Shoddy Sanctions


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.

Further responses will follow from guest authors Clara Portella and Katie Attwell over the next few days. You can find Lee’s original post here.

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

Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work

This is the first in a series of posts on Lee Jones’ Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work. Responses will follow from guest authors Elin Hellquist, Clara Portella and Katie Attwell over the next few days.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the international crisis is: be it an inter-state war (Russia-Ukraine), civil strife (Syria), gross violations of human rights (Israel), or violent non-state actors on the rampage (ISIS, al-Qaeda), the ‘answer’ from governments and civil society always seems to be the same: impose economic sanctions. In the mid-20th century, only five countries were targeted by sanctions; by 2000, the number had increased tenfold. Once an obscure, rarely used and widely dismissed form of statecraft, sanctions are now clearly central to the exercise of power in international relations – particularly when dominant powers are reluctant to put ‘boots on the ground’.

My new book, Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work, is the first comparative effort to explore how these sanctions ‘work’ in practice – on the ground, in target states. This post introduces the book and the forum that will follow.

Societies Under Siege cover. The image is an engraving of a (failed) siege during the Albigensian crusade.

Societies Under Siege cover. The image is an engraving of a (failed) siege during the Albigensian crusade.

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What Is It Like To Be Lebanese And To Work On China?

elamineredA guest post from Loubna El Amine. Loubna teaches political theory, with a particular focus on early Chinese political thought at the Department of Government, Georgetown University (her teaching was mentioned on this blog last year).  Before Georgetown, Loubna was a postdoctoral fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. She holds a PhD in Politics from Princeton University and a BA in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut.  Classical Confucian Political Thought: A New Interpretation (Princeton University Press, 2015) is her freshly pressed first book.


I recently wrote a book. Its cover is (very) red and features an ornate golden doorknob shaped like the face of a lion. I have always dreamt of writing a book. The experience of seeing one with my name on it fills me with a combination of delight and incredulity. I am sure all first-time authors experience a similar feeling. In my case, however, the feeling is heightened by the sense that I wrote a book that, for the first two-thirds of my life, I could never have even conceived of writing.

The book is on early Confucianism in China, and I did not know anything about China until I was twenty. China was so foreign to the intellectual, political, and cultural world in which I grew up that the two ways in which it was usually mentioned were the proverb, often attributed to the prophet Muhammad, which says “Seek knowledge, even in China” and the description of anything that sounded incomprehensible as Chinese (the Arabic equivalent of the American “It’s Greek to me.”). More mundanely, there was only one Chinese restaurant in Beirut when I was growing up, a small, family-owned place called Rice and Spice (today there are many more, with names ranging from Chopsticks to Wok Wok).

riceandspiceAlthough I studied political science as an undergraduate at the American University of Beirut, the curriculum rarely covered areas beyond the Middle East, and when it did, it only reached as far as Europe. It was only because of one professor, Yahya Sadowski, that I discovered China. He taught courses on global political economy and on development in the Arab world, and frequently cited both East and Southeast Asian countries as case studies. When I started graduate school in the US, I decided to explore East Asia further. This exploration took a few twists and turns, and I finally landed, having foregone empirical for philosophical pursuits, in the intellectual world of 3rd century BCE China.

Every once in a while, someone describes what I do as “contrarian,” “crazy,” or “looney.” I never know quite how to react. The description is, in some ways, true. I studied Confucianism because it spoke to me and because I was intrigued by it, but I also sometimes wonder whether I studied it because I did not want to study the Middle East. I sensed that it was expected of me that, as a non-Westerner, I study my own region. This expectation bothered me. When people now call what I do “contrarian,” this only reminds me that the expectation is still at play. Not that I think that there is anything wrong with someone from the Middle East working on the Middle East, just as there is nothing wrong with someone from the US studying the US. The problem is simply that no one thinks it is contrarian or crazy when Americans or Europeans choose to study societies other than their own.  In other words, my worry is that the surprised reactions I get about my work point to the existence of an unconscious bias, generated and maintained by the current make-up of academia, against the ability of non-Westerners to produce knowledge that is not about ourselves. We cannot transcend, like our European and American counterparts can, our own world. We are our own case studies, so to speak. This means that if we are successful at studying our own regions, the success is likely to be attributed to our “inside knowledge,” rather than the work itself. It also means that when we do happen to study a topic that is seen as “Western,” say European philosophy, the default assumption is that we do so from the standpoint of our colonial experience. And finally it means that studying another non-Western region is simply “contrarian.”


Though it has not happened to me personally, friends of mine from Lebanon have reported being encouraged, even if gently, to focus their doctoral work on Lebanon, the Arab world, or Islam. Other friends who have chosen to work on the Middle East have complained about their work being mislabeled to the same effect, its theoretical import downplayed in favor of its ‘regional flavor’. I have also heard of new professors being encouraged to teach courses on topics that they do not necessarily work on (who else is going to teach Islamic philosophy but the new Iranian professor?!). And my suspicion is that this arrangement also likely guides decisions on admission to US and European PhD programs in the humanities and social sciences: if you are from a non-Western country, you are more likely to get accepted if your work is directly related to the geographic area where you are from.

