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date: 23 February 2018

Economic Sanctions and International Security

Summary and Keywords

Economic sanctions are a versatile instrument of statecraft used by states to try to influence the behavior of foreign actors by threatening or restricting customary cross-border trade or financial flows to an intended target. Examples of economic sanctions are retaliatory tariffs imposed in trade disputes and the complete cessation of economic flows aimed at undermining a certain regime. The importance of economic sanctions to policy makers has spawned a substantial amount of scholarly work dominated by two questions: whether sanctions “work” and whether states should use them. The long-running scholarly debate about whether sanctions work is essentially a dispute over how to classify cases. However, comparing cases of success and failure is problematic, in part because the very notion of what constitutes the successful use of sanctions is not clear and policy makers rarely seek to influence a single target or pursue a single policy goal when using sanctions. One of the most promising developments in the literature has been the increasing use of game theory to analyze sanctions, but this approach does not adequately determine the appropriateness of sanctions as a policy instrument. Sanctions research should focus instead on the basic strategic dynamics of the sanctions episode in order to identify those factors that contribute most strongly to the effective use of sanctions and to enable policy makers to understand more about the consequences of using sanctions as an instrument of statecraft.

Keywords: economic sanctions, game theory, tariffs, trade disputes, economic flows, statecraft


States employ economic sanctions whenever they threaten or restrict customary cross-border trade or financial flows to influence the behavior of foreign actors. Economic sanctions can range in scope from retaliatory tariffs imposed in tit-for-tat trade disputes to the complete cessation of economic flows between sender and target countries to undermine target regimes. They can be unilaterally imposed by individual states or multilaterally imposed by ad hoc groups of states or international organizations such as the United Nations. Because economic sanctions lie broadly between diplomatic censure and military force in the coercive pressure they can exert on targeted actors, sanctions comprise a versatile instrument of statecraft that states use to do many things, including to change the behavior of target regimes; avoid the recourse to force; make force more effective; impose costs for unwanted policies; signal disapproval of others’ actions; or build and reinforce norms of acceptable behavior. This versatility is reflected in the growing prevalence with which states turn to sanctions to support their foreign policies. Over the last two decades, the number of sanctions “episodes” since 1914 reported in the literature’s most comprehensive database has nearly doubled, rising from 103 in 1985 to 204 in 2007 (Hufbauer et al. 2007:ix–x).

Not surprisingly, the importance of economic sanctions to policy makers has generated a substantial scholarly literature intended to improve the practice of policy making with regard to this technique of statecraft. At its very best, this literature represents policy-relevant social science: the rigorous theoretical and empirical exploration of economic sanctions in ways that expand the boundaries of scientific knowledge, while at the same time enabling policy makers to understand more about the consequences of using this instrument. The desire for policy relevance, however, has most often led the literature to take a different and far less productive tack, engaging in poorly conceptualized debates about whether sanctions “work” and, by extension, whether policy makers should ever use them.

Do Sanctions Work? When Should States Use Them?

These two related questions dominate the literature on economic sanctions. They arise partly from the normative desire to find an effective instrument of statecraft that avoids the devastating human costs that accompany the use of force in international relations. At least since the League of Nations, many have believed that sanctions can serve as a peaceful, nonviolent alternative to military force for bringing states into compliance with international norms and rules of behavior. “A nation that is boycotted,” proclaimed President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, “is a nation that is in sight of surrender. Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force […] It does not cost a life outside the nation boycotted but it brings a pressure upon the nation which, in my judgement, no modern nation could resist” (quoted in Hufbauer et al. 2007:1, n1). Determining whether sanctions can actually “work” in this fashion follows naturally from these claims.

These questions also arise from the apparent abject failure of sanctions to compel compliance with the stated demands of sender (sanctioning) countries in a widespread number of high-profile cases. These include the League of Nations sanctions against Italy over the invasion of Ethiopia, US sanctions against Cuba, the British and United Nations economic sanctions against Rhodesia, United Nations sanctions against Serbia, and the United Nations sanctions against Iraq both before and after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, to name just a few. Given that there are no equally apparent, high-profile cases of the unqualified success of sanctions, wondering whether sanctions “work” seems entirely justified.

