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 Portela 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’.

Sanctions and Normative Boundaries

By locating sanctions in liberalism generally and in the post Cold War ideas of a “new world order” and targeted governance more specifically, Societies under Siege makes a crucial point that is often overlooked. In spite of warranted concerns about their legality, sanctions are most often used by Western individual states (in particular the United States) or by the European Union. For these actors, sanctions have become a routinized practice of international politics. As one example, more than a third of the world’s population lives in a country that is currently a target of sanctions from the EU. If the title of Lee’s book is accurate, a dramatic number of societies are “under siege” today.

Indeed, the fundamental normative divide between sanctions sceptics and sanctions advocates has deepened in recent years. Repeated resolutions in the UN General Assembly and in the UN Human Rights Council protest against “unilateral coercive measures” (i.e. non-UN mandated sanctions), which are seen as illegal and detrimental to human rights. A quick look at the voting records reveals that only Western countries and allies vote against these resolutions. The critical majority has even managed to appoint a UN special rapporteur working specifically “on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights“ (Idriss Jazairy).

Likewise, criticism of unilateral economic sanctions is part and parcel of the BRICS’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South-Africa) alternative vision of global politics, and even the ‘non-aligned movement’ appears reinvigorated in its rejection of non-UN sanctions. As a concrete form of opposition, BRICS are exploring the possibility of developing a new system for banking transactions, which would circumvent any risk of being cut off the financial system through SWIFT-sanctions. At the same time, external interveners are facing competition from regional organisations, which increasingly use sanctions against their own members. In sharp contrast to foreign policy sanctions, these are supposed to work through a mechanism of attachment (contractual or symbolic) between the member and the organisation.

Together against Western Sanctions?

Together against Western Sanctions?

The normative divide on sanctions exposes that sanctions cannot be fully understood by considering only the material attributes of the instrument. Sanctions are always more than the measures themselves. Quintessentially, sanctions are public normative side-taking against the actions of the target backed up by material punishment (the deprivation of something believed to be precious to the target). As reactions to violations of norms that the sender claims to cherish (e.g. election fraud, human rights violations, nuclear proliferation, terrorism), sanctions policies are per definition strongly normative.

The coexistence of symbolic and material elements (they are never only symbolic and likewise never only material) is precisely what makes sanctions powerful communicative acts. Lee’s book deals convincingly with the material side, investigating in great detail how sanctions interfere with the socio-political struggles over resources in targeted countries. The symbolic dimension receives less attention. It would be unfair to criticize him for this, since Societies under Siege already covers impressive terrain. Yet, it seems to me that analysing normative boundary drawing through sanctions is a relevant alternative take on precisely the question of how sanctions work (as opposed to when they work). Such a macro-perspective on how sanctions operate in international relations would nicely complement the domestic focus of the  “social conflict analysis” advanced by Lee.

The Ultimate Normative Boundaries

The Ultimate Normative Boundaries

Studying normative boundary drawing through sanctions calls for a broadly relational approach, which goes beyond the sender-target polarity to take bystanders seriously. Thus far, third countries have mainly been treated as variables in effectiveness-oriented sanctions research (with inconclusive results). However, only by analysing how relations are qualitatively transformed by the presence of sanctions can we capture how they structure international interactions. To take one example, EU sanctions against Russia and Russian countersanctions show that the politics of sanctions is not a two-party game, but a battle over normative belonging for which bystanders play an essential part. Sanctions have brought tension to the entire neighbourhood, complicating political and economic exchanges and contributing to cultural stereotyping. Neighbours are pressured to take sides, most strikingly by being asked to formally ‘align’ with EU measures, but are reluctant to do so (Hellquist, under review).

