Embargo Definition and Examples

Embargo: Definition, Types & Examples

embargo definition

What is an Embargo?

An embargo is a government-imposed restriction on trade or economic activities with a foreign country for achieving policy objectives or pressuring the targeted nation to change its behavior, serving various purposes such as promoting human rights, protecting national security, or addressing political disputes.

While controversial due to their potential consequences, embargoes are a significant tool for nations to exert influence on the global stage without resorting to military force. This article explores the types, historical examples, reasons for implementation, effects, criticisms, and alternatives of embargoes in international relations and trade.

Key Points
  1. Embargoes are government-imposed restrictions on trade or economic activity with a specific country or group of countries.
  2. They can be comprehensive, which prohibits all trade and economic activity, or targeted, which focuses on specific goods, services, or individuals.
  3. Embargoes can be imposed for a variety of reasons, such as national security concerns, human rights violations, or political pressure.
  4. Embargoes can have significant impacts on international trade, both for the targeted countries and the countries that impose them.

Types of Embargoes

Embargoes can take several forms, depending on the specific goals and policy objectives of the imposing country. Some of the most common types of embargoes include:

Economic embargoes

Economic embargoes restrict trade and financial activities between countries. They can involve a complete halt to all trade or a more targeted approach, such as banning specific goods, services, or financial transactions. Economic embargoes are often employed to weaken the targeted country’s economy, pressure its government to change its policies, or prevent the acquisition of resources and technologies that could threaten the imposing country’s security interests.

Military embargoes

Military embargoes restrict the sale, export, or transfer of arms, military equipment, and related technologies to a targeted country. These embargoes aim to limit the military capabilities of the targeted nation, reduce regional tensions, or discourage aggressive behavior. Military embargoes can be imposed unilaterally by a single country or as part of a multilateral effort through international organizations such as the United Nations.

Diplomatic embargoes

Diplomatic embargoes involve the suspension or severing of diplomatic relations between countries. This can include the withdrawal of ambassadors, the closure of embassies, or the suspension of diplomatic negotiations. Diplomatic embargoes are typically employed in response to significant political disputes, human rights abuses, or acts of aggression by the targeted country.

Comprehensive vs. targeted embargoes

Embargoes can be comprehensive, affecting all aspects of trade and diplomacy between the involved countries, or targeted, focusing on specific sectors, industries, or individuals. Comprehensive embargoes tend to have a more significant impact on the targeted country’s economy and society, while targeted embargoes aim to minimize unintended consequences and focus pressure on specific actors or behaviors.

Understanding the various types of embargoes can provide valuable insight into the diverse strategies and objectives that drive countries to implement these measures. The choice of embargo type depends on the specific goals and policy objectives of the imposing country, as well as the nature of the dispute or issue being addressed.

Historical Examples of Embargoes

Embargoes have been employed throughout history as a means to address international disputes and achieve policy objectives. Some notable examples include:

United States embargo against Cuba

  1. The U.S. embargo against Cuba, which began in 1960, is one of the longest-standing embargoes in modern history. Initiated in response to the Cuban government’s nationalization of American-owned businesses and alignment with the Soviet Union, the embargo restricted trade, travel, and financial transactions between the two countries. Despite some easing of restrictions in recent years, the embargo remains in place, and its effectiveness in achieving policy objectives and its impact on the Cuban population continue to be debated.

United Nations embargo on Iraq (1990-2003)

  1. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United Nations imposed a comprehensive economic and military embargo on Iraq. The embargo aimed to force Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait and to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction program. While the embargo contributed to Iraq’s eventual compliance with some UN resolutions, it also led to significant humanitarian consequences for the Iraqi population, including widespread malnutrition and the deterioration of public health infrastructure.

United States embargo against Iran

  1. The U.S. has imposed various sanctions and embargoes on Iran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The measures have targeted Iran’s nuclear program, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses. The embargoes have had a significant impact on Iran’s economy, but the effectiveness of these measures in achieving policy objectives remains a subject of debate. The 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal led to a temporary easing of some sanctions, but tensions have since escalated, and additional sanctions have been imposed.

South African apartheid-era embargoes

  1. During the apartheid era in South Africa (1948-1994), many countries and international organizations imposed economic, military, and cultural embargoes on the country to protest its racially discriminatory policies. These embargoes contributed to South Africa’s increasing international isolation and economic difficulties, which, combined with domestic and international pressure, eventually led to the dismantling of apartheid and the establishment of a multiracial democracy.

