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

The book makes an excellent contribution to the literature in that it closes a long identified, overdue gap while putting in place a highly useful analytical framework that can be employed for the assessment of prospective economic sanctions regimes.

The highlights

An unsuspectedly valuable contribution of the volume can be found in the literature review. Its main merit it that it scrutinises the research done in the field so far, putting into question the accuracy of some of the findings. This goes beyond the standard criticism of the Hufbauer, Schott and Elliott dataset which has become commonplace in the literature. What is most remarkable about the literature review is not simply that it does not uncritically assume that every single item published in the field has managed to advance our knowledge and that we can build up our research without further scrutiny, but the fact that it does not circumscribe the review to either the qualitative or the quantitative field. Instead, it engages with both. This corrects for a major shortcoming in the sanctions literature: the fact that two bodies of literature evolve in parallel without learning from each other. Thus, the chapter reviewing the literature deserves a glance by those who wish to familiarise themselves with the accomplishments made by sanctions scholarship so far as well as some of its key limitations, irrespective of their interest for the rest of the book.

Another key merit of the study is that it manages to convincingly debunk the often-floated idea that the (putative) success of sanctions in ending apartheid in South Africa provides irrefutable evidence that the sanctions have the potential of working elsewhere. The book is structured around this idea: South Africa is the first of the three case studies explored, and the only one where sanctions are found to have interacted positively with the domestic economic and power constellations and contributed to the end of apartheid. The discussion accordingly raises valid points about the applicability of the South African ‘model’ to the current situation in the West Bank and Gaza. One of the key activists in the ‘Boycott, Disinvestment, Sanctions’ movement in Gaza, Samia Botmeh, while acknowledging that it took a long time for the calls for a South African boycott to prosper, claims that the Palestinian initiative needed five years to achieve what the South Africans did in fifteen.1 Yet, according to Jones’ analysis, the campaign’s prospects of success do not simply depend on time: it would require a transformation in the patterns of the Israeli economy.

What could have been done better

The volume does not feature any real shortcomings. It accomplishes what it promises to do: it presents a viable framework for ascertaining the way in which external economic pressure interacts with domestic dynamics, and tests it with the help of a solid bibliographical basis and largely original field research. The study also defines itself as an “exploratory” work deprived of the ambition of saying the “last word” on the subject.

Still, there are a number of possible improvements that come to mind.

Firstly, the selection of case studies is not in-itself inappropriate, as it includes high-profile cases on which evidence abounds, but the selection almost dooms the study towards a negative assessment. Only the first case is regarded as a success, while the two others are seen as failures. This works very well in the sense that it allows the study to persuasively demonstrate a key point, namely that the South African case is not replicable in the absence of the conditions that facilitated the rupture with apartheid: a well-organised, reasonably unified resistance movement and economic actors enjoying both sufficient independence from the political establishment and influence over it to compel the desired change. However, the analysis would have benefited from looking at a second case of (supposedly) successful sanctions. This would have allowed the analysis to enrich our knowledge of the way in which sanctions interact with the internal societal and economic forces, perhaps by further reinforcing the book’s findings, or by identifying alternative ways in which sanctions can bring about change. As it is, the book could almost be titled ‘Why the South African sanctions success is not replicable’. The analysis seems almost better suited to predict when sanctions will fail than otherwise. While admittedly few sanctions episodes enjoy the reputation of having ‘worked’, the case of UN sanctions Libya in the period 1992 to 2003 comes to mind. To some extent, the inclusion of Libya could have also aided the comparability of the cases: Both Iraq and South Africa were subject to UN sanctions, while Myanmar was only the target of a handful of Western powers, most notably the US and Europe. Possibly, a different selection of cases could have helped identifying alternative routes in which sanctions can affect internal dynamics in a progressive fashion.

