The puzzle of economic sanctions: Why do Western states impose sanctions when they rarely achieve the goal of democratising authoritarian states?

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In 1989, the Soviet Empire was revealing itself to be a failure and crumbled in front of the eyes of the world. In this year, an article entitled “The End of History?” was published. Its author, Francis Fukuyama, announced that the great ideological battles between east and west were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed. Since the end of the Cold War, many “triumphant” democratic countries, especially in the West, have increased their pressure on authoritarian regimes to democratise, and coerce them to find “enlightenment”.

There are few ways that states can influence the internal behaviours of authoritarian leaders whom continue to oppose democratisation: one course of action is to engage in a military intervention with the aim of replacing autocratic rule with democratic institutions. With recent examples of the invasions of Iraq and Libya – resulting in lawlessness, metastasizing terrorist cults and horrifying sectarian violence – ingrained in the minds of democratic leaders,  there is strong aversion on the part of many countries to take this course of action and risk entrenching their troops in a quagmire.

Alternatively, economic sanctions – “wars without bullets” – have become a popular tool to promote democracy around the globe. States can implement economic sanctions with the goal of coercing target states to comply with certain demands, such as coercing perpetrators of human rights abuses and anti-democratic practices around the world to cease and desist (Cortright & Lopez, 2000).


The logic of sanctions as a tool for democratisation

Economic sanctions are coercive measures imposed on a target state with the intention of changing the regime’s deviant behaviour or destabilising the autocratic regime. These coercive measures include withdrawing trade, aid or financial relations. The logic behind sanctions rests on the assumption that the economic hardship induced by punitive sanctions will cause people in the target country – namely citizens who suffer under the economic strife – to collectively demand that the government change their behaviour in order to end the sanctions and allow the economic oppression to end (see Kirshner, 1997).

Furthermore, sanctions can offer hope and support to the domestic opposition and a sign that they have international support to continue in their struggle against the incumbent leadership (Nossal, 1989)


How do authoritarians hold onto power?

Authoritarian regimes do not just rely on repression. They use co-optation of loyal coalition in tandem with harsh oppressive tactic on those outside the coalition (Gandhi & Przeworski, 2006) and each dictator must find a suitable balance between the two tools making trade-offs and concessions when necessary.

A leadership’s choice of balance can be affected by their regime’s control of mineral wealth, their dependence on different sections of society for patronage and support, institutional organisation and the size of the opposition, all  of which can affect the trade-off. For authoritarian regimes, buying support through patronage networks may render them dependent on foreign investment to fund their supporting patrons to ensure staying in power.

Any sanctions that cause a fall in government revenue should reduce a dictator’s ability to pay rents to elites and co-opt opposition with state resources. Additionally, it should diminish the regime’s coercive capabilities as they have less money to spend on police or military. The police and military are effective mechanisms available to the dictator

Therefore, sanctions work by pushing citizens to a breaking point and forcing them to rise up against the sanctioned regime as well as cutting of the revenue that the dictator would use to “buy off” support for his authoritarian rule.


Sanction effectiveness and authoritarian regimes

So while there is a logic for imposing sanctions, the question that must be ask is whether sanctions achieve their ends? Theoretically, the punishment logic of sanctions is sound, but many practical challenges arise as sanctions fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between the dictator, the elites and the masses.

Despite the popularity of sanctions as a mechanism aimed at spreading democratic norms, empirical investigation shows that sanctions are not effective in removing authoritarian leaders or increasing levels of democracy (Lektzian & Souva, 2007; Nooruddin, 2002).

Hufbaeur, Clyde, Schooot and Elliot (1990) found that democracy sanctions fail around 70% of the time. Rigidly authoritarian regimes, such as Syria, Cuba and North Korea, appear to be unmoved by economic sanctions for democratic reforms. According to Allen (2008), economic sanctions do not greatly affect the coercive capabilities of the authoritarian state because in these authoritarian societies, there is often an established symbiotic relationship between the individuals who hold political power and the individuals who hold economic power.

Counter-intuitively, Allen argues leaders benefit from sanctions, as economic constraints permit leaders to control trade of scarce goods and therefore extract greater rents. They can redirect the economic pressure onto defenseless sectors of the population, while protecting the leadership and essential elite supporters (Cortright & Lopez, 2000).

As the autocrat take greater control of the economy, he can channel all available wealth to those who can help him preserve power. Control of the state’s valuable resources will give those in power more leverage over their rivals. Sanctions can starve the opposition of resources and thus limit their threat to the regime’s stability (Cortright & Lopez 2000). When the level of repression in a state is high, this increases the costs of collective political action may become too high and thus too risky to undertake (Allen, 2008: 922).

Furthemore, the elite are likely to profit from black-market activities during sanctions (Niblock, 2001). If the regime controls the media, they can spin the sanctions to inspire a “rally round the flag” effect (Allen, 2005). Grauvogel and Von Soest (2014) argue that sanctions can actively increase the soft power of the authoritarian regime (and bolster its legitimacy) if it can frame the narrative as a noble struggle against economic siege of “Western imperialists”. The Western states that impose the sanction may be blamed for the suffering, rather than citizens blaming the regime for its behaviours that caused the sanctions.

