Targeted Sanctions: Motivating Policy Change

By Kaempfer, William H.; Lowenberg, Anton D. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Targeted Sanctions: Motivating Policy Change


Kaempfer, William H., Lowenberg, Anton D., Harvard International Review


Economic sanctions are the international relations tool of choice in this day and age. The range of states that have become targets of sanctions is growing month by month, as is the list of organizations applying this foreign policy instrument. Such sanctioners are no longer limited to sovereign nations and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations; today even "small-time" players like state and municipal governments have discovered that economic sanctions provide them with a wonderful opportunity to assert their positions on international issues. And likewise, the sanctionees are no longer just the transgressor nations of yesteryear--now even trade partners are rebuked through the use of secondary sanctions.

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This rush to sanction has generated a great deal of criticism in both academic circles and among multinational firms, who often bear the burden of the taxation inherent to sanctions. Indeed, it is a reasonable generalization to characterize international economic sanctions as overused, ineffective, and unfair. The fact that sanctions are overused is demonstrated by the large number of sanctions currently in force. They are ineffective, as shown by the number of obvious failures in sanctions policy. They are unfair, not only because of the burden they place on firms that would otherwise freely engage in international commerce, but also because of the heavy suffering they often impose on innocent civilians in target countries. Nevertheless, this characterization of sanctions is a generalization. In order to understand more fully what should be used, what is effective, and what is fair, a better understanding of what sanctions actually do is necessary.

The most important issue to resolve before one can judge the success of sanctions, generally or specifically, is exactly what is expected of a given sanction in the first place. The critical failure of current sanctions' policymaking and policy analysis is that there is almost never a clear understanding of what the objectives are or how the implementation will lead to success. Grasping these two failures leads us to consider alternatives to comprehensive sanctions. We believe that among those alternatives, narrowly targeted sanctions, and sometimes even non-economic sanctions, are often more likely to be effective in achieving an intended policy goal than an indiscriminate embargo on all trade and investment flows to a target country.

Understanding Sanctions by Their Political Objective

International economic sanctions are government policies, and as such they can be analyzed according to the general principles of public choice economics. According to economist Gary Becker, behind the enactment of any policy there are those with a certain set of interests pressing for the policy (policy demanders) against some resistance to the policy (policy suppliers) that must be overcome for successful implementation. In the case of sanctions, the pressure might come from interest groups with certain foreign policy goals or from players with more pecuniary objectives. In this analysis, however, we put aside pecuniary interests and focus on the foreign policy goals of sanctions. The objectives of these interest groups might be as disparate as taking the moral high ground in response to a target's reprehensible action, punishing the target for its offense, or attempting to pressure the target to change its policies. Across these objectives, however, the types of sanctions that are appropriate might vary widely in scope and range.

Sanctions that take the moral high ground are those that are designed to please interests on the sender's side rather than to have any real impact on the target. The sender adopts the position that, rather than sitting by and acquiescing to the objectionable policy of the target, it would prefer to take a moral stand, ideally at very low domestic cost. An example is Canada's banning of South African Airways' landing rights during the apartheid era--even though South African Airways flights had never landed in Canada prior to the sanction in the first place. …

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