Explainer: do sanctions work?

Posted on Tuesday 1st April 2014

sanctions

There seems to be a near-consensus that the West must “do something” to prevent instability in Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbours. But should that something include wider sanctions, targeting not just a select few oligarchs and high officials, but the whole country?

Academic debate on the effectiveness of sanctions centres on a major research project by Gary Clyde Hufbauer and colleagues who studied 116 impositions of economic sanctions since 1914.

For each set of sanctions the authors looked at the following: officially stated aims; a four-point measure of success achieving them; and a four-point measure of the contribution of those sanctions to doing so. They found that sanctions worked in 34% of cases.

When this research was updated in 1999, adding 50 new case studies, Hufbauer and his colleague Ann Elliott concluded that sanctions in the 1990s seemed “about as successful … as the crop dating from the 1970s and 1980s”.

Sanctions should be carefully designed. This is surprisingly difficult, as sanctions are often adopted in moments of political panic. The UN Security Council’s sanctions on Iraq, for example, lifted text from its sanctions on Southern Rhodesia – its only previous comprehensive sanctions.

They also found that the “transmission mechanism” – factors that convert economic harm into political change – is often weak. This is especially the case in dictatorships, suggesting that major policy changes cannot be expected as a result of sanctions alone.

In most instances, multilateral sanctions are not associated with success as countries build coalitions precisely when policy aims are more ambitious.

As you might expect, the research concluded that politically or economically weak countries are more vulnerable to economic sanctions and that: “economic sanctions seem most effective when aimed against erstwhile friends and close trading partners.” This makes sense as close trade partners both have more to lose from trade sanctions and may have fewer allies who are not also allies of the sanctioning countries.

Interestingly, the data suggests sanctions that last longer are less likely to succeed. This reflects a fatigue in the countries imposing them as well as the target’s growing experience evading the sanctions. In the case of Iraq in the 1990s, not only did the government become more adept at smuggling, but Iraq’s neighbours grew tired of paying a price to enforce what they saw as a US policy whose burden within Iraq was primarily borne by the most vulnerable.

Importantly, the more sanctions cost the country imposing them, the less likely it is that they will succeed. In most successful instances sanctions have actually made money in the short-term as the country or countries imposing them cuts off aid to the state under sanction.

Using sanctions may signal failure

In a world of perfect information, countries would never actually have to resort to imposing sanctions: if the target knew that sanctions would force them to back down, they would back down immediately; if the target knew they wouldn’t, the threat would not be credible, so would never be made. So when sanctions are imposed, it means something has gone wrong.

The real world does not offer such certainties. If a country feels itself to be tougher than those threatening to impose the sanctions, it may not comply when threatened. So if you only examine cases in which sanctions were actually imposed it might wrongly lead you to conclude that sanctions are futile.

If, however, the sanctioners’ resolve is unknown, imposing sanctions may allow them to signal their toughness, leading one to conclude that punishment is extremely effective.

The effectiveness of the threat of sanctions – as opposed to their imposition – has been supported by research into the use of threats in trade, labour and environmental disputes. In these disputes, threats are articulated clearly through open procedures and institutions such as the WTO. In all categories, the threat of sanctions was generally successful, but the actual use of sanctions less so.

Targeted and financial sanctions

The human cost of the comprehensive sanctions on Iraq, and the role of non-state actors in the 9/11 attacks both increased interest in targeted and financial sanctions.

But the results have been mixed: David Cortright and George Lopez applied Hufbauer’s analysis to ten sets of targeted sanctions in the 90s, and scored just two as successes.

The EU’s targeted sanctions against Serbia – known at the time, together with Montenegro, as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) – from 1998 to 2000 are particularly relevant today.

Yet the EU’s sanctions co-ordinator was largely agnostic: he didn’t know whether they imposed any real hardship on the Yugoslav authorities; he didn’t know whether targeted individuals used false passports to evade travel bans; the asset freezes “may have been more effective in pressuring the regime although here again one should guard against strong conclusions”; the effect of the financial sanctions on EU-FRY trade was “ambiguous”.

Further, the Yugoslav authorities redirected targeted measures onto the population more broadly: the oil embargo created monopoly profits which the elite could capture; companies exempted from EU asset freezes faced retaliatory measures; Yugoslav cities receiving EU fuel lost their regular state supplies; and as the regime controlled the banking system, foreign currency could not easily be transferred to its opponents.

What about Russia, now?

Since the threat of sanctions clearly failed to deter Russia’s Crimean intervention, we are now in a situation in which something has gone “awry”. Here, sanctions are even less likely to be effective.

Considering the present targeted travel bans and asset freezes only, the “transmission mechanism” requires that they harm Russia’s political elite enough to impose costs on Putin; no one regards this as likely.

Russia’s weak economy may make more effective. But to inflict damage directly would require more extensive sanctions; their indirect effect of further eroding business confidence in Russia may, however, still be costly.

That Putin’s actions seem to enjoy widespread Russian support suggests that he is not politically vulnerable. Indeed, sanctions may strengthen him by generating a “rally round the flag” effect which unites Russia against foreign foes. (By contrast, in apartheid South Africa, the African National Congress’ successful call for sanctions reinforced its position.)

If the EU and US wish to resist Russian actions in Ukraine, then their response must almost certainly include sanctions. On their own, however, they do not seem to threaten significant harm to Russian decision makers. Beyond this, there is a question of what the US and EU goals are.

My guess is that Crimea is gone: I cannot see the US and EU willing to bear real economic costs to oppose the right of Crimeans to determine their political future, now a fait accompli. If, however, Russian activity continues to destabilise eastern Ukraine, Putin may discover that the slow US and EU response which he likely sees as weak may be bolstered by a willingness to impose the so-called “stage three” round of more punitive economic sanctions.

This article appears on 'The Conversation'; an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public. View the article here.

Dr Colin Rowat is a Lecturer in Economics and his research interests focus on Weak property rights, Differential Games, and Microeconomic Theory.