Do Sanctions Work?

Peter A.G. van Bergeijk gives an analysis on this question.

A century ago, economic sanctions were seen as very effective instruments of foreign policy. The introduction of this ‘terrible weapon’ by the League of Nations was accompanied by suggestons that sanctions could be a substitute for war.  “A nation that is boycotted is a nation that is in sight of surrender,” claimed US President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. A century later we remember the sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, against the nuclear proliferation of Iran and North Korea and we see Russian aggression in the Crimea that is not stopped by economic punishment. It looks as if sanctions do not work at all.  This is, however, merely an example of how headline cases can bias opinions – even scientific evidence – regarding a policy tool. The Research Handbook on Economic Sanctions paints a much more nuanced picture based on top notch research by a group of eminent scholars from all continents that delve into the conditions under which economic sanctions could be made to work.

Building bridges in research on sanctions

The Handbook shows that several of the divides that have characterized the research on economic sanctions are currently being bridged. The Handbook brings together the two disciplines that study sanctions but often seem to talk past each other: Economics and Political Science/International Relations. Moreover, both Political Science and Economics are crossing the bridge between quantitative and qualitative approaches, but from opposite sides. On the quantitative side, much progress has been made in Economics since the early years of sanctions research. Data collection took off in 1985 with the publication of Economic Sanctions Reconsidered (that, incidentally, together with the public choice approach was the inspiration for my PhD thesis and its successors). The universe of sanction data increased significantly from the original hundred odd sanction cases, bringing other aspects into the picture that enabled the analysis of sanction threats and the characteristics of targeted UN sanctions. The sanction data as described by the latest update of the Global Sanctions Data Base now even cover more that 1100 cases. The  expanding universe of sanctions data also reflects better understanding of other guises of boycotts and embargoes, including measures related to tourism, trade preferences (difficult to reconcile with WTO rules), FDI and the international payments system. The availability of many case studies, heterogeneous sanction mechanisms and qualitative and quantitative studies based on different sets of evidence increased the need for research synthesis. This has become an increasingly important issue in Political Science where Qualitative Comparative Analysis covering a great many sanctions regimes disentangles the simultaneous interplay of such diverse drives of sanctions outcome as economic deprivation, political opportunities and signaling. And the same is true for quantitative sanctions research where meta-analysis is now also used to analyze the heterogeneity of empirical sanctions findings and to find out the extent to which claims in the literature are exaggerated or can be substantiated..

Implications for policy

The Research Handbook on Economic Sanctions shows that the economic impact of sanctions is complex. Timing and institutional preparation are critical dimensions of sanctions and a better understanding of the behavior of firms  and also and new and innovative approaches, such as graphical interfaces, may be necessary to better understand what policies can and cannot achieve. Moreover, it is not so much the economic impact that matters but rather the socio political effect, including the impact on violence, livelihoods and even food security in target countries. What the recent cases above all clarify is that imposing sanctions is one thing, but that ending sanctions is a completely different animal. The negative impact of economic sanctions extends well beyond the period of actual impositions and moving in and out of the sanctions’ box are not symmetric activities. Increasingly it is being recognized that our focus on negative sanctions may preclude the use of instruments that may work. Positive and negative economic sanctions may be the carrot and stick that the world need at this critical juncture in time. The exclusive focus on threat and punishment rather than promise and reward may be a reason why sanctions often do not seem to work

Peter A.G. van Bergeijk, Erasmus University, the Netherlands

Peter’s book, Research Handbook on Economic Sanctions is available
on our website, read Chapter 1 free on Elgaronline

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