Mostly, however, the two questions of whether sanctions work and whether states should use them have dominated the literature because its central motivation has been to produce policy-relevant knowledge about how to use sanctions more successfully. “Most sanctions scholars,” observes David Baldwin (1999/2000:81), “implicitly or explicitly portray their work as relevant to the question of when, if ever, sanctions should be used.” This desire, in turn, has led the literature to employ a method of empirical inquiry that makes answering the question “Do sanctions work?” the critical first step in generating insights into how, when, or if policy makers should use them. First, the analyst classifies cases of sanctions according to whether sanctions “worked” or, in other words, succeeded in bringing about desired changes in the target’s behavior. Second, the analyst uses various techniques of comparison and control – ranging from case studies to statistical analysis – to isolate those factors that correlate most strongly with the success or failure of sanctions (e.g., Hoffman 1967; Knorr 1975; Losman 1979; Renwick 1981; Daoudi and Dajani 1983; Lindsay 1986; Doxey 1987; Bergeijk 1989; Nossal 1994; Cortwright and Lopez 1995, 2000, 2002; Dashti-Gibson et al. 1997; Morgan and Schwebach 1997; Pape 1997; Blanchard and Ripsman 1999/2000; Ripsman and Blanchard 2002; Allen 2005; Ang and Peksen 2007; Hufbauer et al. 2007). Sometimes these factors of interest are suggested by deductive theory, at other times they are arrived at inductively. In either case, by discovering the conditions under which sanctions are most likely to succeed in producing the desired changes in the behavior of target regimes, the literature seeks to generate empirically grounded policy advice about how policy makers may use sanctions more effectively. As Morgan and Schwebach (1997:46) note, “Research into the conditions under which sanctions have an impact on target state’s policies […] [provides] a more sophisticated basis for understanding as well as a stronger basis for policy prescriptions.” And, as Baldwin (1999/2000:87) writes, estimates of success rates “are necessary steps toward identifying the conditions under which sanctions are likely (or unlikely) to succeed. Knowledge of such conditions is necessary […] for deciding whether sanctions should be employed in a given situation.” In short, the literature’s dominant methodological focus on the success of sanctions arises directly from the desire of scholars to advise policy makers on if, when, and how they should use sanctions.

This method-driven focus on the successfulness of sanctions raises three important points. First, it has steered dominant debates in the sanctions literature toward issues of taxonomical classification rather than theoretical understanding. Because the literature seeks to generate policy-relevant knowledge by discovering those factors that correlate most strongly with the successful use of sanctions, the lessons one draws regarding the use of sanctions depend directly on how one classifies sanctions episodes according to their success or failure. Debates between sanctions optimists, who argue that sanctions can be used as effective instruments of policy, and sanctions pessimists, who disagree, spring not from theoretical differences, but from how analysts sort sanctions episodes into successes or failures. David Baldwin’s (1985, 1999/2000) important criticism that the literature systematically underestimates the utility of economic sanctions arises largely from the claim that the literature fails to classify cases correctly because it uses misleading and overly narrow definitions of success. Likewise, the widely cited debate between Robert Pape, Kimberly Ann Elliott (of Hufbauer et al. 1985, 1990, 2007), and David Baldwin about the usefulness of economic sanctions springs from Pape’s recoding as failures 35 of the 40 successful cases of sanctions reported in the Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott database at that time (Pape 1997, 1998; Elliott 1998; Baldwin and Pape 1998; Baldwin 1999/2000). In short, the literature’s long-running debate about whether sanctions work, which has overshadowed almost all other aspects of the study of sanctions, is in essence a dispute over how to classify cases.

These taxonomical debates have come at great cost. On the one hand, they have not contributed to the cumulation of knowledge about economic sanctions. The Pape–Elliott–Baldwin exchanges of 1997–2000 occupied a substantial number of pages of one of the leading journals of international politics, yet did little to advance knowledge of sanctions significantly beyond where it stood in 1985 with the publication of Baldwin’s seminal work Economic Statecraft. “After more than two decades of debating the effectiveness of economic pressure,” Nikolay Marinov (2005:565) wrote, “the state of disagreement on whether pressure works remains something of an embarrassment.” On the other hand, these debates have diverted attention away from the development of deeper, theoretically grounded understandings of the ways in which the manipulation of international economic flows shapes the behavior of states and other actors (Kirshner 1997). As a study by Arne Tostensen and Beate Bull (2002:376) observes, “those trying to design effective smart sanctions have little research at their disposal on the effects of sanctions on targeted states’ decision-making processes.” Given that one of the most important reasons policy makers use sanctions is precisely to influence decisions by the target state(s), the relative dearth of research on this critical issue is stunning, especially for a literature motivated largely by the desire to produce policy-relevant knowledge!

Second, the literature’s method-driven focus on the success of sanctions gives rise to the sanctions paradox. The overwhelming conclusion of the sanctions literature is that they are relatively weak instruments of statecraft that only occasionally succeed in bringing about the desired changes in the behavior of target regimes. The most comprehensive studies of sanctions report that they succeed in around a third of the instances in which they are used, while others report even lower rates of success, in some cases less than 5 percent (Hufbauer et al. 1985, 1990, 2007; Pape 1997). Moreover, in the minority of instances where sanctions do appear to have worked, the issues at stake have tended to be relatively modest to the parties involved, such as the release of a political prisoner (Hufbauer et al. 2007; Ripsman and Blanchard 2002). Consequently, the literature generally assesses sanctions to be of limited utility and counsels policy makers to use them sparingly or only for the pursuit of modest foreign policy goals. For example, Robert Pape (1998:76) moves directly from finding “little empirical evidence that sanctions can achieve ambitious foreign policy goals,” to advising policy makers to forgo the use of sanctions in situations where “we do not have high confidence that they will work,” or in other words, just about always. Yet despite this track record, and the advice that scholars have derived from it, policy makers have increasingly resorted to sanctions over the past two decades, often for highly ambitious goals. This paradox indicates the existence of a substantial disconnect between the advice generated by the literature’s study of sanctions and the real-world practice of policy makers. Either policy makers are stupid and do not read the sanctions literature, or, as noted above, the literature simply has not generated knowledge that adequately addresses the needs and concerns of policy makers (Kirshner 1997; Baldwin 1999/2000).

