Why Sanctions Fail

08/13/2017 02:26 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2017

By Arie W. Kruglanski & Michele J. Gelfand

It’s been a busy week of sanctioning. In a matter of days, Congress imposed sanctions on Russia in a landslide vote, the administration slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s president, and the UN augmented sanctions against the rogue state of North Korea.

Sanctions are coercive means, short of military action, intended to bring the culprits to their knees and get them to mend their erring ways. From a purely rational perspective, they should produce results if actors are concerned about their economic outcomes. But surprisingly, available research on economic sanctions attests to their limited effectiveness at best. Hufbauer et al. in a landmark study claimed that the success rate in the examined cases was only 34 percent; a later reanalysis of the same data put the figure at a dismal 4 percent.

Whereas international sanctions imposed on Iran arguably brought it to the negotiating table and enabled the nuclear deal of 2015, other well-known sanctions produced little positive results, if not downright fiascos. Extensive sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan didn’t deter them from acquiring a nuclear capability, nor did sanctions against Russia prevent its aggression in Ukraine or the annexation of Crimea. Economic pressure by the U.S. in the 1970s did not convince Turkey to remove its troops from Cyprus, nor did the grain embargo imposed by Jimmy Carter or our boycotting of the Moscow Olympics dissuade the Soviets from their occupation of Afghanistan. The list of ineffective sanctions is long, and there are reasons to doubt that the current uptick of sanctions against North Korea will convince the Kim Jong Um regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The economics of sanctions, it seems, doesn’t help us understand when they will work and when they are doomed to fail. Economic calculations have lost sight of the fundamental psychology of sanction, failing to capture the human element.

To understand when sanctions will work, we need to turn to the science of motivation. First, sanctions can only succeed when the costs they exact from the target are greater than the perceived benefits derived from the sanctioned conduct. If the goal served by that conduct is of a greater magnitude of importance than the goal interfered with by the sanctions, and/or if the interference imposed on the latter goal is minor (i.e. that goal can still be attained though at greater effort) sanctions are unlikely to succeed. For instance, though boycotting of Olympics and a grain embargo may not have been pleasant to the Soviet Union, they were hardly devastating to its public image or to its economy. It, therefore, would be naïve to expect that they would prompt a reconsideration of its policies motivated, as it arguably was, by its lofty geopolitical goals of deterring US interference in the USSR’s ‘backyard’, gaining a strategic foothold in Southwest Asia and containing the radical Islamic revolution spreading from Iran.

Cost-benefit analyses are straightforward and eminently ‘rational.’ They are the least one can expect of a mature government that contemplates imposing sanctions on an adversary. But quantitative accounting isn’t all there is to the psychology of sanctions. In fact, it isn’t even the major facet of the issue. A much more intriguing, important, and pervasive factor, is the psychology of honor and significance that often drive the target states’ reactions to punitive moves by their detractors.

The quest for significance, honor, and mattering has been hailed as a major human motivation that universally governs social action. When it comes into play, no cost-benefit analysis applies, and quantitative considerations give way to motivational quality. Sanctioning, in short, is a direct affront to nations’ honor and significance, that has to be reciprocated immediately with retaliation, lest one seem weak and incompetent. Indeed, once the issue is defined as matter of significance and honor, no amount of economic pressure will override the target’s resistance, and in fact, it will surely backfire, as catering to money over honor is seen as reprehensible in honor cultures. Even with its back to the wall, the sanctioned party would “fight rather than switch” and utterly resist complying with the oppressor’s demands to prevent honor loss. In such cases, yielding would be seen as a disastrous humiliation, a significance-loss beyond recovery.

The anthropologist Scott Atran discussed in these terms the concept of ‘sacred values’ (often concerning one’s land, one’s religion, or one’s family) whose invocation vitiates any possibility of negotiation or compromise. “Dignity before bread,” so goes the Arab proverb, and thousands of ‘devoted actors’ enthusiastically volunteering to die for the ISIS cause, grimly illustrate this phenomenon better than the words can tell.

Issues of significance and honor, are highly relevant to nations ruled by autocratic dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. One does not need to be an expert psychoanalyst to realize that grandeur, glory, and an immense desire for significance consume both men to an outstanding degree. Insistence on sanctions in both cases is likely to challenge their honor, particularly given that they are done publicly on the world stage, thus pouring gasoline on their fire and escalating honor conflict even more.

The only way of dealing with such cases that has even the dimmest chance of success is to find honor preserving ways out of the morass through subtle diplomacy conducted in private, away from the public eye. Fiery statements, tough talk, and public shaming through exorbitant sanctions are sure to rebound and produce the least desired consequences.

In the case of North Korea in particular, time is running short, and the possibility of this nation going operationally nuclear is quickly advancing. Sanctions in this situation mean increasing, rather than decreasing, the likelihood of this ominous outcome. As the costs of an all-out war are unacceptably high, the only recourse is intense diplomacy now.

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