When Do Imposed Economic Sanctions Work? A Critical Review of the Sanctions Effectiveness Literature


There is growing policy consensus in Washington and other Western capitals that economic sanctions are powerful tools to cope with major foreign policy crises. Are sanctions, particularly targeted sanctions, really the potent instruments optimists suggest? Under what circumstances do punitive economic measures induce policy change in sanctioned countries? To probe these queries, in this article I outline the conditions that have been identified as more likely to lead to successful sanctions outcomes in the literature. I also discuss four major shortcomings of existing scholarship. First, the sender-biased interpretation of sanctions effectiveness renders the treatment of the ‘ineffective’ cases with negative outcomes the same as those cases that induce no discernable change in target behavior. Second, the prevalent use of static data from existing sanctions databases reduces the ability of researchers to study various time-specific factors affecting the probability of sanctions success. Third, the dominant state-centric bargaining model in the literature offers limited insight into contemporary coercive measures directed at non-state actors. Fourth, the study of sanctions in isolation of other instruments that frequently accompany them, such as incentives and diplomatic pressure, leads to a partial understanding of the specific role sanctions play in shaping the outcome of key foreign policy initiatives.

Publication Title

Defence and Peace Economics