Finally, it is important to recognize that the literature’s methodological focus on discerning and comparing cases of success and failure is motivated by a logic of policy relevance – generating advice for policy makers on what factors contribute to the successful use of sanctions – not theory development or the production of scientific knowledge (Kirshner 2002:180). “Were it nor for an interest in the wisdom of using economic sanctions,” writes David Baldwin, “the question of whether they work would probably never be asked (Baldwin 1999/2000:105–106).” This raises the important question of whether comparing cases of success and failure is really the right method for generating sound social scientific knowledge about economic sanctions, and, given the poor track record of the literature in producing useful knowledge for policy makers, generating sound advice on the consequences of using them.

Why Comparing Cases of Success and Failure is Problematic

If, as this discussion suggests, the sanctions literature appears to be bogged down in its ability to generate and cumulate social scientific and policy-relevant knowledge about economic sanctions, its dominant method of empirical inquiry, comparing cases of success and failure, is to blame.

Scholars generally define success as the degree to which economic sanctions achieve the goals for which policy makers use them. Yet, as David Baldwin (1985, 1999/2000) has pointed out, the very notion of what constitutes the successful use of sanctions is itself highly problematic. It is often far from clear what the goals of policy makers are in any given episode of sanctions. The publicly stated purposes of sanctions can vary dramatically from the privately held reasons that actually lead policy makers to employ them, reasons that are not visible to outside observers. For example, the oil embargo of Rhodesia (1965–1979) is usually regarded as a sanctions failure. Despite the fact that Rhodesia had no domestic sources of oil, the embargo did not cripple the Rhodesian economy nor bring the colony’s white minority government to end its rebellion against the British crown, but led instead to massive sanctions busting and a reshuffling of the supply routes by which Rhodesia obtained petroleum from world markets. Yet a careful reading of the British archives reveals that British policy makers did not expect the embargo to end the Rhodesian rebellion (Rowe 1999/2000). They imposed the embargo for other purposes: to impose costs on the Rhodesian regime for its rebellion and to preserve the British Commonwealth by providing a costly, and therefore credible, signal to former British colonies in black Africa and elsewhere about the seriousness of Britain’s intent to bring about majority rule in the colony. When judged against the actual goals of the British government, the oil embargo largely achieved the purposes for which it was used. Yet these goals, and their centrality to the embargo, only became apparent some 30 years later with the opening of British archives.

Another reason success is a problematic concept is that policy makers rarely seek to influence a single target or pursue a single policy goal when using sanctions. They usually seek to influence multiple targets and pursue multiple goals simultaneously (Baldwin 1985, 1999/2000). For example, sanctions against South Africa were intended to put economic pressure on the apartheid regime, signal solidarity with the South African opposition (leading to the slogan “sanctions hurt but apartheid kills”), placate opponents of apartheid in the sanctioning countries, raise the costs to multinational firms of doing business with South Africa, and reinforce norms of racial equality and human rights (Lipton 1988; Klotz 1995a, 1995b; Crawford and Klotz 1999). All were important policy goals independent of whether sanctions forced South Africa to dismantle the apartheid system.

The fact that policy makers often pursue multiple goals against multiple targets when using economic sanctions means that the success of sanctions will vary depending on which goals one is considering with respect to which targets. Yet the method-driven focus on comparing cases of success and failure too often leads analysts of sanctions to collapse the multiple goals and targets that are present in almost every use of sanctions onto a single dimension of success or failure. For example, in their latest edition, Hufbauer et al. (2007:157) recognize the complex purposes for which policy makers use sanctions, but nonetheless assess sanctions according to “the most ambitious goal in each phase of a sanctions campaign.” Moreover, any assessment of the success of a sanctions episode must also take into account the difficulty of the goals being sought. Some goals, such as getting the South African government to dismantle apartheid, one of the core sociopolitical structures of South African society at that time, are intrinsically more difficult than others, such as signaling solidarity with a regime’s domestic opponents. The failure of the literature to acknowledge the complex, multidimensional nature of success is one of the key reasons the literature has so long been bogged down in unproductive debates about whether sanctions work (Baldwin 1999/2000:106–107).

It is also important to recognize that the success of a sanctions episode is the product of two separate vectors: the goals pursued by the countries employing sanctions and the ways in which sanctions alter the behavior of the targeted actors. In other words, whether the literature considers a sanction to “work” depends not merely on how the manipulation of transnational economic flows changes the behavior of targeted actors, but also on how closely these changes correspond to the desires of the sanctioning governments. The literature’s focus on success thus renders the ends held by sanctioning governments an important explanatory variable of the outcome of any sanctions episode. This, in turn, seriously compromises the quality of the advice the literature generates regarding the use of sanctions as a policy instrument.

