic government. The Iranian Hostage Crisis and other ensuing events pushed the U.S. to levy a trade embargo on the Middle Eastern nation.

Sanctions continue with increasingly tenuous political relations, the sponsoring of terrorism, and debates over the enrichment of uranium, Iranian economic sanctions continue to be a hotly discussed topic.

North Korea

North Korea is arguably the country most brutally affected by U.S. economic sanctions. North Korea's battles with the U.S. started in the 1950s with the United States' entry into the Korean War—a move designed to counter the USSR's support for a unified, communist Korea.

North and South Korea continue to technically be at war—albeit under a ceasefire since 1953—and the U.S. maintains stringent trade restrictions on the country. In 2018, with an easing of tensions, South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed the Panmunjom Declaration agreeing to greater cooperation between the two nations.

The U.S. imposed sanctions on North Korea beginning under President George W. Bush to impose trade and financial embargos. The United Nations also sanctioned the nation.

Syria

As one of the nations that former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton named as "beyond the axis of evil," Syria has had contentious relations with the United States because of its position as a sponsor of terrorism.

As a result, the U.S. has strong trade restrictions on the country, barring major exports as well as financial services for individuals or organizations linked to terror. The measures in the standard of living versus the quality of life may seem similar, but the reality is an issue of qualitative versus quantitative.

Other Economic Sanctions

Not all of the U.S.'s economic sanctions are against entire countries. Some are against specific individuals or entities. Generally, these sanctions focus on political groups or organizations that promote violence or social unrest, instead of the country's official government—though they can target government or military officials.

For example, starting in December 2017, the United States has imposed targeted visa restrictions and financial sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act on "perpetrators of atrocities" in Burma (Myanmar). The most recent include sanctions imposed in 2019 against Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy General Soe Win, along with two brigadier generals.

The U.S. Treasury keeps a list of specific people and organizations that U.S. nationals and organizations are forbidden from doing business with.

The Bottom Line

Military action isn't the only option for countries that are in the midst of a political dispute. Instead, economic sanctions provide an immediate way for the U.S. to crack down on rogue countries without putting lives on the line.