Yes, Sanctions Work

US-Iran NegotiationsBy Vladislav Inozemtsev

The American Interest

Both in Russia and in the West, many analysts argue that sanctions are ineffective. In Moscow this argument is repeated almost constantly with regard to the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in March of last year. Why is this so? Because one of the few things that serious people learned during the 20th century, to the point of virtual consensus, is that sanctions do not work except to salve the consciences of offended but risk-averse statesmen. It enables such statesmen to be seen to “do something” when passivity is embarrassing but doing something is either too dangerous or thought to be incommensurate with the threat to the national interest.

The academic literature, particularly in the West, overwhelmingly supports this verdict, even as it accounts for the very few noteworthy exceptions (apartheid South Africa, Bolivia, perhaps Serbia) by specifying the extremely unusual conditions that enabled sanctions to work in those cases. Thus, it is still de rigueur for many to refer to the classic essay by Robert Pape, published in the International Security more than 16 years ago, as a kind of proof text. Pape analyzed the period from 1933 to 1990, a time when Western sanctions against various countries could be offset by help from the Communist bloc. It was easy to understand why, until the end of perestroika, U.S. sanctions against Cuba were ineffective, and, indeed, why they helped the Castro regime politically. It was nearly as easy to understand why economic sanctions and political restrictions imposed almost exclusively on peripheral countries (North Korea, Ivory Coast, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Myanmar) did not work as intended either. The level of economic development in most of these countries put a significant portion of their populations on the ragged edge of survival anyway; if someone doesn’t possess something in the first place, she or he is not afraid of being deprived of it, especially if the bond between leaders and masses is weak to begin with. Sanctions that were supposed to target leadership cadres while avoiding general populations therefore rarely worked as intended.

The old consensus may have been justified (or not), but it is justified no longer. Things have changed. Today, thanks in part to greater global economic interdependence and the technical ability to selectively target that interdependence, sanctions have acquired new efficacy as a policy tool. What used to be exceptions to the disutility of sanctions—South Africa, because white people there actually cared about what Westerners thought of them; Serbia, because serious coercion accompanied serious sanctions—have become much more the rule.

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Picture: U.S. Department of State from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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