Sanctions: Overused and Understudied

By Henry Crossman

March 18th, 2019

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in October 2018 sparked international outrage and demands that the U.S. government formally punish the Saudi regime by imposing sanctions. 68 percent of likely voters in the U.S. and 76 percent of international relations (IR) scholars surveyed contemporaneously believe the U.S. should target financial sanctions against Saudi officials involved in Khashoggi’s death.

Figure 1: IR Scholar Policy Recommendations

Following Saudi Arabia’s alleged violation of international norms against freedom of the press and extrajudicial killings, significant majorities of the U.S. public and IR scholars believed sanctions to be the most appropriate response for the U.S. government.

Why did voters and scholars coalesce around sanctions?

Democracies use sanctions to punish bad actors for violations of liberal international norms. A mechanism short of military action, sanctions inflict financial or reputational harm to the violator to deter future violations, without causing lasting economic damage to the norm-enforcer or escalating a crisis between two actors. Generally faced with low public support for conflict, particularly in situations in which the public does not see transgressions as threatening the state’s security, sanctions are a common solution to addressing violations to behavioral norms while avoiding armed conflict.

The number of IR publications concerned with sanctions is among the lowest compared to other substantive foci. However, that only 1.5 percent of IR articles published in top journals over the last 35 years focus on sanctions is not evidence of convergence among scholars. Rather, IR scholars are split nearly evenly (47.7 percent to 51.4 percent) as to whether placing sanctions on other countries is an effective approach to achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. This disagreement is in itself interesting; IR scholars overwhelmingly agree on a number of issues from the benefits of free trade to the effects of climate change, yet are evenly split on the question of sanction effectiveness.

Figure 2: IR Scholars & Effectiveness of Sanctions

In the Khashoggi case, a different picture emerges among IR scholars.

Three-fourths of IR scholars recommend financial sanctions against Saudi officials, a policy prescription second only to naming and shaming the Saudi government. Consistent with expectations of voters’ aversion to escalating an international conflict, more aggressive actions such as severing diplomatic ties or suspending arms sales and ending support for Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen find lower levels of support among scholars. However, if we assume that IR scholars, like voters, have an aversion to escalating an international crisis, why would scholars not overwhelmingly choose the arguably least aggressive response, investigating or holding hearings on Khashoggi’s death?

If only half of IR scholars think sanctions are an effective policy tool, why do three-fourths recommend sanctions against Saudi officials for Khashoggi’s death? Surely it is not because scholars want the U.S. government’s response to be ineffective; almost no respondents selected that the U.S. should do nothing.

Figure 3: Substantive Focus of Top IR Journals (1980-2014)

The fact is, governments are increasingly relying on sanctions to address international conflicts, yet the academy has failed to rigorously study the effectiveness and implications of sanctions as a foreign policy tool. There is not a comprehensive understanding of the implications and effectiveness of the policy both the American public and scholars have overwhelmingly concluded is an appropriate punishment for such a transgression against international norms.

Despite widespread support among the public and scholars for imposing sanctions, policy analysts fear sanctions are an over-used foreign policy tool. In a September 2018 Foreign Affairs article, Peter Harrell notes the “explosion of U.S. sanctions” both in number and scope. Yet, “nobody is quite sure whether they actually work,” writes Adam Taylor in The Washington Post.

The academy has an underdeveloped body of knowledge on the conditions under which sanctions are effective and has failed to develop an understanding of the direct and indirect economic, political and security implications of imposing sanctions on international actors. As sanctions become an increasingly common foreign policy tool deployed by governments to coerce adversaries and punish violations of international norms, scholars should address this under-studied sub-field of international relations.

If you’d like to see more results from the surveys cited above, visit the TRIP Survey Data Dashboard: https://trip.wm.edu/charts/#/.

Henry Crossman is a senior at the College of William & Mary, majoring in International Relations and minoring in Economics. He has worked at TRIP for 4 years as a Research Assistant. His interests include African politics, development, and international security.