These historical examples demonstrate the diverse objectives and outcomes associated with the implementation of embargoes. While embargoes can be effective in some cases, they also often come with unintended consequences and mixed results in achieving their intended policy goals.

Reasons for Implementing Embargoes

Countries impose embargoes for various reasons, depending on the specific context and policy objectives. Some of the most common motivations for implementing embargoes include:

Political motivations

  1. Embargoes can be employed to pressure targeted countries to change their policies, negotiate a resolution to a dispute, or cease activities deemed unacceptable by the imposing country. Political motivations for embargoes can range from addressing human rights abuses to resolving territorial disputes or countering the influence of rival nations.

Economic motivations

  1. Economic embargoes can be used to protect domestic industries from foreign competition, restrict access to strategic resources or markets, or weaken the economy of a targeted country to force concessions or regime change. Economic motivations can also include the desire to punish a targeted country for unfair trade practices or to encourage economic reforms that align with the imposing country’s interests.

Human rights concerns

  1. Embargoes can be imposed to pressure targeted countries to address human rights abuses or to comply with international norms and standards. These embargoes may target specific sectors or individuals responsible for human rights violations or involve more comprehensive measures designed to isolate the targeted country economically and diplomatically.

National security concerns

  1. National security concerns can prompt the implementation of embargoes to limit the military capabilities of a targeted country, prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or counter terrorism financing. Military embargoes, restrictions on dual-use technologies, and sanctions targeting individuals or entities involved in security threats are common examples of measures employed to address national security concerns.

Understanding the various reasons for implementing embargoes provides insight into the strategic thinking behind these measures and highlights the diverse policy objectives they can serve. While embargoes can be effective in achieving specific goals, they also often come with unintended consequences and mixed results, depending on the context and nature of the measures employed.

Effects of Embargoes

Economic effects

Economic embargoes can lead to reduced trade, investment, and economic growth in the targeted country, potentially resulting in widespread job losses, inflation, and poverty. The imposing country may also experience economic consequences due to reduced exports, lost business opportunities, and increased costs for consumers. Additionally, other countries and businesses may face challenges navigating the complex web of embargo-related regulations and sanctions.

Political effects

Embargoes can create political tension between the imposing and targeted countries, potentially leading to a further escalation of disputes, retaliatory measures, or even military conflict. However, embargoes can also serve as a catalyst for political change or negotiations, depending on the targeted country’s response and the specific policy objectives of the imposing country.

Humanitarian effects

Embargoes, particularly comprehensive economic measures, can have significant humanitarian consequences, such as food and medicine shortages, a decline in public services, and increased poverty. These consequences can disproportionately affect vulnerable populations and may lead to long-term social and economic challenges.

Diplomatic effects

Embargoes can impact diplomatic relations between the imposing and targeted countries, as well as among other countries involved in the dispute. The imposition of an embargo can signal a breakdown in diplomatic efforts, strain alliances, or create divisions within international organizations, depending on the specific context and the reactions of other countries.

Legal and regulatory effects

The implementation of embargoes often involves the creation of complex legal and regulatory frameworks, which can impose significant compliance burdens on businesses, financial institutions, and individuals. Non-compliance with embargo-related regulations can result in penalties, fines, and reputational damage.

The effects of embargoes can be wide-ranging and depend on the type, duration, and scope of the measures employed. While embargoes can be effective in achieving specific policy objectives, they can also have unintended consequences and mixed results, depending on the context and the response of the targeted country and the international community.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Embargoes

The effectiveness of embargoes in achieving policy objectives is a subject of ongoing debate. Some factors to consider when evaluating the success of an embargo include:

Policy objectives

  1. Understanding the specific policy objectives behind an embargo is essential for evaluating its effectiveness. These objectives can range from encouraging political change to protecting domestic industries or addressing human rights concerns. The success of an embargo should be assessed based on the extent to which it achieves these objectives.

Targeted country’s response

  1. The effectiveness of an embargo depends largely on the response of the targeted country. If the targeted country is willing to negotiate, make concessions, or implement reforms in response to the embargo, it may be considered effective. However, if the targeted country remains defiant or responds with retaliatory measures, the embargo may be less successful in achieving its objectives.

International support

  1. Multilateral embargoes supported by multiple countries or international organizations are generally more effective than unilateral measures, as they can exert greater pressure on the targeted country and minimize opportunities for evasion. The level of international support for an embargo can influence its overall effectiveness and impact on the targeted country.

Duration and scope

  1. The duration and scope of an embargo can also affect its effectiveness. Short-term, targeted measures may be more effective in achieving specific objectives, while long-term, comprehensive embargoes can have unintended consequences and potentially undermine the desired policy outcomes.

