Economic sanctions can be enforced for admirable reasons, like to topple totalitarian governments, but they generally achieve the opposite of their intended effect by uniting long-feuding factions and by agitating obstinate governments into greater hostility. It happens for the same reason that indiscriminate aerial bombing by foreign powers returns already oppressed people into the folds of their oppressive governments for reprieve.
By their nature, sanctions target the general population of a nation with the ultimate aim of destabilizing their government. While sanctions can certainly indirectly injure the economic and political stability of a targeted government, those sanctions do more to directly injure the people within those nations. Proponents of sanctions implicitly understand this, since the hardships levied by sanctions are meant to provoke acrimony with their government for not averting those consequences.
Sanctions still leave the targeted government functioning, if only to guarantee that there will be less foreign involvement in the provision of the key goods and services sanctions are levied against. Within a corrupt institution already hostile to freedom and democratic accountability, the task of providing those products will increasingly fall to the government and politically favored firms, giving leverage to those in power to demand compliance from the general population. As Leon Trotsky put plainly, “In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.” Relative to the position between the population of the nation and the government of the nation, sanctions tilt the balance of power to the state from the individual. The slowing of economic growth caused by sanctions in already poor countries affords that there will be less disposable wealth available to fund resistance efforts. Even though sanctions make a government weaker, sanctions by comparison tend to make effective resistance (electorally or subversively) by the population more difficult.
The pain of sanctions could only translate into discontent toward the targeted government if the population agreed with or were even aware of the justifications made for sanctions. Even more so in a closed society, the government is the dominant source of news and opinion, so people would be subject to even harsher degrees of propaganda in learning of the motivation for sanctions. While this is a critical problem, the more fundamental problem is that sanctions further tilt power against the oppressed population. That imbalance is again amplified by foreign humanitarian relief programs administered through the targeted government, since the supporters of those in power will be the primary and earliest recipients of any aid. Another tragic result is that the standard of living of the nations imposing sanctions also suffers by removing opportunities to conduct mutually beneficial exchanges.
It is worth pointing out that sanctions can be a convenient scapegoat to provoke calls by targeted governments for more central planning. During the Cold War, just for instance, any encroachment by the federal government could always be passed off as acting in the interest of national security. That perception to outside hostility forms a sort of false consensus about what would otherwise be contentious policies to expand the scope of government power. In a society that sees more government as necessary to alleviate “hatred of an enemy,” as F.A. Hayek warned in the “The Road to Serfdom,” those politicians most willing to trample over other people will rise to the top. Like any act of war, trade sanctions provide for the health of the state.