When the United Nations General Assembly gathered on Tuesday for its eighth vote on ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba, no one was much surprised by the outcome. Only Israel joined the U.S. in voting against the resolution.

Following the vote, Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba's National Assembly, told the assembled delegates his country would sue the U.S. for what Cuba estimates is $100 billion in damages caused by the 37-year-old unilateral embargo.

The pain that loss causes Cuba, of course, is the point of the sanctions. But while Cuba's economy is so small that the loss of trade with it has little impact on the $8 trillion U.S. economy, the aggregate impact of sanctions on American companies is more than piffling.

Currently, the U.S. maintains sanctions against 26 countries, which the Congressional Budget Office and the Institute for International Economics estimate cost the U.S. between $17 billion and $19 billion. In addition, as many as 200,000 export-related jobs are lost. The prohibitions hit sectors across the economy, including agriculture, capital equipment and, unsurprisingly, energy.

The Cuba embargo has been less a viable foreign policy tool -- President Bill Clinton said last week that Cuban President Fidel Castro used the sanctions as an excuse for the country's poor economic performance -- than a means to placate a vocal minority at home. Castro remains firmly in power, U.S. industries are locked out of a booming tourist sector, and America's relations with the European Union and its NAFTA partners have been strained.

One of the greatest examples of the economic costs to U.S. companies is the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. The bill punishes foreign companies that provide new investment of more than $20 million for the development of petroleum resources in Iran. While the U.S. continues its policy of "Dual Containment" of Iraq and Iran, it waives the penalties against foreign oil companies. Instead of being cut off from the U.S. markets for their dealings with Iran, companies like Elf Aquitaine ( ELF) of France and Agip of Italy have moved in to great potential profit.

Iran now produces nearly 4 million barrels of oil a day and a recent discovery is expected to increase that amount by more than 100,000 barrels a day. "That development will offer opportunities for many different kinds of companies to participate over a long period of time. Companies in many nations and the economies in these countries stand to benefit -- unless they happen to be American companies," said Conoco ( COC.A) Chairman Archie Dunham in a statement.

The negative impact is not merely in lost opportunities and revenues, but also in greater resource and price vulnerability as the U.S. relies more and more on fewer oil producers globally, said Kimberly Ann Elliot, research fellow at the Institute for International Economics.

Unilateral sanctions, such as those against Iran and Cuba, are the most costly and least effective, according to the IIE. It estimates that since the 1970s less than 15% of U.S. unilateral sanctions have been effective to some degree. Unilateral sanctions are considered weak tools precisely because the targeted country can find the products in another market.

Other alternatives, such as import-only sanctions, have fundamental pitfalls. While they appeal to U.S. businesses because they close the targeted country to the world's greatest consumer market while allowing U.S. companies full access abroad, import-based sanctions are criticized for their protectionist potential.

Getting rid of sanctions is not an option. Countries need means of peacefully effecting positive change in other countries, particularly those that pose national security threats.

The U.S. government, critics say, needs to work with economic allies on constructing the most valuable form of sanctions. One tool may be the singling out of strategic companies or industries in consult with other countries. This way U.S. industries will not be as affected and U.S. policies cannot be quickly labeled protectionist. It will also prevent disinterested parties in the targeted country from unintentional pain and the U.S. will not incur increased competition from its primary trading partners.

If you liked this article you might like

Spanish Conglomerates Conquer Latin American Markets

Spanish Conglomerates Conquer Latin American Markets

Latin America Gears Up for an E-Tailing Boom

Latin America Gears Up for an E-Tailing Boom

Thinking Locally at Latin America.com

Thinking Locally at Latin America.com

The Dot-Com El Dorado

The Dot-Com El Dorado

In Latin America, No Es 1994

In Latin America, No Es 1994