Arms Embargo

M. Shane Smith

November 2003

Arms embargoes have been around since time immemorial and have three general purposes:

  1. to signal disapproval of behavior by a certain actor,
  2. to maintain neutral standing in an ongoing conflict, or
  3. in the hopes of limiting the resources an actor has to inflict violence on others.

Indeed, every state attempts to regulate the ability for potential adversaries to acquire certain material that may be used against them. However, embargoes have increasingly become more of a symbolic gesture toward undesired actions. Although the effectiveness of embargoes is often brought into question, they are often used because the imposition of such sanctions allows states to voice opposition to certain behavior in a manner that stops short of violence.

The Cold War posed significant difficulties toward effective embargoes because both Moscow and Washington sought to undermine international objectives of the other. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, arms embargoes have become an increasingly prevalent means of foreign policy. The United States has used arms embargoes to disadvantage potential adversaries such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Yet, unilateral arms embargoes often have little material effect. For instance, North Korea has been able to acquire significant stockpiles of military equipment and to develop a formidable indigenous production capability despite a stiff U.S. embargo.

To be sure, unilateral embargoes are unlikely to pose significant obstacles to weapons procurement by a determined target-state. As long as a dealer exists, the buyers are able to circumvent embargoes. Many times, the arms dealers will move through covert channels to sell their product, as the presence of an embargo makes armaments an increasingly scarce and thus more lucrative commodity.[1] However, such unilateral measures also signal disapproval of an actor's behavior in order to help galvanize international pressure toward countering such unwanted policies, and to encourage other countries to abide by such limits on arms transfers.

The emergence of human rights catastrophes that accompanied a resurgence of ethnic conflicts after the Cold War led to a greater international consensus of the need to impose universal arms embargoes on certain actors. For instance, international military cutoffs---of both hardware and advice---have been imposed on Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Liberia, Libya, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia, in the last dozen years. Most of these have been sanctioned through the United Nations. However, it is also questionable how effective these multilateral measures are. For instance, South Africa managed to acquire significant military capabilities during the UN arms embargo that aimed to curtail its policies of apartheid. Nonetheless, such measures make it much more difficult for countries to obtain weapons and able to more effectively impose their will. This signals international opposition to certain behavior that can also spread into other areas of diplomacy and international pressure.

Until its involvement in World War II, the United States often placed automatic and unilateral military embargoes on any country involved in a conflict, regardless of who initiated hostilities. Rather than signaling its discontent with such behavior, or to curb an actor's destructive capabilities, this was simply an attempt to maintain neutrality and keep the United States out of wars overseas. However, some argue that placing embargoes on belligerents inherently takes sides and cannot be considered neutral because it locks in the positions of those who are better armed at the beginning of a conflict. Indeed, the arms embargo placed on the former Yugoslavia during the hostilities of the early 1990s arguably secured military superiority of Serbian forces with regard to the opposing two forces.

Arms embargoes have become an increasingly prevalent tool of diplomacy that allows states to voice disapproval of certain behavior short of war, but with real material consequences that often places significant pressure on target-states. While the ability for embargoes to actually stymie weapons acquisitions by a determined state is questionable, they can help galvanize international pressure to not only help impose the embargoes but to also help secure support for overall opposition to certain policies.

[1] See Michael T. Klare, "The Subterranean Arms Trade: Black-Market Sales, Covert Operations and Ethnic Warfare," in Cascade of Arms: Managing Conventional Weapon Proliferation, ed. Andrew J. Pierre (Cambridge: The World Peace Foundation, 1997), 43-71.

Use the following to cite this article:
Smith, M. Shane. "Arms Embargo." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2003 <>.