Home > News > People think that economic sanctions hurt Putin and helped undermine apartheid in South Africa. They’re wrong.
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People think that economic sanctions hurt Putin and helped undermine apartheid in South Africa. They’re wrong.

- May 6, 2016
Russia’s Bank Rossiya has been targeted by U.S. sanctions. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

Lee Jones, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, has just published “Societies Under Siege: Exploring How International Economic Sanctions (Do Not) Work.” In it, he evaluates the use and success of sanctions in three key cases — South Africa, Iraq and Myanmar — and finds that sanctions rarely achieve their stated aims. He is wary of drawing general conclusions, arguing that the success of sanctions depends on a host of country-specific factors, including the independence of a country’s civil society. We spoke to Jones via Skype about the history of sanctions, their track record and why, if they so rarely succeed, leaders still rely on them.

Nikita Lalwani and Sam Winter-Levy: Why did sanctions emerge as an instrument of statecraft?

Lee Jones: They emerge along with classical liberal understandings of why states and people do what they do. The understanding is that just as every man has his price, so does every state. If you can manipulate the cost-benefit calculations of state managers, then you can change the way they behave. It’s homo economicus thinking, which treats states as rational, utility-maximizing actors. If you inflict some sort of cost on them, then they will rethink. In this view, states think in terms of the pecuniary costs of different policies. Yet in reality, many political leaders are willing to face severe economic cost to take actions that they feel are important or necessary.

NL & SW-L: So how are sanctions supposed to work? How exactly is economic pain supposed to translate into political gain?

LJ: I got the inspiration for my book from [the political scientist] Robert Pape’s “Bombing to Win,” which looks at how strategic bombing is supposed to win wars. He looks at the different mechanisms by which statesman have suggested that bombing cities and civilians is supposed to bring wars to an end. Then he tests these claims against the evidence and finds they aren’t actually true. I wanted to do the same for sanctions. But what I found was that statesmen do not really say what sanctions are meant to do. It is not possible to test their claims because they are never clearly specified. Often leaders will say something very simplistic like, “Oh, we’ll put pressure on the government.”

A classical liberal understanding is that sanctions will work in one of two ways. The first is by provoking an immediate response on behalf of the targeted government by changing its cost-benefit analysis. The second is that sanctions will cause economic suffering among the population, which will lead them to turn against the government, and the government will have to change course as a result. In practice, both of these mechanisms rarely, if ever, trigger.

NL & SW-L: In what percentage of cases have sanctions been successful?

LJ: The standard figure in the literature is that they succeed in about one-third of instances. But Pape has looked at these figures skeptically and argued that often the outcome was not caused by sanctions; it was caused instead by domestic insurgencies or by military threats, and if you take away those cases, then sanctions only succeed in less than 5 percent of cases. So that’s the low-end answer.

NL & SW-L: People point to South Africa as an example of when sanctions provoked political change. Is that not a fair assessment?

LJ: No, I think it’s complete nonsense and historical revisionism. You have to remember that Western states were mostly against sanctions on South Africa. South Africa was a Cold War ally, and [Ronald] Reagan and [Margaret] Thatcher were very resistant to the imposition of sanctions. Sanctions, boycotts, disinvestment — these were a bottom-up campaign pushed by civil society and resisted every step of the way by Western executives who branded the African National Congress as communist terrorists. Once the Cold War ends, bringing with it the end of the apartheid regime, you get this weird sort of historical amnesia where Western states try to take credit for what happened in South Africa, when in reality they’d done everything they could to prevent it.

And in terms of what sanctions actually did on the ground, they had quite a modest economic impact. If you look at the economic data, the apartheid economy actually expanded significantly under sanctions. The impact it had was only a modest addition to the pressure that was being brought to bear on the regime by a highly mobilized black-led coalition. That was what ended apartheid in South Africa, not sanctions. The regime was faced with widespread domestic insurgency and engaged in [a foreign] war. It was spending quite heavily on coercion to try to suppress the insurgency. It was also trying to spend heavily on welfare programs to undermine the reasons for the insurgency. All of this was very costly. When you add in the cost of sanctions, then something has to give. But it was only in the context of mass resistance internally that sanctions become a problem. When such insurgencies are lacking, as, for example, in Iraq or Myanmar, sanctions can be much more easily evaded.

NL & SW-L: So what makes a country a good candidate for sanctions?

LJ: A lot of it comes down to the autonomy that social forces have from the state. The more autonomy these forces have, the higher the probability that they will be able to lobby for change and bring change about. In South Africa, for example, by the 1980s, you had a relatively autonomous business class, both English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking, that had been fostered by the state and then grown out of their cocoon and started chafing against political restrictions on their activities. Apartheid was holding back their development. Not to say that they were democrats or liberals, but they were ready for change and, crucially, they were not dependent on the state for their own survival.

