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Do Sanctions Have Deterrent Value?

Dan Drezner notices the administration’s fixation with sanctions in its new National Security Strategy document:

So I don’t think sanctions will be as useful as the administration thinks in wrangling stray actors back toward the global rules of the game. But that said, the administration is asserting something new and interesting about sanctions: their deterrent value. It’s clear that Obama’s foreign policy team thinks that targeted sanctions are a refined and powerful instrument. Even if they do not alter Russian or Iranian behavior, the imposed sanctions will supposedly alter the incentives of other countries to become the next Russia or Iran.

The administration’s view is different from the usual pro-sanctions argument, which usually focuses on the damage that sanctions inflict on the target regime and country. The usual argument emphasizes the primarily punitive value of sanctions. Since sanctions frequently have little or no desirable effect on regime behavior, this is really the only value that they have. The administration’s pro-sanctions argument claims additional, longer-term effects. As Drezner notes, it is difficult to test the claim being made for sanctions here. It would be difficult to prove that other regimes are refraining from undesirable behavior because they are impressed by the sanctions imposed on another regime. After all, other regimes might have never intended to behave in a way that would trigger comparable sanctions, or they may have decided not to act this way for entirely different reasons. No doubt sanctions advocates would like to be able to claim that their preferred tool is much more useful than it appears, but I’m not sure why anyone else should believe them. Then again, if sanctions can have the deterrent value that the administration attaches to them, it is strange that the sanctions that strangled Iraq for more than a decade seem to have had little effect on the behavior of other authoritarian regimes and pariah states.

One problem with this is that the U.S. and its allies don’t consistently apply and maintain sanctions against regimes that violate international norms and laws. Some states build and test nuclear weapons without receiving the punitive treatment that has been meted out to Iran, some sponsor terrorist groups without earning the same opprobrium that states on the official list of sponsors experience, and some take part in illegal international wars and violations of other states’ sovereignty without any suggestion that they be made the target of international sanctions. In order for a punishment to act as a deterrent, there has to be a reasonable expectation that any rule-breaker will receive similar punishment for a similar offense, but that isn’t the case here.

A regime that is at odds with the U.S. might be able to expect that it will be sanctioned by the U.S. at some point because of the antagonism between them, but it is probably also the least likely to be discouraged by that prospect from behaving as it wants. A regime that might be more responsive to the threat of U.S. sanctions is also one that is in the least danger of being sanctioned. That leaves borderline cases of regimes that are generally on good terms with Western governments but still engage in some kind of extremely undesirable behavior. Are these regimes going to fear being targeted by Western sanctions, or are they going to assume that they will get a pass because of their otherwise good relations with Western powers? If it is the latter, they aren’t going to be discouraged from committing violations of their own.

Another problem is that very few regimes that are later made into international pariahs think that their behavior should be compared to that of earlier sanctioned regimes. A would-be offender can’t be deterred from doing something very effectively if he doesn’t think he is doing anything that merits punishment. It is usually the case that a regime that breaks an international norm or law either doesn’t perceive itself as having committed a violation, or it believes that it has sufficient justification so that it doesn’t think any punishment is warranted. It is likely that few other regimes can imagine themselves being treated as another North Korea or Iran, and they will assume that their ambitions (whatever they might be) are justified. So they likely won’t be discouraged from pursuing those ambitions because of the way that the U.S. and its allies have treated certain other states in the past.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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