Take, for example, two episodes of sanctions that are identical in every way except that in the first episode, the policy maker’s goal is to signal displeasure with the target regime’s behavior, while in the second, the policy maker’s goal is to undermine the target regime. Imagine as well that the sanctions in each case effectively signal displeasure with the target regime but do not undermine it. Clearly, sanctions succeed in the first episode but fail in the second. What determines why one sanction works and the other does not? Not differences in the sanctions, how they were applied, or their effects on the target regimes, but simply differences in the goals sought by policy makers. What policy advice comes from comparing these two episodes of success and failure? Choose easy goals.

This advice is not helpful to policy makers seeking to manage a complex and often hostile world with a limited set of policy instruments. Yet this is precisely what the literature counsels when it argues that policy makers should only use sanctions to pursue modest policy goals over minor issues “that do not affect the target country’s territory, security, wealth, or the regime’s domestic security” (Pape 1997:109; see also Hufbauer et al. 1985, 1990, 2007). This advice, however, is not based on a sophisticated understanding of the ways in which the manipulation of transnational economic flows shapes behavior. It is simply an artifact of the literature’s method-driven focus on explaining why some sanctions attain the goals of policy makers while others do not. If the point of studying sanctions is to understand how the manipulation of transnational economic flows influences behavior, it is the means of influence (manipulating economic flows), not the ends being sought, that is the proper focus of study.

Finally, one of the most promising developments in the literature has been the increasing use of game theory to analyze sanctions (Wagner 1988; Tsebelis 1990; Smith 1996; Drezner 2003; Lacy and Niou 2004). One important implication of recent game theoretical work on economic sanctions is that it underscores the extent to which the literature’s focus on success impedes its ability to produce meaningful social scientific and policy-relevant knowledge about this instrument of statecraft. Game theory highlights that the outcomes of sanctions episodes are the joint product of actions taken or anticipated by the targets of sanctions and sanctioning governments. Whether sanctions “work” depends not only on how sanctioning governments apply them, but on how targets anticipate or respond to the imposition of sanctions. After all, as George Tsebelis (1990:20) observes, “one of the reasons that sanctions have such a low success rate is that ineffective sanctions are the goal of other rational actors (target countries).”

The Basic Strategic Dynamics of Sanctions

Figure 1 provides a basic, extensive form game of economic sanctions. The game models the interactions of two actors, a target regime (Target), which desires to pursue some provocative policy (such as invading a weaker neighbor) that alters the status quo in its favor, and a sanctioning government (Sender), which seeks to preserve the status quo (such as the norm of respecting existing borders). Both actors are rational, forward thinking, and operate under perfect information, meaning that they know both how the other will respond to any action they might take as well the outcomes and payoffs that will result.

The game has three nodes: at the first, the target decides whether to pursue some provocative policy (P) or not (∼P) (the “∼” represents “not”). Should the target government choose ∼P, the game ends at a. Should it choose to provoke (P), the game proceeds to the second node, where the sender government must decide whether to apply some sanction (S) to try to bring the target into compliance with its demands to end the provocative policy or not (∼S). Should the sender not sanction (∼S), the game ends at b. Should it sanction (S), the game proceeds to the third node, where the target can either not comply (∼C) with the demands of the sender, thus ending the game at c, or comply (C) by ending its provocative policy, thus ending the game at d. The game thus contains four possible pathways of interaction leading to four possible outcomes. These are summarized in Table 1.

Economic Sanctions and International SecurityClick to view larger

Figure 1 The basic sanctions game

Table 1 The basic sanctions game: Pathways and outcomes

target does not provoke (∼P) ⇒


target provokes (P) ⇒ sender does not sanction (∼S) ⇒


target provokes (P) ⇒ sender sanctions (S) ⇒ target does not comply (∼C) ⇒


target provokes (P) ⇒ sender sanctions (S) ⇒ target complies (C) ⇒


The ending points of the game are jointly determined by the preferences of the two actors over different outcomes. The preferences for the Sender government are a > d > c > b. The Sender prefers the status quo, to sanctions with compliance, to sanctions without compliance, to the target’s provocation without sanctions.

The preferences for the Target government are more complex. First, it prefers b to all other outcomes (b > a, c, d), meaning that in the absence of sanctions by the Sender government, it always prefers the provocative policy. Second, it prefers noncompliance with sanctions to compliance (c > d). At outcome c, the Target receives the benefits that accrue from the provocative policy, less any costs of the sanctions applied by the Sender. This will be greater than its payoff at d. Here, the Target derives no benefit from the provocative policy (which it must end) and pays the costs of sanctions applied by the Sender plus an “audience” cost for publicly backing down from a desirable policy in the face of external pressure.

