Sanctions are a word we often hear on the news, particularly in response to pressing world conflicts. But the intricacies of what sanctions are and how they work is a mystery to many, even those with a strong grasp of global affairs. To educate KDI School students on this important tool in international relations, Professor Taehee Whang of Yonsei University visited campus to deliver an enlightening lecture: Debates on Economic Sanctions: theory and practice. Professor Whang began by defining sanctions as actions taken by a country or multiple countries (sender states) to limit or end financial relations with a target state, with the intention of changing the policies or behavior of that country. The talk then explored with students the critical shifts in academic thought on the effectiveness and applicability of sanctions, citing eminent research and real-world cases. These analyses revealed often unexpected insights into why sanctions are still used today, such as against countries like Iran and North Korea, and gave introductory details on how they work in practice.
Sanctions can take a range of forms, each with distinct mechanisms for implementation and differing levels of effectiveness. Some of the forms include tariffs, export controls, embargoes, import bans, travel bans, the freezing of assets, foreign aid withdrawal or blockades. Sender states can choose which option or combination of options to take strategically in order to produce the intended response from target states. Broadly speaking, financial measures were cited as more effective than trade sanctions. This is due to the difficulties in enforcing trade sanctions, for example, using smugglers. Moreover, financial sanctions come with low-on effects on markets that can amplify their impact, such as how a sanction on a bank would likely reduce the confidence of investors in the market more generally. To further amplify the effects of sanctions, students were told the surprising research finding that unilateral sanctions are more effective than multilateral sanctions due to coordination costs. However, involvement from international organizations- such as the United Nations or International Monetary Fund- can increase effectiveness.
Another surprising insight from sanctions research was the length of time that stay in effect. The average duration of sanctions was found to be 9.2 years. Comparing this period to many countries’ political term limits yields important consequences for the intersection of sanction use and politics. Not only are many of the leaders who apply sanctions unlikely to be in the office to see the full results of those sanctions, but studies suggest that they can enjoy a popularity boost in the short-term. Another attractive political point of sanctions is their relative cost. Compared with military action, sanctions are a considerably cheaper alternative when seeking to influence the behavior of foreign states or leaders. However, what was also interesting was that sanctions considered ‘successful’ had an average timespan of 3.8 years. The question of what makes a sanction ‘successful’ however was a major contention amongst academics and political scientists, and these debates were then discussed by Professor Whang.
The key debates on sanctions were largely contested based on the notion of effectiveness. With each wave of thought on the subject, researchers considered the effectiveness of sanctions from differing perspectives. In the first wave of debates during the mid-80s, a dominant point of view was that sanctions’ success or failure could be observed through the following lens: Country A is asking Country B to change policy X to policy Y. On this basis, success could be determined with two relatively simple questions: ‘Was the desired change in policy achieved?’ and ‘How responsible was the sanction in getting a change?’. However, this view was challenged by other scholars who argued that sanctions that appear as failures from this analysis could have in fact prevented more undesirable policy changes. This led to more nuanced analyses of sanctions’ effectiveness, including sanctions that were successful as threats- without implementation- and applying a wider scope to the effects of sanctions. This latter contention informed the more perspective that the distribution of sanctions is important- not just macroeconomic indicators. So-called ‘smart sanctions’ are more targeted to leaders and decision-makers, rather than punishing regular citizens who may in fact then rally around their leader more strongly, thus weakening sanction effectiveness in the end.
Though this presentation only scratched the surface of the complex history and mechanisms of sanctions, KDIS students left with a far more nuanced appreciation of how to interpret the effects of sanctions for all different players: from international leaders, elites, businesses, and general populations.