Sanctions don’t work?

It is difficult to be sure why a country has changed its policy. Most academics used to conclude, however, that there was precious little evidence for international sanctions changing anything. In 1985, an author argued that there were few subjects where international relations analysts agreed as much as on the proposition ‘sanctions do not work’.

Sanctions are often aimed at authoritarian leaders. In authoritarian systems, democratic processes are generally inadequate and information is often controlled, protecting those leaders from a backlash from a population that may be suffering from the impact of sanctions.

Authoritarians may have invested in their image as nationalists, defying foreign critics and asserting national sovereignty.  Applying outside pressure can elicit more patriotic defiance, so sanctions can strengthen authoritarian leaders rather than weaken them.

A confrontational relationship with other countries can make it difficult for ‘moderates’, who may be accused of lack of patriotism. To work, sanctions must strengthen domestic opposition to a policy.

Sanctions may also provide an excuse for a country’s poor economic performance: ‘Don’t blame the government – blame the foreigners!’

Perhaps the most commonly cited example of sanctions that didn’t work were those imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait. They caused a lot of suffering among Iraqis but did not seem to weaken the regime.

Nor have sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict so far brought about a change of policy. The problems of applying sanctions to authoritarian systems seem relevant here. But culture is important too: Russians’ history of confrontation with the West and of stoic suffering of economic hardship may make the sanctions less effective.

Sanctions do work?

Coinciding with the decline of the Cold War, however, analysts revisited the effectiveness of sanctions. Even analysis of traditional sanctions began to change: a report published in 1985 came to a relatively positive conclusion, finding that, in a sample of 116 cases, sanctions had contributed to the success of overall policies in 34% of the cases.

Earlier, the focus had been ‘How much pain has been inflicted?’ and ‘Has the behaviour changed?’ A more complex analysis of increasingly sophisticated ‘targeted’ sanctions was developed: firstly, sanctions were seen as only one among a variety of tools; they are likely to be used in conjunction with diplomacy and other methods – carrots as well as sticks.

Secondly, it was argued that causing pain and forcing targets to choose a different policy were not the only objectives of sanctions. They could also be used to constrain a particular activity – to make it more difficult even if the target does not choose to abandon it – and to send signals to various actors in the international system, including domestic audiences.

The idea that threatened sanctions are probably more effective than imposed sanctions also gained ground. But, for the threat to be realistic, they would have to be imposed sometimes.

There must be a realistic possibility of improved relations after sanctions, or there would be no point in giving in to them. Staged lifting of sanctions in response to partial compliance can be effective, encouraging the target to increase compliance or reassuring the target that full compliance will result in full lifting of sanctions.

Sanctions targeted against individuals and entities, for example, are increasingly employed. Individually targeted sanctions are intended to erode leaders’ support networks by damaging their allies’ wealth and giving them other personal problems.

Narrow sanctions can impede a particular activity. The supply of nuclear-related technology to Iran was banned, to constrain the nuclear programme. Even though they are often thought of separately, arms embargoes are a form of sanction that attempts to constrain certain behaviour – armed violence in this case.

Sanctions are not only applied to countries. The United Nations Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee, for example, lists individuals and entities connected with al-Qaeda and ISIS mainly in order to constrain terrorists, restricting their funding and disrupting their support networks. It would be hard to argue that such sanctions made no difference.

Iran is often held up as an example where sanctions did affect policy. Crucially, Iran does have elections, although they are tightly controlled and the unelected Supreme Leader has the last word. It is probable that sanctions had an impact on the results of the June 2013 Iranian election.

Why do countries use them?

If there is only mixed evidence that sanctions change policy, why then do they seem to be increasingly popular? Analysts suggest that sanctions can serve other purposes:

  1. They can be presented as ‘doing something’

Most politicians are keen to be seen taking action. Sanctions allow leaders to show that they have taken some sort of action over a situation that they or the public don’t like.

  1. They are not military action

The Afghan and Iraqi operations contributed to increasing scepticism about the advisability of sending troops into conflict areas. Together with tightened defence budgets, this means that action short of military intervention is attractive.

  1. They send a signal

Even if sanctions do not lead directly to a change in course by their targets, they may be useful to send a message to the target government that other countries are firmly resolved to act against certain behaviour.

That may help to head off more of the behaviour, for fear of the next step, which might be assumed to be military action, and to deter third parties from doing the same thing.

  1. They increase solidarity

Uniting around a programme of action can be useful for allies, who can collaborate over sanctions design. However, the sanctioning process can also point up differing interests.

For more on this see the Commons Briefing Paper 7221, Do sanctions work?, 5 June 2015