Peksen and Drury (2010) go further and argue that sanctions worsen the level of democracy in a state because the suffering caused by sanctions can be manipulated by the regime to limit political liberties, strangle the middle class and dry up funding for civil society. This will ultimately strengthen the regime’s authoritarian rule.

Peksen (2009) used time-series, cross-national data from 1981 to 2000, and found that sanctions negatively affect citizens’ political rights and human freedoms, increase the prevalence of killings, torture and political imprisonment. Sanctions often result in pervasive civilian suffering and therefore may eclipse any potential political success (Müller & Müller, 1999).

It is erroneous to see sanctions as a “non-violent” alternative to military invasion. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies concluded that “sanctions have resulted in only nominal political dividends with excessive human costs” (as quoted in Weiss, 1999: 502). Describing sanctions as “wars without bullets” in many situations could be considered dangerously inaccurate.




How to quantify a successful sanction?

If sanctions are so often unsuccessful in achieving their aim, and can in fact lead to many negative externalities such as those mentioned above, why do so many countries and institutions impose sanctions on unyielding states? One reason why Western countries impose sanctions is that they serve a symbolic function: sanctions can fill the chasm between empty rhetoric and forceful military action. Britain’s former UN ambassador, Greenstock, argues,

“In a modern legitimacy-oriented world, military action is increasingly unpopular and in many ways ineffective, and words don’t work with hard regimes. So something in between these is necessary. What else is there?” (as quoted in Oskarsson, 2012: 89).

Von Soest and Wahman (2014) argue that democratic sanctions have become “an important tool for Western leaders to show domestic and international audiences that they are serious about human rights and norms of democracy” (p. 18).

Other examples of sanction outcomes are also hard to measure. For example, sanctions can be imposed to stigmatise the country on the international stage, to contain a target state (for example Iraq and preventing Hussein from creating Weapons of Mass Destruction), to deter similar states and to act as a warning alarm to the target country as a pre-emptory step before escalation to full military invasion.


Ulterior motive Western-imposed economic sanctions?

Another possibility why Western countries impose sanctions is more cynical and reflects realist-oriented world views of international relations. Despite the widespread use of sanctions, many people are suspicious of Western powers. Many think that Western governments are selective upon whom they impose sanctions. Donno (2013) argues that strong criticisms of a state’s domestic affairs is less likely in geopolitically important countries or strategic allies. In these situations, concern for violations of human rights or undemocratic regimes where  is superseded by other foreign policy goals (p. 5) Empirically examining factors that affect the likelihood that Western countries will impose sanctions demanding democratic reforms, Von Soest and Wahman,(2015)  argue that Western states focus on their own national goals first and democracy promotion is a secondary concern.

To highlight the selectivity in who Western states imposes sanctions on, it is curious that some of the world’s most repressive autocracies have rarely been subjected to sanctions. Many would ask why these dictators have been exempt while more competitive authoritarian regimes have been repeatedly subjected to sanctions. In a May 2011 speech, President Obama pledged to elevate the promotion of democracy and human rights to key pillars of America’s foreign policy [2].  He said,

“The United States supports a set of universal rights.  And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran…Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest.  Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal

If Obama is sincerely determined to use all economic strategies at his disposal, why does USA not impose economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia or Egypt? Both these states violate universal rights that Obama mentions above. Egypt indiscriminately arrests journalists it believes are opposed to the regime. Saudi Arabia systematically denies equal rights to women in all spheres of civil, economic and political life (see Brownlee, 2012). If sanctions are the best tool available to Western countries to induce authoritarian to transition into democracies, why are these countries exempt?

Von Soest and Wahman (2015) lament the lack of empirical investigation into the sender selection of sanction targets for democracy promotion. Focusing US and the EU as the main sanction senders, they ask what factors influence the imposition of democratic sanctions? They follow the logic of realpolitik motives.


Stability the main goal of sanctions, not democracy?

Donno (2013) argues Western powers tend to promote stability rather than democracy in strategically important countries and Von Soest and Wahmean (2014) empirically test this. They found that Western leaders selectively use democratic sanctions to promote foreign policy goals.

Sanction impositions largely mirror the motivations for foreign aid delivery. Many scholars argue strategic foreign policy incentives and realist goals can explain patterns of foreign aid allocation. Alesina and Dollar (1998) found that the distribution of foreign aid was dictated by political and strategic considerations. Aid allocation had little to do with rewarding less corrupt or more efficient developing regimes, it is more closely related to the strategic alliances of the sender and recipient state.