What is key in determining the outcomes of this game are therefore the Target’s relative valuation of outcomes a and c. Where a > c, the Target, knowing that the Sender will always sanction in the face of provocation (recall that for the Sender d > c > b), will choose to remain at a, the status quo, by not pursuing the provocative policy. Where c > a, the Target prefers the provocative policy even including the costs of sanctions to the status quo, leading it always to pursue the provocative policy. In this instance, the Sender, facing provocation, applies sanctions, while the Target, preferring c to d, refuses to comply with the Sender’s demands, producing outcome c.

This simple game produces several important implications for understanding economic sanctions. First, sanctions never “work” in terms of forcing the target to comply with the demands of the sanctioning government. A target wishing to avoid the costs of sanctions can do so by simply choosing not to provoke them (alternative ∼P) at the first node of the game. Consequently, the outcome d will never be observed in equilibrium. Stated another way, targets are only likely to provoke sanctions when the net benefits of the provocative policy – including the costs of sanctions – exceed the benefits the target derives from the status quo.

So why are sanctions sometimes observed to work in the real world? These instances can be explained by relaxing the model’s assumptions, especially the assumption of perfect information (Lacy and Niou 2004; Allen 2005). In the real world, asymmetries of information mean that parties may miscalculate the likelihood that sanctions will be imposed; misestimate the costs of sanctions relative to the benefits they would derive from the sanctions policy; or may even have incoherent or inconsistent preferences over policy. For example, one finding of the sanctions literature is that sanctions are more likely to work for minor issues, precisely those for which the target’s preferences are likely to be less clear (Hufbauer et al. 1985, 1990, 2007; Ripsman and Blanchard 2002). Another finding is that democracies will concede sooner to the pressure of sanctions than nondemocracies (Allen 2005). One reason may be that the preferences of democratic states are simply less coherent over time because the regularized transfer of power means that different domestic coalitions, with different preferences regarding sanctions, will determine the state’s policies at different points of time.

It may also be that actors’ preferences regarding sanctions diverge from those assumed here, especially where the sanctions game is embedded within or linked to other strategic interactions. Imagine, for example, a target government that wishes not to pursue some provocative policy demanded by a powerful domestic interest. A target government in this situation may prefer to provoke sanctions and then back down under pressure as a way of shifting the blame for its failure to pursue the policy onto external actors. (In essence, it possesses the preference ordering d > a > b > c.) In fact, this may be one reason sanctions are more likely to “work” in commercial disputes. One consequence of the right to levy sanctions in response to the protectionist policies of others that is embedded within the current trading regime is that it shifts the blame for a government’s “failure” to protect domestic import-competing sectors onto its trading partners.

Second, even though this model starkly predicts that sanctions will never be observed to work in equilibrium, it also indicates that sanctions can nonetheless be very effective in shaping the behavior of target actors. Notice that the status quo outcome a represents a nonevent in which the Target pursues policies congruent with the Sender’s interests. It emerges not because the status quo is the Target’s most preferred outcome (recall that b > a for the Target), but because the Sender’s threat of sanctions at the second node dissuades the Target from pursuing the provocative policy. Thus, the Target’s behavior is being caused by the expectation of an event – the imposition of sanctions – that is never observed because it lies “off the equilibrium path.”

Simply put, economic sanctions that are likely to be successful are also unlikely to be observed because they will “work” without ever having to be imposed. The strategic dynamics of sanctions episodes thus suggest the existence of a significant selection bias in the universe of observable cases (Smith 1996; Drezner 2003; Lacy and Niou 2004). Targets will choose to provoke sanctions in those instances where they are most likely to fail and choose to avoid them where they are most likely to succeed. Understanding the strategic dynamics of sanctions suggests that the low rates of success noted in the sanctions literature are not due to an inherent weakness of this instrument of statecraft, but are rather a product of the strategic setting in which sanctions are used. As Clifton Morgan and Valerie Schwebach (1997:46) note, “it may be that the imposition of sanctions appears to work poorly because the threat of sanctions works so well. Sanctions may not be applied in those cases in which they would work simply because the threat may be adequate to achieve the desired results.”

There is substantial credence given to this view. Using data from US trade, environmental, and labor disputes, Daniel Drezner (2003) finds that the threat of sanctions produced compliance in a significantly higher number of cases than suggested by the “observed” universe of cases in the Hufbauer et al. database. Dean Lacy and Emerson Niou (2004) note how the threat of sanctions embodied in the Montreal Protocol of 1989 regarding the use of chlorofluorocarbons and in Section 301 of the 1988 Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act produced compliance by various states with these regimes. In a recent study, Nikolay Marinov (2005) finds substantial evidence that sanctions destabilize target governments, thus giving governments an incentive to avoid them. Ioana Petrescu (2008) finds that sanctions imposed on countries engaged in militarized disputes have a moderate deterrent effect on both their and similarly situated countries’ propensities to engage in other militarized disputes over the next five years.

