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FPC Briefing: How Do International Economic Sanctions (Not) Work?

Article by Dr Lee Jones

November 10, 2015

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FPC Briefing: How Do International Economic Sanctions (Not) Work?

In this new FPC Briefing Dr Lee Jones argues that instead of simply asking whether sanctions work, the international community should first ask: ‘how are they supposed to effect the change we seek, and do they actually “work” this way in practice?’ This research looks into how ‘economic pain’ translates – or fails to translate – into ‘political gain’ in target states. The starting point for Jones is that political outcomes in target states are predominantly determined by struggles between ruling and opposition coalitions of social and political forces. Sanctions ‘work’ by manipulating the political economy of targets, with consequences for the composition of forces contesting state power, plus their resources, alliances and strategies. Where sanctions can compel ruling and opposition coalitions to adopt strategic responses that meet the goals of those imposing sanctions, they may be ‘successful’. However, this is generally possible only where opposition groups are already powerful and well organised. In contexts where oppositions are weak and fragmented, sanctions tend to entrench their exclusion from power, even if they also manage to weaken ruling coalitions. Since this is often the case in states where sanctions are used, sanctions are often ineffective. The briefing gives some suggestions for policymakers that include the need for careful planning, including plausibly specifying the mechanisms by which they expect sanctions to operate. If the mechanisms cannot be identified, Dr Jones argues sanctions should not be imposed.

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