To operationalise and measure the strategic interests of donor countries (almost exclusively the Western industralised countries), Alesina and Dollar looked at UN voting patterns. Are country pairs with highly similar voting patterns more likely to be in a foreign aid donor-recipient relationship? They found similarities between the voting pattern of aid donor states and voting patterns of aid recipient states. They measured how closely aid donor- aid recipients voting patterns correlate. Creating an index of the voting pattern correlations and measuring each donor’s UN “friends” (i.e. those with high voting pattern correlations), they found that each donor had a distinct voting bloc of UN friends. They used the strength of this correlation as a proxy for alliances. (p. 8).

In conclusion, the empirical record casts doubt on the seemingly unquestioned logic concerning why Western states persist in their widespread use of sanctions to promote democracy in authoritarian regimes, when evidence demonstrates that they are highly unsuccessful in forcing an authoritarian regime to become more democratic.

In fact, sanctions can consolidate the control of the dictator if sanctions enable him to extract greater rents while overseeing the trade of scarce goods, if they can use the economic sanctions to hurt the opposition, if they can vilify the sender of the sanctions and foment a rally round the flag effect among their citizens or if they can adequately insulate the elite from economic hardship.

Recent research has found that different authoritarian regimes respond differently to sanctions (because of their different types of relationship with the elite and their differing abilities to use repression or co-opt opposition). These empirical findings, which show why sanctions are often so unsuccessful, are not reflected in the prevalent use of sanctions by Western powers.

Unfortunately for those who love democracy and hate war, sanctions are not the much vaulted panacea to achieve democratisation without bloodshed. Rather, their negative impacts are diffuse and often not visibly related to the imposition of sanctions.

In October, 2016, the EU renewed its remaining sanctions against Zimbabwe for a further year, until 20 February 2017.  Zimbabwe has been targeted by both EU and US sanctions since 2002, but the Mugabe regime has remained stable and maintained remarkably high levels of repression, showing no real signs of political liberalisation. Conversely, in February 2016, EU ended five years of sanctions against Belarus and its authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, whom has remained in authoritarian power for over two decades. The EU had previously hoped the sanctions would precipitate regime change in Belarus in favour of a democratic government, but is now shifting its approach to engage rather than isolate the country (and prevent any further actions by Russia to bring in Belarus further into its sphere of influence).

The Russian factor, even from this anecdotal comparison, would appear to be the instrumental variable that determines whether sanctions are deemed in the West’s interests or not. In the future, it will be necessary to take into consideration the large body of empirical research which highlights the ineffectiveness of sanctions for regime change. Rather, Western democracies should be more upfront with the aims of some sanction regimes: to increase stability in international relations, rather than promoting democracy.




Alesina, A., & Dollar, D. (2000). Who gives foreign aid to whom and why?. Journal of economic growth, 5(1), 33-63.

Allen, S. H. (2008). The domestic political costs of economic sanctions. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 52(6), 916-944.

Cortright, D., & Lopez, G. A. (2000). Learning from the sanctions decade. Global Dialogue, 2(3), 11-24.

Donno, D. (2013). Elections and democratization in authoritarian regimes. American Journal of Political Science, 57(3), 703-716.

Escribà‐Folch, A., & Wright, J. (2010). Dealing with tyranny: International sanctions and the survival of authoritarian rulers1. International Studies Quarterly, 54(2), 335-359.

Gandhi, J., & Przeworski, A. (2006). Cooperation, cooptation, and rebellion under dictatorships. Economics & Politics, 18(1), 1-26.

Grauvogel, J., & von Soest, C. (2014). Claims to legitimacy count: Why sanctions fail to instigate democratisation in authoritarian regimes. European Journal of Political Research, 53(4), 635-653.

Hufbauer, G. C., Schott, J. J., & Elliott, K. A. (1990). Economic sanctions reconsidered: History and current policy (Vol. 1). Peterson Institute.

Kirshner, J. (1997). The microfoundations of economic sanctions. Security Studies, 6(3), 32-64.

Lektzian, D., & Souva, M. (2007). An institutional theory of sanctions onset and success. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 51(6), 848-871

Levitsky, S., & Way, L. A. (2010). Competitive authoritarianism: Hybrid regimes after the cold war. Cambridge University Press.

Mueller, J., & Mueller, K. (1999). Sanctions of mass destruction. Foreign Affairs, 43-53.

Nooruddin, I. (2002). Modeling selection bias in studies of sanctions efficacy. International Interactions, 28(1), 59-75.

Nossal, K. R. (1989). International sanctions as international punishment. International Organization, 43(02), 301-322.

Peksen, D. (2009). Better or worse? The effect of economic sanctions on human rights. Journal of Peace Research, 46(1), 59-77.

Peksen, D., & Drury, A. C. (2010). Coercive or corrosive: The negative impact of economic sanctions on democracy. International Interactions, 36(3), 240-264.

von Soest, C., & Wahman, M. (2014). Not all dictators are equal Coups, fraudulent elections, and the selective targeting of democratic sanctions. Journal of Peace Research. 52(1), 17-31.



[1] Describe rents associated with sanctions

[2] Accessed 04 April 2015

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