Since the end of the Cold War there has been a measurable increase in the use of international sanction on part of both international organizations and individual states. At the same time, a number of studies (most notably, the famous HSE study) have demonstrated that in the majority of cases, sanctions fail to accomplish their objectives. Thus, the sanction paradox arises: Why do international actors continue to increasingly rely on an instrument, which has proven to be so ineffective in the past?
International sanctions are generally defined as a foreign policy instrument used (by the sender) for inducing political change in a third state (the target). Sanctions can differ significantly in their severity and range from asset freeze and travel restrictions to, in the most extreme cases, comprehensive sanctions which aim at breaking all economic and diplomatic ties between the sender and the target. International sanctions are currently used in a variety of situations including: to fight against terrorism; to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; to promote human rights, democracy and good governance; to respond to intrastate and interstate conflicts; etc.
Despite their wide use, it is important to note that there are certain drawbacks when it comes to the initiation of international sanctions. Firstly, comprehensive sanctions can harm the civilian population of the target country a lot more than they harm the regime. The use of ‘smart’ or targeted sanctions is proposed as a solution to this problem. Targeted sanctions aim at harming the ruling elites of the target state with measures such as visa bans, asset freezes, oil and arms embargos, etc. The practice of targeting the used measures has been endorsed in a number of occasions. Recent cases include EU’ and US’s sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian citizens and EU’s sanctions against the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria in response to the Arab uprising. Nevertheless, there is no consensus on the question of the effectiveness of ‘smart’ sanctions in comparison to comprehensive sanctions and most scholars seem to agree that sanctions, in general, are not an effective tool for bringing about political change.
Nevertheless, sanctions are becoming increasingly popular after the end of the Cold War. The reasons for this are manifold. Firstly, sanctions are a non-military and therefore a non-violent foreign policy instrument, which makes them in many cases the preferred option (if the other alternatives are to physically intervene in a third state or do nothing in the face of a security threat). The sanctions, currently imposed by the EU and US on certain Ukrainian and Russian citizens in response to the Crimea crisis, clearly illustrate this point. Secondly, sanctions are less costly that a military intervention but, at the same time, are still a coercive instrument. Thirdly, even though sanctions clearly aim at inducing political change in the target country, which would imply that the sender gets involved in what are arguably internal affairs, the erosion of the sovereignty principle after the Cold War allows for the increased use of this instrument. Finally, even though sanctions might not succeed in bringing about the desired political change they still force the leaders of the target state to factor in the cost of international sanctions in their calculations when deciding on future policies. In addition, once imposed, (the lifting of the) international sanctions can be used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the target state. In fact, Drezner uses precisely the last two arguments in order to explain why the US should impose sanctions on Russia in response to the Crimea situation, even though the measures will most likely not be effective.
In conclusion, despite the limited effectiveness of international sanctions as a foreign policy instrument, they will continue to be an important and popular tool when addressing a number of both interstate and intrastate problems.
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