Secondly, the conclusions painfully highlight the absence of proper assessment of the target society, its economy and the internal balance of power, as well as sanctions’ prospects to influence them, prior to the imposition of UN or EU measures.  While this criticism is undoubtedly correct, the study would have benefited from raising it earlier, and from including an overview of the stated objectives of the sender(s) when the sanctions were imposed. Again, this could have strengthened the analysis by exposing not only the contrast between the stated goals and the results achieved, but most probably the lack of analysis by the sender of key developments in the target society and how they were being affected by sanctions (or otherwise). In other words, the same point resenting the lack of proper monitoring would have been better substantiated if incorporated into the research design from the start. This could have been done at little additional effort without complicating the structure of the case studies.

Finally, the third point is more a criticism than a recommendation. The conclusion attempts a discussion of targeted sanctions, dismissing their usefulness as an alternative to comprehensive sanctions. However, the study does not, per se, offer sufficient evidence to support any conclusive statement on the effects of targeted sanctions. In that sense, the brief discussion on targeted sanctions resembles the unfavourable while unsubstantiated comments they received elsewhere. As a major development on the sanctions landscape of the past two decades, the assessment of the impacts and usefulness of targeted sanctions deserves careful discussion backed up by solid research. One needs first to clarify that the ‘piecemeal’ approach followed by those senders which imposed sanctions on South Africa pre-dates the launch of the concept of targeted sanctions. Only one of the case studies constitutes an episode where targeted sanctions were employed (Myanmar), and even there, the differences in the employment of such tools by the principal senders, the US and the EU, is hardly thematised. On account of their versatility, and the very diverse uses for which they have been employed, any evaluation of their impacts should rely on a broader empirical basis. It should also be kept in mind that the toolbox routinely described with the label targeted sanctions includes instruments that vary dramatically in their capacity to affect the economy. Some senders have crafted targeted sanctions strategies which remain virtually free of economic impacts, while others have employed these tools to asphyxiate the economy. As a result, and in sharp contrast to comprehensive embargoes, two senders imposing so-called targeted sanctions on the same target might be effecting – or trying to effect – entirely different changes in their targets. Not having been thematised in the original research design of the study, the add-on on targeted sanctions offers little insight.

The policy-use

United States President Barack Obama chairs a United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y., Sept. 24, 2009.

United States President Barack Obama chairs a United Nations Security Council meeting at U.N. Headquarters in New York, N.Y., Sept. 24, 2009.

In a field like sanctions scholarship, whose development has been guided by the (presumed) needs of policy-makers, it is pertinent to discuss whether the proposed framework, apart from making a solid contribution to the academic literature, can be of any assistance to those who frame and impose the sanctions.

This is certainly the case, and this constitutes an additional merit of the work. The SCA framework can be readily employed by policy-makers interested in assessing the situation in the target society and crafting a sanctions strategy that has the potential of advancing the intended aims. Too often, the design responds to other considerations marginally related to their expected impact. Moreover, the SCA framework can easily be transformed into a “checklist” featuring the aspects on which senders should focus. Two simple but important insights are of particular relevance here. Firstly, as shown in the South African case study, the selection of coping strategies by the sender adds a contingency factor that is highly difficult to predict. Even the most carefully designed sanctions strategy will face some degree of uncertainty in terms of the reaction it might provoke. As a result, the sender needs to remain alert to the reactions and effects of its policies and it needs to be ready to adjust them. Secondly, the use of selective measures that affect the economy only partially are useful in eradicating severe humanitarian hardship. However, it remains important to foresee (and monitor) their effects on the economy, as evidenced in the case of Myanmar. Even if these are limited, they might affect the wrong targets and inhibiting growth in sectors that have the potential of developing with relative independence from the state-controlled economy.

As the study rightly point out, the systematic employment of such a framework in the pre-assessment and evaluation of sanctions exercises would enable senders to ‘demonstrate clear planning and tell a plausible causal story’ (p.191) about the use of these measures – just in case anybody ever challenges the ‘extraordinary vagueness in Western sanctions policy about goals, strategy, mechanism, costs and benefits’ (p.190).


1. Botmeh, S. (2011) ‘Peut-on boycotter Israël?’, in M. Collon (ed) Israël: Parlons-en, Couleur livres: Bruxelles, p.287.

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One thought on “Mind the Gap: Evaluating the Success of Sanctions

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

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