Social Conflicts and Targeted Sanctions

According to Societies under Siege, all sanctions – whether comprehensive trade embargoes or targeted sanctions against individuals – operate by intervening in social conflicts. Hence, targeted sanctions are dismissed as “a convenient myth“, with “modest primary effects“ but “uncontrollable […] secondary effects“ (p. 185). This is an important criticism, which resonates with the perceptions of many targets. It is true that targeted sanctions often have reputational and material consequences that way transcend the actual content of the measures. As emphasised by Lee, the idea of perfectly targeted policy – whether through sanctions or drone strikes –  is illusory. If individuals in a country’s elite are targeted by sanctions, the country risks being seen as a ‘pariah’ state with possible negative consequences on for instance foreign investments and tourism. Hence, normative distance (with possible ensuing material consequences) is expressed not only towards the individual entities targeted, but also towards the country at large. In this respect it is telling that even EU sanctions cases that are supposed to target ‘responsible individuals’ are listed under country headings.

Yet, labelling ‘targeted’ sanctions a myth risks obscuring developments that matter for understanding their role in contemporary international affairs. Considering that Societies under Siege treats all sanctions as comprehensive in terms of their social effects, it is not very surprising that the return of far-reaching sanctions packages against Iran, Syria, and Russia is not discussed. However, if we agree that comprehensive sanctions have made a comeback, it begs the question of whether it is the existence of analogical reasoning (as Lee claims, e.g. p. 50), or the lack of historical memory that is the big problem. In addition, it seems to me an interesting fact that today’s mix of targeted and comprehensive sanctions represents fundamentally opposing logics – speaking with Lee’s terminology “inverted liberalism” and “classical liberalism” respectively. Out of the three cases treated in the book, only Burma/Myanmar had a targeted profile. Hence, it remains an open question whether the social conflict approach could convincingly be extended to the many less high-profile cases of targeted sanctions, where the objective is often not regime change (at least not manifestly), or when they are used in quickly evolving political crises such as coups.

Furthermore, although targeted sanctions are not precision surgical instruments, their effects are far from “modest” (p. 185) for the individuals that end up on a sanctions list. Targeted sanctions may appear “easier to evade” (p. 183), but even if the asset freeze or the travel restriction in itself does not harm the individual, the derived costs can be dramatic. As convincingly argued by Marieke de Goede, blacklisting works through “societal exclusion and symbolic banishment of the affected persons, whose daily lives are put on hold“ (de Goede focuses on terrorist listings, but her argument could be transferred also to other sanctions against individuals). For these individuals, “life in modern society is rendered effectively impossible“; “they have become politically disqualified lives“

The Individual Target

The Individual Target

That individuals (and entities) are damaged by targeted sanctions is also obvious from the fact that they often contest their listings at the EU’s courts (General Court and Court of Justice). Targets usually do not wear the sanction as a badge of honour, but wish to be removed from the EU’s lists. The rapidly growing case law on sanctions shows that targets often win their cases (to keep track on the many fascinating on-going legal issues related to targeted sanctions, follow the excellent blog In spite of relying on ideas of individual responsibility borrowed from domestic criminal law, targeted sanctions fail to live up to conventional legal standards.

Measures targeting individuals exemplify well the close entanglement of material and symbolic elements. It is simply misleading to call ‘weak’ or ‘unimportant’ sanctions ‘symbolic’ (as is often done) when precisely the symbolic communication of disapproval is often what is the most harmful. Targeted measures offer the sender of sanctions almost unlimited occasions to restate disapproval. By modifying the list of people or entities targeted by sanctions it can show over and over again that it is ‘doing something’ (for an innovative analysis of the list as a “technology of security and regulation”, see Marieke de Goede and Gavin Sullivan, 2015). Moreover, that targeted sanctions are not ‘effective’ in terms of inciting individuals to change (even if they are harmful) may matter little to policymakers. As a parallel, it is well-known that criminal punishment has a poor record in rehabilitating offenders into well-behaved citizens. Around 67.5% of US criminal offenders are rearrested and 25.4% return to prison within three years of their release.

