Societies Under Siege: A Reply

I am extremely grateful to Elin, Clara and Katie for writing such thoughtful and  thought-provoking engagements with Societies Under Siege, and to Joe Hoover for kindly organising this forum. It is not easy to set aside the time during a busy teaching term. Here is my reply!

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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 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’. 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 Portela 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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