Unintended consequences

  1. The unintended consequences of an embargo, such as humanitarian crises or increased political instability, should be considered when evaluating its effectiveness. These consequences may undermine the policy objectives of the embargo and potentially create new challenges for the imposing country and the international community.

In conclusion, the effectiveness of embargoes is highly context-dependent and varies based on the specific objectives, targeted country’s response, international support, duration, and scope of the measures employed. Careful consideration of these factors is essential for policymakers and analysts seeking to understand the potential impact and effectiveness of embargoes as a tool of international relations.

Alternatives to Embargoes

While embargoes can be a powerful tool in international relations, they are not always the most effective or appropriate solution for achieving policy objectives. Policymakers should consider a range of alternatives that may be more targeted, flexible, or diplomatic in nature. Some alternatives to embargoes include:

Diplomacy and negotiations

  1. Engaging in direct diplomacy and negotiations with the targeted country can be a more effective way to resolve disputes or address policy concerns. Diplomatic efforts can include bilateral talks, multilateral negotiations, or the use of third-party mediators to facilitate dialogue and find common ground.

Targeted sanctions

  1. Rather than imposing broad, comprehensive embargoes, policymakers can consider more targeted sanctions that focus on specific individuals, entities, or sectors responsible for the undesirable behavior or policies. Targeted sanctions can minimize the unintended consequences and collateral damage associated with broader measures, while still exerting pressure on the targeted country.

Positive incentives

  1. Instead of relying solely on punitive measures, policymakers can offer positive incentives to encourage the targeted country to change its behavior or adopt more cooperative policies. These incentives can include economic aid, trade concessions, or diplomatic recognition, depending on the specific context and policy objectives.

Multilateral cooperation

  1. Working together with other countries and international organizations can enhance the effectiveness of policy measures and reduce the risk of retaliatory actions. Policymakers can pursue joint efforts to address shared concerns or seek multilateral support for their policy initiatives through international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, or regional bodies.

Soft power and public diplomacy

  1. Utilizing soft power tools, such as cultural exchanges, educational initiatives, or public diplomacy campaigns, can help influence the targeted country’s behavior and build goodwill between nations. These efforts can promote mutual understanding, highlight shared values, and create opportunities for cooperation on common issues.

By considering these alternatives to embargoes, policymakers can employ a more nuanced and strategic approach to addressing international disputes and achieving their policy objectives. While embargoes may still be necessary in some cases, exploring alternative measures can help minimize the unintended consequences and maximize the chances of success in the complex world of international relations.


Embargoes are a powerful tool used by governments to exert pressure on other countries in pursuit of specific policy objectives. They have a long and varied history, with numerous instances of their use in international relations. The effectiveness of embargoes depends on a range of factors, including the policy objectives, targeted country’s response, international support, and the duration and scope of the measures.

While embargoes can achieve certain goals, they often come with unintended consequences, such as economic hardship, humanitarian crises, and strained diplomatic relations. Therefore, it is crucial for policymakers to carefully consider the potential impacts of embargoes and explore alternative measures that may be more targeted, flexible, or diplomatic in nature.

In conclusion, embargoes are an important aspect of international relations that require careful analysis and strategic decision-making. By understanding the various factors that contribute to their effectiveness and considering alternatives when appropriate, policymakers can better navigate the complex world of international relations and achieve their desired policy outcomes.


What is an embargo?

An embargo is a government-imposed restriction on trade or other economic activity with a particular country or group of countries.

Why do governments impose embargoes?

Governments may impose embargoes for a variety of reasons, including national security concerns, human rights violations, or to exert political pressure on a particular government.

What are the types of embargoes?

There are two main types of embargoes: comprehensive and targeted. Comprehensive embargoes prohibit all trade and economic activity with a particular country, while targeted embargoes focus on specific goods, services, or individuals.

How do embargoes affect trade?

Embargoes can significantly impact international trade, both for the countries targeted by the embargo and the countries that impose it. Companies may be forced to find new markets for their goods or change their supply chains to avoid embargoed countries.

What are the consequences of violating an embargo?

Violating an embargo can result in serious legal and financial consequences, including fines, seizure of goods, and loss of business licenses. It can also damage a company’s reputation and lead to decreased trust from customers and partners.

About Paul

Paul Boyce is an economics editor with over 10 years experience in the industry. Currently working as a consultant within the financial services sector, Paul is the CEO and chief editor of BoyceWire. He has written publications for FEE, the Mises Institute, and many others.

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