International Relations

Why sanctions matter

Pauline ROUILLON, (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations. 


Pauline ROUILLON, (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations. 

The paradox at the heart of the sanctions debate is that decision-makers continue to rely frequently on sanctions, while some scholars deny the success of such instruments of statecraft (Kunz 1997, Morgan and Schwebach 1997, Pape 1997). The explanation lies in the fact that they address different questions, using different analytical frameworks and concepts. By “sanction success”, scholars frequently refer to an outcome where economic sanctions have significantly contributed to a change in the policy behaviour of the target in line with the pre-stated objectives of the sender. But there is a distinction to be made between policymakers’ choice of strategies and their policy outcomes (George, Simon 1994). The question of whether sanctions are “successful” in absolute terms should therefore be separated from the question of whether they should be used (Baldwin 2000). This essay argues that making sense of the increasing use of sanctions requires resonating in terms of their relative utility or efficiency in a particular context rather than in terms of their absolute effectiveness in achieving pre-defined goals. This essay focuses on economic sanctions, defined as the government-inspired withdrawal of customary trade or financial relations with a target in order to attain political objectives. Primarily, this essay argues that economic sanctions that are unsuccessful in achieving their official publicly declared goals might still be effective in serving hidden agendas. Secondarily, this essay shows that the degree of success of a technique of statecraft should be estimated relatively to its costs, to the type of demand and to the stakes to both the sender and the target. Thirdly, this essay asserts that policymakers evaluate whether sanctions should be used according to their expected utility in comparison to alternative courses of action and their relative costs.

The success of economic sanctions is often defined in the literature in terms of their effectiveness in changing the policies of the target. According to Morgan and Schwebach, “the focus of the debate regarding the effectiveness of sanctions is on whether they can enable the sanctioner to achieve its goals of altering the behaviour of the target” (1997:29). This view is based on the conventional theory that political change is directly proportional to economic hardship. The greater the economic pain caused by sanctions, the higher the probability of political compliance. However, the economic impact of sanctions does not necessarily produce a political change because there is no direct “transmission mechanism” (Cortright and Lopez 1999: 111). Sanctions are not always or not only used to create a behavioural change in the targeted state; they can represent important tools of statecraft used for other purposes, which may include deterring future wrongdoing, destabilizing the targeted state, demonstrating resolve to allies or domestic constituencies, upholding international norms or sending messages of disapproval in response to objectionable behaviour (Cortright and Lopez 2000). “If the analysis of the effectiveness of sanctions remains literal regarding primary goals [the official or publicly declared purpose of sanctions], then sanctions do indeed have limited effectiveness” (Cortirght and Lopez 1995: 7). In assessing the success of economic sanctions, it is therefore important to take into account both the sender’s stated goals and its hidden agendas or unarticulated goals (Douadi and Dajani 1983). As a matter of fact, states usually pursue more than one goal with respect to more than one target. Moreover, the “success” of economic sanctions can hardly be judged in Manichean terms given the fact that “a given instrument can carry a state part of the way to a given goal, even though it cannot carry the state all the way there. At one and the same time, an instrument of statecraft can usefully contribute to attaining many goals and yet by itself be insufficient to attain any one of them” (Art 1996: 24).

A review of economic sanctions cases suggests that they might contribute to achieving four types of goals: compliance, deterrence, signalling and symbolism. Primarily, economic sanctions might pressure the target to change its policy to conform to the sender’s specific political goals, such as forcing recognition of international norms or restoring the status quo. In 1980, the US imposed a grain embargo against the Soviet Union in an effort to compel the Soviet Union to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Secondarily, economic sanctions might have a deterring effect. By punishing unacceptable behaviour, the sender contributes to the establishment of internationally accepted standards of legitimate conduct (Leyton-Brown 1987) and discourages future objectionable policies by demonstrating his willingness and ability to retaliate. For instance, when President Jimmy Carter announced the grain embargo against the Soviet Union, he declared: “We will deter aggression”. By so doing, the sender demonstrates to third parties the likely cost of misbehaviour and thus, deters other states from undertaking unwanted action. For instance, an unstated goal of US economic sanctions against Cuba was to deter other Latin American states from emulating Castro’s policies.

Thirdly, economic sanctions might convey a signal of the sender’s resolve to act to both the target and the sender’s allies. They serve as a “junior weapon” in order to convince the target to comply before launching more drastic/military action. For instance, the US and the UN implemented economic sanctions combined with a gradual military build-up to resist Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait in 1990 before launching military action in 1991.

