Peter Rudolf

Sanctions in International Relations

On the Current State of Research

SWP Research Paper 2007/RP 06, June 2007, 17 Pages

In the public debate, the use of sanctions seems to be viewed predominantly with scepticism. States, however, time and again seek refuge in these measures. But what can sanctions actually achieve? How do they work? What lessons can be learned from previous experiences? What more or less reliable, theoretically plausible and empirically sound knowledge about the working, the utility and the limitations of this foreign policy tool can the scholarly debate provide?


For some time, the scholarly debate has been less focused on the traditional question whether sanctions are effective. Research now rather seeks answers to the question under what conditions what type of sanctions levelled at what type of state are to be viewed in which regard as an effective foreign policy instrument. Although the imposition of sanctions can be suboptimal in outcome, it can be rational when compared with the potential benefits and the potential costs of other options.


It remains, though, a contentious issue in the scholarly literature how many of the numerous sanctions imposed time and again can be considered politically effective. A definitive judgement on this is difficult to arrive at because sanctions are usually one factor amongst many in a complex causal chain stretching over a longer period of time. A whole-sale judgement that deems them as generally ineffective is, however, by no means justified. Three key lessons can, with great caution, be learned from experiences thus far gained with the implementation of sanctions: firstly, merely the threat of sanctions can, if it is credible, be effective as it creates bargaining power; secondly, the demands need to be aimed at concrete political changes; thirdly, sanctions should be an instrument within a broad strategy combining incentives and punishments, a strategy that is embedded within a wider-ranging dialogue.

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