This expectation also feeds into the way in which academic institutions in non-Western countries are framed and present themselves. When I inquired some years ago about what it would take to be hired at the American University of Beirut, I was told clearly that I would need to shift my work toward Islamic thought. Middle Eastern and Islamic studies are, after all, AUB’s claim to fame, the primary reason it is able to place graduate students in American and European institutions and to attract foreign MA students. It was also telling that, when in Seoul this past summer, my work was described by a couple of people I met as the “Islamic view of Confucianism.” The equivalent here would be to describe American and European work on China as representing “the Christian view.” But while this sounds as odd as it is problematic, it is actually not much different from the charge of contrarianism: both descriptions belie the need to place me back into the world in which I grew up. I absolutely love the world in which I grew up, but I would like to think that, like my Western colleagues, my intellectual horizons are not limited by my place of birth.

Twilight of the Journal Vampire Squid

This was in someone's open access slide show someplace, but the name, and therefore the credit, escapes me.

This was in someone’s open access slide show someplace, but the name, and therefore the credit, escapes me.

I have a piece up at e-IR today returning to the question of open access. It is partly an introduction to the issues, partly a manifesto on why academics should take the digital commons more seriously. But it is mainly intended as a provocation for the discipline (proto-discipline, non-discipline, borg-discipline, what you will) of IR, and a challenge to the in my view excessive resistance to open access that characterises its upper echelons. To wit:

What is IR’s contribution to the open access movement? Almost nothing, arguable less than nothing. There is no IR equivalent of ArXiV  – the hugely successful online repository favoured by physicists and mathematicians. Nor of PLOS  – the gigantic open access mega-journal suite favoured by hard scientists, which sustains itself on low relative processing charges. Nor of Cultural Anthropology – a learned society journal gone fully open access. No experiment like the Open Library of the Humanities – a new platform-cum-mega-journal funded by a conglomerate of libraries. No appetite for something like Sociological Science – an open access journal with quick review times and low, means-tested article publishing costs. There are a handful of open access IR journals, like Ethics & Global Politics (not to be confused with Ethics & International Affairs), the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and the Journal of Narrative Politics, run largely on goodwill, but they are sadly lacking a disciplinary presence. Publishing in them will not make a career, and is unlikely to impress hiring committees which have an eye to bankrupt measures of quality like the journal impact factor.

Worse still, the discipline of IR has missed opportunities to make itself more open and relevant, all the while fretting over its introversion and lack of relevance. Some of our responses to the open access movement have been sadly conservative and dismissive. New journals like the European Journal of International Security and the Journal of Global Security Studies are run on the standard closed model. Neither the leadership of the British International Studies Association nor the International Studies Association have followed the innovations carved out by colleagues in anthropology, sociology or STEM subjects. And young journals that position themselves as disrupting orthodoxy (such as Critical Studies on Security) have nevertheless emerged under the imprint of familiar publishing houses. While Editorial Boards in other disciplines are considering resignation and boycott to force change on the system, IR scholars are joining an ever-growing list of titles that promote business as usual. Closed journal publishing has become common sense: unquestioned despite its manifest failings.

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Reinventing the Future

It is an honour to have had Inventing the Future considered in such depth and detail, and we want to begin by extending our thanks to everyone who contributed to this symposium. This response is a useful moment for us to clarify our argument, to respond to the most significant questions, to acknowledge limitations of the book, and to correct some misunderstandings. We do so in a spirit of humility, given that – as we wrote in the introductory post – we see this book as a contribution to a larger debate and hopefully the spark for reflection on what we think are important issues for the contemporary left.

Post-Work Futures

In Joseph, Sophie and David’s pieces, some fundamental questions are raised about what precisely a post-work world entails, particularly with respect to concerns around the environment, labour, social reproduction, and colonialism. Does a high-tech post-work world entail the exhaustion of resources and the decimation of the earth’s climate? Does a post-work world mean the continued oppression and subjugation of low-income countries? These are essential questions to ask. In responding to these queries, it will be useful to draw up a series of alternative possible futures indicating how a post-work project may play out. Roughly speaking, we can imagine four broad and potentially intersecting futures: a neocolonial and racist post-work world, an ecologically unsustainable post-work world, a misogynist post-work world, and a leftist post-work world.

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Myths of Invention

The fifth commentary, and sixth post, on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Futurefrom DoT’s own Joe Hoover. A reply from Nick and Alex will follow.

Inventing the Future begins with a lament.