Perhaps the most impressive instance of “unobserved” sanctions working comes from the oil embargo of Rhodesia. Britain’s (initially successful) efforts to shut off the supply of oil to Rhodesia alarmed South Africa. Measures that effectively cut the oil supply line to Rhodesia could also be used to cut off South Africa’s oil. On April 15, 1966, South Africa secretly informed Britain that any disruption of South Africa’s oil supplies arising from the oil embargo of Rhodesia would have “far reaching consequences for British-South Africa trade relations” (Public Record Office of the United Kingdom 1966a). South Africa’s threat alarmed Britain. Not only was it highly credible, it posed potential losses to the British economy that were, in the words of one ranking British official, “too awful to contemplate.” In an internal assessment, the British cabinet concluded that the break-up of the Commonwealth was preferable to economic war with South Africa and elevated not provoking South Africa to the highest priority of Britain’s Rhodesia policy. Britain thus consciously worded the subsequent UN Security Council Resolutions for mandatory economic sanctions against Rhodesia to ensure they lacked enforcement mechanisms (Public Record Office of the United Kingdom 1966b, 1966c, 1966d). Otherwise it feared that other powers might trigger South African retaliation against Britain by using the resolutions to disrupt the flow of trade to southern Africa or even extend sanctions to South Africa, which openly supplied petroleum and other critical goods to Rhodesia (Rowe 1999/2000).

In short, South Africa’s secret threat of economic sanctions set the parameters of Britain’s Rhodesia policy. The Rhodesia crisis was Britain’s most significant foreign policy crisis since Suez, one that threatened Britain’s standing throughout black Africa and Asia. South Africa’s ability to set the parameters of British policy in this crisis comprised a stunning and successful use of sanctions.

This case raises two important implications. On the one hand, the episode is a far cry from the literature’s conventional wisdom that sanctions are ineffective instruments, or that policy makers should only use sanctions “to pursue modest goals” or use them only in instances that do not affect the target country’s “territory, security, wealth, or the regime’s domestic security” (Pape 1997:109). This was an episode of “high politics,” of vital importance to the power, prestige, and security interests of both countries. Moreover, it was precisely the dire magnitude of South Africa’s threatened sanctions that made them so effective. On the other hand, this successful use of sanctions was unknown to the outside world, despite intense public scrutiny of British policy and the fact that Britain’s acquiescence in rerouting Rhodesia’s oil supplies through South Africa became a major public scandal (e.g., Bingham and Gray 1978). Studies that explore only observed instances of economic sanctions will fail to incorporate the information contained in similar cases about the ability of sanctions to influence behavior in significant ways over substantial issues. Because these cases are generally nonobservable nonevents, and hence indistinguishable from the background “noise” of everyday international politics, there is no clear methodological fix for this problem (Marinov 2005).

The third of the basic sanctions game is that it demonstrates that the literature’s practice of using the success rate of sanctions to discern whether or how policy makers should use this instrument of statecraft is inappropriate. The literature typically defines the success rate of sanctions as the observed number of cases where sanctions induce compliance with the sanctioning states’ demands divided by the total number of observed cases of sanctions (e.g., Hufbauer et al. 1985, 1990, 2007). And, as we have seen, the literature uses this rate to make inferences about the appropriateness of sanctions as a policy. In this game, the success rate is the total number of cases in outcome d divided by the total number of observable cases, c + d. Note, however, that because d is not an equilibrium outcome, the “success rate” of sanctions will always be zero. Yet we also know that given the structure of preferences of the Sender state (d > c > b), the imposition of sanctions in response to provocative policies by the Target is in every instance the appropriate response. In other words, sanctions with a “success rate” of zero can nonetheless enjoy an “appropriateness rate” (sanctions are the correct policy) of 100 percent (see also Kirshner 2002:169).

Simply put, the observed success rate of sanctions is unrelated to their appropriateness as a policy instrument. Consequently, statements about the success rates of sanctions commonly found in the literature must be carefully interpreted. These can range from impressionistic observations that “sanctions often do not succeed” to the more authoritative-sounding “sanctions [were] at least partially successful in 34 percent of the cases that we documented” (Hufbauer et al. 2007:7, 158). At most, these statements are descriptions of how the analyst has sorted observed cases into categories of success and failure. When used to justify (or condemn) policies of economic sanctions, however, they are highly misleading, because they actually contain no information regarding the appropriateness of sanctions as a policy instrument. In terms of the basic game, whether the policy maker should employ sanctions requires a comparison of the relative costs/benefits that would be obtained at outcomes b and d, or, in other words, the relative payoffs that would result from using sanctions compared to some other policy instrument (Baldwin 1999/2000). This information is not contained in the sanctions success rate, which compares d to the total number of imposed sanctions. Nor will this information be contained in a success rate that compares both observed and nonobserved successes (a + d) to the total number of observed and nonobserved sanctions cases (a + c + d). The critical comparison for policy guidance is always with outcome b, the consequences that would follow from not using sanctions but some other policy instrument. Contrary to David Baldwin’s earlier observation that success rates are necessary for “deciding whether sanctions should be employed,” success rates are actually meaningless statistics that have been, and continue to be, widely misused by analysts of sanctions to argue about whether, when, and how to use sanctions.