Sanctions and the Harm Principle

Indeed, Lee concludes from the “shoddy” state of sanctions policies that senders might not care much about what happens with the targets, but grasp the occasion to ‘do something’ by using sanctions (conclusion). Could, however, externally imposed sanctions be anything but shoddy?

The impressive empirical research presented in Societies under Siege adds fuel to my intuition that intelligently employed sanctions will remain exceptions to the rule. Following Weber, Lee soundly argues that “an ethic of responsibility requires that political leaders provide an account of the foreseeable effects of their actions“ (p. 7). But do policymakers even have a realistic chance to produce such accounts ex-ante (Lee acknowledges that it is “extremely complex”, p. 191)? Policymaking on sanctions takes place under extreme time pressure and without the benefit of hindsight. Even if policymakers would have the resources to carry out sophisticated socio-historical analysis as proposed by the social conflict-framework, following the framework’s own insistence on context it would not give much advice on how to design new sanctions. In my interpretation, the main virtue of social conflict analysis in terms of policy advice is to caution politicians against routinized external intervention through sanctions. Therefore, I have some doubt whether one can speak of “a reasonable fit” between measures and goals, and whether it is ever possible to “specify a clear and explicit causal pathway through which sanctions are expected to ‘work’” (p. 191).

It is unusual and extremely welcome that Lee points at the “profoundly unethical connotations” of using sanctions in order to ‘do something’ (p. 188). In the very last sentences of the book, he consequentially predicts that many readers will find “that the only responsible course is not to intervene at all” (p. 191). It is not entirely clear to me whether this is also his conclusion. Societies under Siege leaves the reader with a cliff-hanger, as Lee states that “given the interests driving the imposition of sanctions” an end to intervention could only come about “by renewed social conflict within Western states themselves“. In a sequel to Societies under Siege, I would be interested in knowing more about the social constitution of these interests and how they relate to the use of sanctions as a way to “do something”.

Considering the ample evidence of what I would call ‘ineffective harm’ caused by different types of external intervention, I am not sure – as Lee seems to suggest – that “an imperative to act” (p. 190) can be derived from the severity of the normative crisis in question. The idea that there is an imperative to act against evils responds to the intuitively appealing moral that ‘passivity equals complicity’. This message, convened throughout history by important personalities such as Dante Alghieri, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, is fitting for many circumstances but problematic when it comes to external intervention in general and sanctions in particular. Because of their unique combination of material and symbolic characteristics, sanctions are the perfect instrument for policymakers wishing to overcome feelings of powerlessness and accusations of complicity. However, as long as policymakers are only exceptionally able to present a credible causal pathway for how their sanctions will work, they have more to do with “feeling good” than with “doing good”. The price of this – perhaps well-intended – moral crusade is felt not only in targeted societies. By now, senders of sanctions have ‘othered’ large parts of the globe, thereby polarising international politics further.

The mismatch between moral ambition and the harm caused by sanctions calls out for a rethinking of the ‘doing something’-doctrine. One, perhaps utopian, way forward could take inspiration from its antithesis, ‘primum non nocere’: above all, do no harm. If you cannot avoid doing harm, or if you risk causing more harm than good, then it may be better to do nothing at all. The principle is the fundamental guiding ethos for the medical profession, but its relevance extends into international political theory.

Doing No Harm, in Action

Doing No Harm, in Action

As a normative benchmark for foreign policy decisions, the harm principle would revolutionise international relations, imposing strict limits on intervention-eager policymakers. Importantly, the principle does not preclude action completely (in that case medical doctors would be twiddling their thumbs all day) but draws the boundaries for justifiable action. In consequence, the principle would not condemn foreign ministers to unemployment, but likely push their policies towards the aim of opening rather than isolating societies.

4 thoughts on “Shoddy Sanctions

  1. Pingback: Between Truth-Telling and Doom-Saying: Sanctions and Activism | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: Mind the Gap: Evaluating the Success of Sanctions | The Disorder Of Things

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