What Future for Unilateral Sanctions?

In international relations, unilateral sanctions are the imposition of social or material costs in response to (perceived) wrongdoing. They are adopted by states pursuant to their own national or executive powers, or by an organization against non-member states. These policy tools are based on a rational-choice approach to state behaviour, which views state decision-makers as rational actors motivated by maximising their interests. The rationale behind sanctions is that they change behaviour by manipulating the target’s (the state subjected to sanctions) cost-benefit analysis and thereby persuade it to choose the less costly alternative.

However, it is often acknowledged that sanctions are ineffective at changing behaviour. To make up for this, it is then said that they serve multiple purposes. For instance, they can deter or constrain behaviour, and they have an important symbolic function. As sanctions are generally justified in normative terms, they signal commitment to international norms. For this reason, despite their lack of success in changing behaviour they are seen as an important enforcement tool in international law.

Current events suggest that sanctions are not going anywhere, particularly while the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) are enthusiastic wielders of this instrument. This is made evident by the ‘unprecedented’ sanctions regime against Russia (one of many examples), which they justify as a mean to defend ‘the rules-based international order’. From their perspective, unilateral sanctions are an appropriate foreign policy tool to uphold international norms and values. However, these measures’ long-term impact could have important structural consequences on the distribution of power between states and on the US and EU’s ability to impose unilateral sanctions. This brief commentary discusses these potential trends by first considering how targets react to unilateral sanctions and then the position of third states.

Richard Nephew aptly describes sanctions as psychological tools: through the infliction of pain on a target’s inflection points, their purpose is to weaken a state’s resolve. Yet, they are designed with a poor understanding of the target’s psychology. ‘Costs’ are not the only variable that shapes behaviour. More often than not, state behaviour is influenced by inter-state interactions and perceptions of others’ intentions. For this reason, the rational-choice approach does not aptly capture how states respond to sanctions, and a sociological approach can provide a more complete picture. Such an approach would consider social interactions between states and how they influence decision-making. How an actor defines itself, positions itself in the world, and interprets its interactions with others are significant. For example, Russian leaders view their state as a ‘Great Power’ and perceive the sanctions as economic warfare, adopted to weaken Russia and make it suffer. Under this light, Russian leadership may consider it would be much more ‘costly’ to give into the measures than to suffer their consequences. Sanctioned states generally demonstrate their resilience and willingness to adapt to the costs imposed rather than give in to the senders’ pressure.