In sum, the literature’s dominant empirical method – comparing observed cases of success and failure – has been motivated by a logic of policy relevance, not the development or cumulation of social scientific knowledge. But if success is itself a highly problematic concept, as David Baldwin has cogently argued, and if the observed success (or failure) of sanctions yields no information about the appropriateness of sanctions as a policy instrument, as recent game theoretic insights suggest, there is simply no reason for the literature to continue to build its research around or test its intuitions using this highly problematic method of empirical inquiry.

New Directions for Sanctions Research

Where, then, should sanctions research focus? A good place to start is with the basic strategic dynamics of the sanctions episode. These provide a useful tool for clarifying and developing effective research strategies for studying economic sanctions. They point sanctions research in two basic directions.

First, since the strategic dynamics of sanctions suggest that the most significant instances of effective sanctions will occur at outcome a, a research strategy of identifying those factors that contribute most strongly to the effective use of sanctions calls for an empirical method of inquiry that compares outcomes a and c. This requires first identification of those cases where the prospect of economic coercion effectively shaped the behavior of potential targets. As Daniel Drezner (2003:656) argues, “a crucial step for empirical research will be to focus on investigating and analyzing those events where sanctions are threatened but not imposed.”

The problem, of course, is that outcomes at a are nonevents and are generally not observable. In January 2009, for example, Russia cut off natural gas flows to Ukraine and parts of western Europe as part of a commercial dispute over pricing. The action also signaled Russia’s willingness to impose substantial economic costs on its neighbors for pursuing policies incongruent with Russian interests. Each time one of these neighbors moderates its behavior in light of this implicit threat constitutes a successful use of sanctions. But these will be nonevents, indistinguishable from the background noise of international politics. The information they contain about the factors that make sanctions more (or less) effective will thus be lost to the analyst. Moreover, even when one can identify cases where sanctions are threatened but not imposed, the very fact that these cases are observable may indicate a selection bias, rendering the conclusions one draws tentative and open to dispute. Thus, key challenges for researchers in this area of inquiry must not only be to identify cases at a, where targets proactively adjust their behavior in the expectation of sanctions, but to develop strategies to identify, assess, and correct any selection bias that will be present in the sample of cases one finds.

Yet even if one discovered the entire universe of “unobservable” cases, and hence discerned those factors that make sanctions most effective in shaping the behavior of target actors, this still would not provide policy makers with the knowledge necessary to use sanctions wisely. What policy makers most need to know is not the conditions under which sanctions will “work,” but how the use of sanctions will alter the strategic situation and at what cost, which can then be compared against the likely performance of other policy instruments. As Jonathan Kirshner (1998:70) notes, no policy is ever likely to be entirely successful; the best anyone can realistically hope for is to implement the “optimal” policy. To do this, policy makers must weigh the relative merits of alternative courses of action (comparing outcomes b and d in terms of the basic game) and choose that alternative with the highest net benefit/lowest net cost (Baldwin 1985, 1999/2000).

Moreover, as the basic sanctions game makes clear, policy makers will often confront the necessity of using sanctions where the prospects for success are limited. Even failed sanctions can shape the behavior of target actors in ways that are of critical interest to policy makers. For example, sanctions can promote the domestic political consolidation of the target regime (Galtung 1967; Rowe 2001); or target regimes may shift the costs of sanctions onto vulnerable populations. One consequence of the 1990s sanctions against Iraq was a humanitarian catastrophe, as the regime was able to shift the costs of sanctions onto the population at large (Herring 2002). In fact, the literature’s current emphasis on developing “smart” sanctions that more narrowly target key actors and decision makers in the target country arises directly from a desire to avoid these humanitarian costs (e.g., Weiss 1999; Cortright and Lopez 2000, 2002; Tostensen and Bull 2002). Understanding how and why regimes respond to sanctions in the ways they do, and not simply whether they respond in the desired direction, is thus of critical interest to policy makers confronted with the possibility of using sanctions.

This need points sanctions research in a second basic direction: to enable policy makers to understand more about the consequences of using this instrument of statecraft. One important area of inquiry is thus to identify the empirical correlates that accompany the use of sanctions. For example, recent studies have sought to understand important consequences such as the duration of sanctions episodes, the length of time required for countries to return to normal patterns and levels of trade, or whether sanctions influence the stability of targeted regimes (Dorussen and Mo 2001; Lektzian and Souva 2001; McGillivray and Stam 2004; Marinov 2005). Other areas of research include understanding the conditions under which states are most likely to turn to sanctions (Drury 1998, 2001; Drezner 1998, 1999) as well as understanding the factors necessary to induce cooperation from states and other actors in order to manipulate economic flows (Martin 1992; Drezner 2000; Morgan and Bapat 2003).