Lastly, economic sanctions have a demonstrative effect that is rarely stated as a goal but which is, on occasion, the only meaningful function of a sanction policy. Sanctions might be ineffective in changing the target’s behaviour but their implementation allows the sender to “avoid creating negative images of itself”(Lindsay 166) and show international and domestic audiences that the government is acting firmly (Drezner 1999). For instance, former British Foreign Minister David Lloyd George remarked in 1935 on the League of Nations economic sanctions against Italy: “Sanctions came too late to save Abyssinia, but they are just in the nick of time to save the British Government” (Hufbauer, Schott, Elliot 1990: 3). On the one hand, economic sanctions might allow the sender to deflect international criticism, give the appearance of concern on an issue and show leadership initiative on the international scene. On the other hand, economic sanctions might be applied, as a result of domestic pressure, to punish the target and show the sender’s moral outrage. In other words, economic sanctions might be applied to pacify domestic public opinion rather than to pressure the target state (Baldwin 1985: 97). Theorists of the public choice perspective argue that the decision and severity of the sanctions applied depend on three criteria: “the relative influences of interest groups within the sender country; the ability of policymakers to act independently of interest-group pressures; and the amount of information possessed by individuals within the sender country regarding the objectionable policy of the target country” (Kaempfer, Lowenberg 2000). As suggested by the “CNN effect”, high media exposure to a particular issue might fuel public opinion or interest groups’ desire to respond (Haas 1998). For example, the trade sanctions applied by Western countries against South Africa’s apartheid policy in the late 1980s were principally designed to assuage domestic constituencies within the sender nations and to make a moral statement (Elliott, Hufbauer 1999).

The degree of effectiveness of economic sanctions should therefore be estimated in light of both stated and unarticulated goals. In July 2014, the European Union, the US, Canada and other allies enacted economic sanctions against Moscow in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. By targeting strategic sectors of the Russian economy, sender countries aimed at altering Russia’s political behaviour towards Ukraine. The fact that the official stated goal of altering Russian policy towards Ukraine has not (yet?) been achieved does not mean that economic sanctions were/are inefficient. By taking coordinated action against strategic entities of the Russian state in a manner designed to cause concrete economic damage, Western powers showed their unity, attributed responsibility to the Russian elite and signalled credibility and resolve.

The effectiveness of sanctions in achieving both stated and unarticulated goals is certainly an important dimension of successful sanctions but it is not the only one. “Success” is a multidimensional concept (Baldwin 2000). Evaluating the success of economic sanctions implies considering four other variables. Primarily, the costs to the sender are an important determinant of the overall success of economic sanctions. Even though costs are necessary to differentiate a credible signal from “cheap talk” (Drezner 1999), policymakers are unwilling to incur unnecessary costs or to face excessive retaliation from the target. Although certain sectors and countries were more affected than others by Russian counter-sanctions, the EU economy has been resilient to the adverse effects of falling trade with Russia. The substantial fall in EU agricultural exports to Russia was compensated to a large extent by redirecting exports to alternative markets.

Secondarily, the overall success of economic sanctions is determined by the costs to the target.The higher the costs for noncompliance that sanctions inflict on the targets, the more successful they are” (Baldwin 2000: 90). For instance, economic sanctions have had a negative impact on Russian economy by producing a crisis of confidence that has discouraged investments and by prohibiting Russia’s main state banks and companies from refinancing debt in the short run, thereby affecting Russia’s economic development in the medium and long run. Some scholars however refuse to treat the costs inflicted for noncompliance as a dimension of success. “The fact that a target refuses to concede may suffer substantial costs does not turn failure into success” (Pape 1997: 90). What is essential is the costs gap, that is the difference between target’s costs and sender’s costs as a percentage of GNP. For sanctions to be successful, it needs to be larger than zero. Political factors may however reduce the effects of economic sanctions. Although the recession of the Russian economy and the fall in the oil price have reinforced the effects of economic sanctions, political factors have hindered their success. The authoritarian political system in Russia makes the regime less sensitive to the economic burden of sanctions since it can protect loyal elites, control public opinion and blame economic hardship on the West. As a result of the Kremlin’s propaganda, the Russian population perceives the West as seeking regime change in Russia. Consequently, there is little pressure from within Russia, which decreases the regime’s need to change its political behaviour toward Ukraine (Oxenstierna and Olsson, 2015).

Thirdly, since not all goals are equally challenging, the degree of success of economic sanctions should be judged relatively to the type of demand. A moderate degree of success in completing a difficult task may be more valuable than a high degree of success in accomplishing an easy task (Drezner). Besides, the degree of success of economic sanctions should be estimated by the scope of the agreed concessions relative to the status quo rather than by the scope of the concessions relative to the sender’s original demand.

Lastly, the success of economic sanctions should be evaluated relatively to the stakes for the target. For example, the lifting of oil and financial sanctions against Iran was conditioned on Tehran’s effort to dismantle large sections of it nuclear program. Complying with the demands of the international community did not imply any change at the level of the Iranian regime. By contrast, sanctions against Rhodesia and South Africa were based on demands of fundamental changes in the governance of those states. In short, the more difficult the undertaking, the more valuable is the impact of sanctions.