Where did the future go? For most of the twentieth century, the future held sway over our dreams. On the horizons of the political left a vast assortment of emancipatory visions gathered, often springing from the conjunction of popular political power and the liberating potential of technology.

The authors resent that they have been denied a future with more promise than the present. They mourn the absence of the object of their desire, the impossibility of its fulfilment, the lives to be lived in these lost leftist utopias. This seems to be a widely felt disappointment, if we are to judge by how often the complaint has been made of late. Disappointment leads to diffuse anger, directed at the status quo on the “Left”, its lack of vision. At the root of this discontent is anger at the world itself, for all of the ways it impedes us, frustrates our hopes and gives no comfort to our dreams – it is a world in need of re-making. I do not want to suggest that because the book’s narrative is motivated by such feeling that it can be reduced to an outburst against the vagaries of existence, the work is too focused and the problem it addresses too serious for such crude criticism. Yet, this fundamental emotional resentment colours the project in an important way.

Orpheus plays his lament

The lament shapes the inquiry itself. We are wounded by the loss of our desire – a future flush with possibility – and we are angry at capitalism for stealing our future. Obviously the detail is more sophisticated than this curt summary, but a stark statement of the underlining logic reveals the essential narrative. The problem of contemporary Left politics is not the desire for a universal utopian future but rather that this future has been lost, which runs counter to important criticisms of progressive leftism (a point taken up by Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman). Therefore, the authors’  task is to remind us why we desire the future, then to consider where to look for a new one and how to seek after it. Inventing the Future is a quest to find what was lost, so we can become whole in our desires. We may set out on such a quest with great optimism but we still carry a worrisome anger with us.

There are a great many barbarities in our world attributable, at least in part, to “capitalism” but it is not a villain stealing away with our ladylove (the difficulties of determining what capitalism is are taken up later). Our lost future is not the exceptional crime of some neoliberal conspiracy. Yes, I know the book does not say anything quite so crude. Nonetheless, the narrative structure is driven by a conflict that finds its resolution with the us (the protagonist) achieving wholeness in a future fulfilment of our desire. The authors make the caveat that contestation will not end in this postcapitalist future, but this future still holds out the promise that the conflicts of today will melt away. The world is always messy, unfinished, stubborn, cruel, confused, and, I posit, resistant to the kind of  breaks with past ways of being that are suggested here (Sophie Lewis and David Bell look at the temporalities involved in greater detail). If we lament that, we risk resentment against the world itself, against human existence and against flesh and blood people who move slowly and impede our dreams. Love of the future sits dangerously close to hatred of the present – which is not to say we should have no love of the future, but rather that we ought to be wary of too much of it.
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Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy

The fourth commentary, and fifth post, on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, delivered by Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman. Aggie is a Lecturer in International Politics at City University London. She works on issues relating to violence and international theory/philosophy, including war and wargaming, US foreign policy, Derrida, Nietzsche, and post-foundational ethics/politics. Tom is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester, focusing on capitalism, development, and ideology. He is variously interested in (in no particular order) the politics of epistemology, apocalypticism, Adorno, international development, and concepts of science.

In a climate of successive defeats, missed opportunities and the consolidation (and even exacerbation) of unequal and exploitative social relations, there are few acts more thankless than turning the weapons of iconoclasm against those already waging a struggle against insurmountable odds. Inventing the Future seeks to rescue the Left from what its authors term ‘folk politics’: a commitment to horizontal, local, consensual and prefigurative forms of political action, which the authors claim result ultimately in impotence and irrelevance, aimlessness and lack of focus. In condemning a host of the post-68 Left’s most dearly held praxiological and ethical commitments, Srnicek and Williams wilfully risk aggravating and alienating those they seek to influence.

There will be many readers who will find their prescriptions – the revival of universalism, the aspiration to hegemony, the mobilisation of state power – outdated, odious and even obscene. And for good reason: the attack on ‘folk politics’ doesn’t end after the critique that opens the book. Instead, the sheer audacity of the authors’ wager – essentially that our only hope of defeating the Godzilla of neoliberal capitalism is the creation of an equally powerful Mechagodzilla capable of supplanting the former’s hegemony with its own – performs an ongoing rejection of a parochialism and modesty they see as having corrupted Leftist activism and academia. Like all iconoclasm, such a move is necessarily scandalous in response to the perceived sanctity of that at which it takes aim.[1]

It is precisely this scandalous character of both the book and its precursor, the ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’ (MAP), which goes some way to accounting for the attention the authors have generated across the Left. The book’s stated goals are both vast in scope and highly controversial, yet its tone is one of consistent and calm self-assuredness. The magnitude of the risks associated with the project – the casualties of automation (both human and environmental), the tyrannies of engineering consent, the violences of assuming the task of constructing people’s very identities, to point to just a few – would suffice to make most recoil in dread. The authors’ composed confidence in the face of such potential horror makes reading and responding to the seductions of such book a complex and disorientating task.

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