When sanctions came along, a big target was domestic capital. The business classes responded in a way that pushed the government to change. In other cases, such as in Iraq and Myanmar, the business classes have been heavily dependent on state power; they are basically crony capitalists. Even though they may suffer under sanctions, what they tend to do is instead of lobbying for change, they lobby for extra concessions from the regime. And even if they would like to push for change, they do not have the power to do so. The ultimate irony is that the countries most likely to be targeted for sanctions are those where the regime is particularly powerful and the opposition disorganized.

NL & SW-L: Do you think this applies to Russia today? Have sanctions been unsuccessful?

LJ: The question is what Russia wanted in the first place. If you think Russia wanted to invade all of Ukraine, or half of Ukraine, then you can make the argument that sanctions at least stopped Russia in Donetsk. But if you take the view that I do that really all Russia was going to annex was Crimea, and that all they really wanted was to cause enough trouble to reach some sort of settlement in Ukraine that respected Russia’s interests, then sanctions have not really changed Russian policy at all. Economic pain has certainly been inflicted. Russia has been hurt mainly by falling oil and gas prices, but the government has admitted that sanctions are responsible for something like one-third of the contraction. If we look at political indicators, however, anti-American sentiment has increased, pro-Putin sentiment has increased, and so has support for Putin’s policy in Ukraine.

Partly this is because of the weakness of the pro-Western opposition.

NL & SW-L: Would you class Iran in a similar category? To what extent can sanctions take credit for the Iran deal?

LJ: Well, again, it depends on what you think was gained from that. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate [in 2007] indicated that Iran abandoned its nuclear program in the early 2000s. If that’s the case, there was no military nuclear program to halt in the first place. The deal Obama struck with Iran is basically the same deal that Iran offered in 2005. Domestically, all of the different Iranian factions support the nuclear program. So it becomes hard to see how sanctions could bring into power someone who would end Iran’s nuclear program. With this deal, you have the rehabilitation of Iran, the recognition by the U.S. that it needs Iranian help to sort out the mess it created in the Middle East. The U.S. needs Iranian cooperation against ISIS, in Syria, and in Iraq, and it needs to try and tamp down the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that is ripping apart the Middle East. Now Iran has returned to the main diplomatic forums to help sort out all these issues, and it’s looking forward to a significant economic boom. So who’s won? A lot of people in Iran lost out because there’s no doubt sanctions caused huge damage to the Iranian economy, but they did very little politically.

NL & SW-L: So you don’t think sanctions can take much credit for the election of Rouhani in 2013 and the increase in support for Iranian moderates?

LJ: Potentially. It shows that the confrontational approach Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pursued actually made people a lot poorer, and you could probably make a very good case that sanctions led to a draining away in support for the forces that Ahmadinejad supported. But the question is: Did that lead to the policy outcome that you want? There’s certainly economic pain, there’s arguably political realignment, but there’s no change in policy outcome. The deal on the table now is the same as the one on the table beforehand.

NL & SW-L: So can sanctions only be successful if they lead to political change? What if their purpose is simply to deter future aggression, as in the case of Russia, for instance?

LJ: It all depends on what you think sanctions are for. In this book, I took at face value the statements that the people imposing sanctions make about what they want sanctions to do. Between 50 and 70 percent of sanctions these days are directed at the internal politics of some other state — seeking some sort of regime change, trying to prevent violence against civilians, etc. So the stated target is the real target. But in many cases, the reality is quite different.

There can be at least three different reasons to impose sanctions. The first is to manipulate the target state. The second is for domestic purposes: responding to lobbying pressure, or trying to look like you’re doing something in the media. The third is to influence the international system or third parties. So, for example, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran at least in part to coerce the E.U. into pressuring Iran. Similarly, sanctions against North Korea are at least partly aimed at signaling to China that it needs to do something. But you can also do it to try and shore up certain norms in the international system, such as deterrence, by raising the stakes so that people don’t think they can get away with aggression unpunished. So there can be a logic to imposing sanctions even if you think that in this particular instance the target state will not be affected by them.

The sanctions in Iraq were partly about regime change; they were partly about containing both Iran and Iraq in the Middle East, so-called dual containment; and they were partly for domestic purposes. There’s often multiple goals at once, and you’d have to look at all three different dimensions to assess the success of sanctions. But you then also need some ethical reflection. You need to balance the suffering sanctions cause against their effectiveness. In Iraq, sanctions made you look tough, but is it legitimate or ethical to be instrumentalizing the target population in that way for domestic purposes?

NL & SW-L: If not sanctions, then what?

LJ: Well, that’s exactly why they keep being used. Sanctions seem to be between war and words: They’re tougher than just wagging your finger disapprovingly, but you normally don’t want to bomb somebody just because you don’t like their human rights abuses. Sanctions seem sufficiently tough and sufficiently cost-free. So their use is unlikely to go away. But I would say that they’re not cost-free (they’re quite costly for the sender, and especially costly for the target), and they can be counterproductive. So I think Western states should rely more on preventive measures and diplomacy.

Sam Winter-Levy is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs; Nikita Lalwani is the staff editor at Foreign Affairs.