Furthermore, rational policymakers rely on economic sanctions because they believe them to be relatively useful in comparison with alternative policy options. Economic sanctions are available to policymakers as one of many policy options along with diplomacy, propaganda and military force. In the context of the logic of choice, the evaluation of one policy alternative in isolation from alternative techniques of statecraft makes little sense. Even if sanctions were a “notoriously poor tool of statecraft”(Nossal 1994), policymakers would still evaluate their utility in comparison with other available policy alternatives. Baldwin ironically argues: “If the menu of choice includes only the options of sinking or swimming, the observation that swimming is a “notoriously poor” way to get from one place to another is not very helpful. If the principal alternative to economic sanctions is appearing to condone racism, terrorism or genocide, the observation that they are a “notoriously poor tool of statecraft” may miss the point” (Baldwin 2000: 84).

Decision to apply economic sanctions therefore implies examination of the costs and benefits of alternative policy options (Baldwin 2000: 85). A “successful” policy choice is not one that relies on the most effective instrument of statecraft but one that maximizes the utility of the decision-maker in a given context. Accordingly, the decision to use economic sanctions instead of military statecraft often depends less on the relative effectiveness of sanctions than on the relative costliness of force. “Economic sanctions may be preferable to military force even when they are less likely to achieve a given set of goals provided that the cost differential is big enough” (Baldwin 2000: 87).

The fact that policymakers frequently use economic sanctions even though their success rate is said to be low does not make them irrational actors. On the contrary, “the logic of choice suggests that what matters is not the absolute level of expected utility, but rather its magnitude relative to the expected utility of alternative techniques of statecraft” (Baldwin 2000: 86). Therefore, it is rational for policymakers to apply economic sanctions even when the chances of success are low, provided the expected success of alternative courses of action is lower still.

When examining US policy options after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, decision-makers were worried about the consequences of premature use of military force. “No one wanted another Vietnam” (Baldwin 2000: 103). By contrast, economic sanctions could be implemented in a very short-term, thus providing a useful temporary measure during the military build-up. Given Iraq’s heavy dependence on oil exports, economic sanctions could impose significant costs on Iraq for noncompliance. The decision to rely on economic sanctions at the beginning of the conflict was not based on the belief that they would achieve US final goal but on the idea that they were the most cost-effective policy available and, thus, a preferable alternative to military force at that particular point in time.


The contrast between the increasing use of sanctions and their comparatively low rate of success shows that there is a distinction to be made between policymakers’ choice of strategies and their policy outcomes. The decision to apply economic sanctions is not based on an evaluation of their absolute success rate in achieving pre-defined goals. Economic sanctions can be useful even though they do not generate change in the policy behaviour of the target. Moreover, the degree of success of a technique of statecraft is higher “the greater the effectiveness, the lower the costs for the user, the higher the costs of noncompliance for the target, the higher the stakes and the more difficult the undertaking”(Baldwin 2000: 92). Finally, even when the expectations of success if very low, the use of sanctions might still be wise if there is no policy alternative with a higher expectation of success.


 Art Robert J., “American FP and the Fungibility of Force”, Security Studies, 1996, p.24

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Baldwin, David A., “The Sanctions Debate and the Logic of Choice”, International Security, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1999-2000, pp. 80-10.

Cortright David and Lopez George A., “Sanctions and Incentives as Tools of Economic Statecraft,” in Raimo Vayrynen (ed.), Globalization and Global Governance, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999, pp. 111-116

Cortright David and Lopez George A.,, “Economic Sanctions in Contemporary Global Relations,” in David Cortright and George A. Lopez (eds.), Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World?, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995, p. 7

Cortright David and Lopez George A.,, The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2000, pp. 15-6.

Daoudi M. S. and Dajani M. S., Economic Sanctions: Ideal and Experience, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983, pp. 159-169.

Dashti-Gibson Jaleh, Davis Patricia and Radcliff Benjamin, “On the Determinants of the Success of Economic Sanctions: An Empirical Analysis” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 41, No. 2, April 1997, pp. 608-618

Dodge Toby “The failure of sanctions and the evolution of international policy towards Iraq”, 1990–2003, Contemporary Arab Affairs, 3:1, 2010, pp. 83-91.

Drezner Daniel W., The Sanctions Paradox: Economic Statecraft and International Relations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 11-2.

George, Alexander, L., ‘The general theory and logic of coercive diplomacy’, in George, Alexander, L., Forceful persuasion; coercive diplomacy as an alternative to war, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1991, pp. 3-14

George, Alexander L., Simons William E., The limits of coercive diplomacy, Bouder, Colo : Westview 1994.

Hufbauer Gary Clyde, Schott Jeffery J., and Elliot Kimberly Ann, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered: History and Current Policy, 2nd ed., Washington, D.C.: Institute of International Economics, 1990.

Leyton-Brown David, “Lessons and Policy Considerations about Economic Sanctions,” in David Leyton-Brown (ed.), The Utility of International Economic Sanctions, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987, p. 300-330.

Simon Herbert A., Administrative Behavior. A study of decision-making processes in administrative organizations, 3rd ed, New York : Free Press, 1976, p.65

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