This is the second in a series of posts on Lee Jones’ Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work. We are delighted to welcome Dr Elin Hellquist, a Swedish Research Council International Postdoctoral Fellow at the Freie Universität, Berlin and the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University. Elin’s research is currently focused on the historical origins of different regional sanctions policies. She is also interested in the prospect that sanctions used by regional organizations against members could mature to take ground from foreign policy sanctions, as well as the implications of such a development for international relations at large. Her most recent article is in International Relations.
The debate about the effectiveness of sanctions is among the most tired in international relations scholarship. Rather than tackling the big political, social and ethical issues related to the practice of punishing one another in international relations, the literature has relentlessly debated what percentage of sanctions cases have been successful. Articles on sanctions in our finest journals have battled measurement technicalities and how to design maximally efficient sanctions instruments. In the real world, change always comes. Sooner or later, with or without sanctions, regimes fall, political prisoners are released, nuclear deals are made, and elections are held. If sanctions are involved, sanctions optimists are quick to attribute such changes to their use. Yet, it is hardly ever possible to say whether sanctions specifically, among an infinite number of co-existing factors, have caused a certain political outcome.
At first view, Lee Jones’ book Societies under Siege might appear yet another book on sanctions effectiveness. It is not. Instead, Lee brings us behind the scenes of three of the most influential sanctions cases in modern times: South Africa, Burma/Myanmar, and Iraq. Relying on a thorough historical-sociological analysis, we are led deep into these societies to understand how sanctions have worked to reshape social conflicts and thereby possibly influence politics (for better or worse). The message is clear: in order to understand sanctions we have to understand the domestic context inside out. This message is both timely and timeless. It is an extremely timely wake-up call reminding any remaining intervention optimists of the moral and practical responsibility that follows from using sanctions without a qualified idea of how they will work on the ground. Highlighting the importance of local conditions is also a timeless message to an IR audience that far too often disregards qualitative difference in the search for quantifiable measurements. Sanctions do transform societies, Lee argues, but they can only be expected to contribute to political change if a number of favourable conditions allow so (e.g. the South African case).
This post will not repeat or summarize the arguments that Lee makes with wit and skill. Buy the book, or ask your library to do so. You will have the pleasure to read an unusually elegant and thought-provoking piece of solid scholarly work. What I would like to do is to pick up the ball where I think that Lee left it and draft a few propositions that complement and sometimes challenge Societies under Siege. I will propose that beyond their workings in the target states, sanctions also operate by (re)drawing normative boundaries in international relations. I will use the example of blacklists to underscore how sanctions work through a combination of material and symbolic features. Finally, I will follow-up on Lee’s discussion of the ethics of sanctions. In light of his findings, I will argue that the use of foreign policy sanctions should be minimized in accordance with the ‘harm principle’. Continue reading