The most critical line of inquiry, however, is to explain how and why the manipulation of transnational economic flows affects behavior (Kirshner 1997, 1998, 2002; Rowe 2001). Only once policy makers understand why actors respond to sanctions in the ways they do can they begin to develop more effective strategies for how and when to use this form of statecraft. Thus, the key dependent variable of any study of sanctions should not be whether the sanctioning governments attain their objectives, but how the behavior of targeted actors changes under the influence of sanctions. Stated another way, in order to advise policy makers on how to use sanctions wisely, the literature must first engage in social science: it must develop, empirically test, and refine causal theories that explain how and why sanctions shape the behavior of other actors.

A key starting point of this effort must be the recognition that there is no single theory of economic sanctions. Sanctions can shape behavior by depriving actors of valued or needed goods, by altering relative prices inside the target economy, by signaling the intentions of sanctioning governments, or by communicating beliefs about fundamental political values. In doing so, sanctions may produce political change by influencing the actions and beliefs of state elites, state bureaucracies, counter-elites, private economic actors, or social groups within national or transnational civil societies. In short, sanctions involve multiple causal pathways and may exert different effects over different frames of time. Key tasks for sanctions researchers must therefore be 1) to identify the various causal pathways by which the manipulation of transnational economic flows influences behavior; and 2) to specify the precise causal mechanisms by which these manipulations shape the behavior of actors situated along these pathways.

One important line of research is therefore to open the “black box” by which the economic dislocation of sanctions influences behavior within the target state. For example, recent research in public choice and political economy explores how the economic impacts of sanctions may produce policy changes by altering the relative strength of domestic groups in target countries (Kaempfer and Lowenberg 1992, 1998, 1999; Khan 1989; Major and Gann 2005); it also explains why these impacts may enable target governments to restructure the economy in ways that consolidate its political power and disorganize its political opponents (Rowe 2001). Another promising avenue, from a constructivist perspective, is to explore how sanctions can shape the social and normative contexts within which actors pursue conflict. Sanctions against South Africa, for example, not only exerted material economic constraints on the South African apartheid regime, they shaped the very identities of important parties to the conflict by reinforcing a global norm of racial equality (Klotz 1995a, 1995b; Crawford and Klotz 1999).

What all of these studies have in common is the strategy of moving beyond the question of success or failure to explain the actual dynamics that accompany the use of sanctions. On the one hand, this strategy means using multiple theoretical perspectives to develop rigorous explanations of how and why sanctions influence behavior. On the other, this strategy entails a method of empirical inquiry fundamentally different from the method of comparing success and failure that is commonly employed by the sanctions literature. One must compare instead instances in which sanctions are present against instances in which they are not. This can be done either longitudinally, exploring how the intervention of sanctions changes the before and after behavior of the targeted actors, or cross-nationally, by comparing the behavior of actors under sanctions with those that are not (e.g., Rowe 2001; Marinov 2005). Given the lack of congruence between the dominant method of empirical inquiry used in the literature and the knowledge needed by policy makers, it is no wonder that Tostensen and Bull (2002) find scant guidance on how sanctions affect the decision processes of target states, for the literature’s dominant method of empirical inquiry does not produce it.

The literature on economic sanctions has for far too long treated the production of policy-relevant advice as separate from the generation of social scientific knowledge. They are in fact two sides of the same coin. One cannot offer sage advice about what policy makers should do to change the world unless one also possesses sound theories that explain how and why the world works in the ways that it does. Developing, testing, and refining sound causal theories of how economic sanctions influence behavior is therefore crucial to improving the practice of policy making with regard to this instrument of statecraft. Because sanctions influence behavior along multiple pathways – economic, political, psychological, and social – this effort will necessarily be an interdisciplinary enterprise, drawing on and contributing to disciplines and perspectives across the social sciences.


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International Institute of Economics Case Studies in Sanctions and Terrorism database, Provides summaries of the case studies of economic sanctions used in the Hufbauer, Schott, Elliot, and Oegg (2007) database. This is the most widely used database in empirical sanctions research. Accessed: June 29, 2009.

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Sanctions and Security Program at the Fourth Freedom Forum and at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and http:/ Bibliographic information and links to numerous books and articles about smart sanctions sponsored by this program. Accessed: June 29, 2009.

Smart Sanctions, Maintained by the Swiss Federal Office for Foreign Economic Affairs. Provides a clearinghouse for research and information on the use of smart sanctions that seek to minimize the negative humanitarian consequences of this form of statecraft. Accessed: June 29, 2009.

UN Security Council Informal Working Group on General Issues on Sanctions, Links to reports and documents regarding UN sanctions and the development of smart sanctions. Accessed: June 29, 2009.


This essay was written while the author was the University of Innsbruck Fulbright Distinguished Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Innsbruck. The author thanks the Institute for Political Science at the University of Innsbruck and the Austrian-American Educational Commission for their generous support. The author also thanks Theo Farrell, Victoria Nolan, and an anonymous reviewer for their editorial guidance, assistance, and suggestions.