Between Truth-Telling and Doom-Saying: Sanctions and Activism

933This is the fourth 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 Katie Attwell, she is the Capstone Co-ordinator at Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs, Murdoch University. Her book, Jewish-Israeli National Identity and Dissidence: The Contradictions of Zionism and Resistance, considers the contradictions faced by left-wing Israeli Jews trying to connect with their Palestinian Other. Ethnicity, nationalism and identity politics remain her fundamental academic interest, but she now focuses on health policy, pursuing research into how to engage with vaccine-hesitant parents. Lee’s original post can be found here. With responses from Dr Elin Hellquist here, and Dr Clara Portela here.

I became familiar with the project that would become Societies Under Siege in 2013. A mutual friend shared a conference paper by Lee Jones, reflecting on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign called for by Palestinian nationalist activists, and eagerly adopted by their international counterparts. I was one such international enthusiast, in addition to being a political scientist researching how progressive Israeli Jews were attempting to reform their society from the inside. My work took a different approach to Lee’s, looking at how discourses of identity, nationalism and ethnicity constrain notions of what is morally and politically possible. I never saw much crossover between our approaches, though some of my subjects were BDS advocates. I suppose my work could contribute to an understanding of the kind of impact that sanctions might have (or not) on a fraction of the target society.

I was far more captivated by what Lee’s early conference paper meant for activism. Outside of academia, I wanted to talk about Palestine with anyone who’d listen, and I had been inspired to join a tiny collective of mostly radical leftists in my home city of Perth, Western Australia. Working within this collective, I believed that the first step to changing minds was education and awareness, and soon BDS became the catchphrase by which we’d do this. Or so we thought.

By the time I read Lee’s paper – soon to be a chapter in Sanctioning Apartheid: Comparing the South African and Palestinian BDS Campaigns, edited by David Feldman and out next year with Palgrave Macmillan – I had dropped out of activism for Palestine somewhat, primarily due to life (a young family and a PhD) getting in the way. But the fire still burned within. I read Lee’s contribution with eagerness and interest. It elicited in me the same sentiments that followed my consumption of Societies Under Siege: enlightenment and admiration, combined with frustration. Thanks to this work, I understand the world in ways that I did not before – which has to turn on any academic who genuinely enjoys engaging with inquiry, wherever it may lead. However, thanks to that new understanding, I also understand – to quote another colleague’s rather jaded perspective on Social Conflict Analysis – that everything is f$*#ed. This is somewhat less a cause for celebration. Continue reading

Mind the Gap: Evaluating the Success of Sanctions

This is the third 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 Clara Portela,  she is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University. She is the author of the monograph European Union Sanctions and Foreign Policy, for which she received the 2011 THESEUS Award for Promising Research on European Integration. She recently participated in the High Level Review of United Nations sanctions, in the EUISS Task Force on Targeted Sanctions and has consulted for the European Parliament on several occasions.

A further response will follow from  Katie Attwell, followed by a response from Lee. You can find Lee’s original post here and Elin Hellquist’s here.

The volume undoubtedly makes a key contribution to the field – indeed, one that was sorely needed: an evaluation of how sanctions interact with the economic and political dynamics in the target society, and more specifically, how they affect domestic power relations. This agenda is not entirely new in sanctions scholarship. It had been wisely identified by Jonathan Kirshner in a famous article as far back as in 1997. However, having pointed to the need to ascertain how sanctions affect the internal balance of power between ruling elites and political opposition, and the incentives and disincentives they faced, this analytical challenge had not been taken up by himself or any other scholar so far. The book also contributes to a highly promising if still embryonic literature: that of coping strategies by the targets, briefly explored in works by Hurd or Adler-Nissen.

Departing from the idea that whether sanctions can work can only be determined by close study of the target society and estimating the economic damage required to shift conflict dynamics in a progressive direction, the study proposes a novel analytical framework: Social Conflict Analysis. The volume concludes that socio-political dynamics in the target society overwhelmingly determine the outcomes of sanctions episodes: “Where a society has multiple clusters of authority, resources, and power rather than a single group enjoying a monopoly, and where key groups enjoy relative autonomy from state power and the capacity for collective action, sanctions may stand some chance of changing domestic political trajectories. In the absence of these conditions, their leverage will be extremely limited” (p.182).

World of Sanctions

Source: Peterson Institute for International Economics

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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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