Tag Archives: Politics

Efficacy and Politics of Sanctions

Sanctions don’t work. Thats been demonstrated time and time again.
So the only question that remains is the following:

Why do nations still use sanctions?

My guess is :
1 – There is public pressure to “do something”
2 – Sanctions are a low-cost (to the imposer) way to signal toughness
and to “do something”.

Regardless of how ineffective sanctions are. They will persist for the following reasons:

1–The incentives of the political class to show ‘leadership’ and ‘resolve’
2–The rational irrationality of voters to indulge in anti-foreign bias
but without any understanding of their efficacy. Its simple in-group v out-group aggressive signaling.

Sanctions don’t harm the political class of the sanctioned country directly, which is
what the intention is. If you increase trade barriers to oil imports from the country, or ban
such trade, you can be sure that the ruling class will not go without oil, but the populace will.
Almost all sanctions harm the common people in a nation far far more than the political class.
And since this has always been the case, its reasonable to accept that the foreign policy flaks
know this. If thats the case, what is the model that incorporates this insight and yet harms
the political class of the sanctioned nation?

Here is how:

Sanction country X, X’s citizens suffer -> citizens angry with X’s political class
-> demand their heads.

So the way that sanctions work, in theory is to instigate the populace to rise up against the tyranny
of their political class. Now, has this ever happened due to sanctions? Maybe.

But as David Henderson
provides a simple thought experiment that makes this seem unlikely to be true.
Imagine you are a common citizen (im pretty sure you are) in a rice-eating country X.
Country X depends on Country Y for 90% of its rice. Country Y stops selling rice to X.
You hear it in the news, on the radio, read it in the blogs, etc.
At the grocer’s, you are forced to do without your staple dietary ingredient.

Who the hell do you curse?

I know I would obviously curse Y. They sanctioned me! I hear it in the news! And I suffer
a direct traceable loss to my utility from it. Now, to be sure, for many sanctions, a direct
causal link is hard to explain to the common citizen. It might involve too many chains of ‘economese’
reasoning. But in the listed thought experiment, its obvious that Xs citizens will not rise up against
its political class or even blame it. And considering that most nations can simply demagogue the
sanctioning country and make its citizens believe that the political class is not responsible
for their plight, sanctions don’t sound so appealing anymore. America imposed sanctions on India
and Pakistan after their nuclear tests in 1998. Did the Pakistani and Indian states have
trouble convincing their citizens that America was being evil and/or stupid for sanctioning them?
So where are the cases in which sanctions have achieved their intended objective?
Which government is not good at propaganda?

If there’s one thing the state is good at, its propaganda.