Making Sanctions Toothless: How Authoritarian Regimes Survive Under International Pressure

In recent decades, economic sanctions have become one of the most widely used methods of persuasion in international relations. In some cases, the goal has been to extract strategic concessions from target nations, as demonstrated in the case of the latest negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. In other cases, sanctions are enacted in response to internal human rights abuses conducted by authoritarian governments. In their recent study, “Claims to Legitimacy Matter: Why Sanctions Fail to Instigate Democratization in Authoritarian Regimes,” Julia Grauvogel and Christian von Soest examine the latter trend.

Sanctions are generally presented in the public sphere as an intermediary step on the spectrum of possible actions to achieve concessions. Often, the discourse surrounding such a decision focuses on whether the severity of sanctions is legitimate in the face of alleged abuses. Grauvogel and von Soest, however, approach the subject through an analysis of the effectiveness of sanctions as a specific tactic. Through a fuzzy set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (fsQCA), the researchers seek to identify the conditions that will determine the success or failure of a specific sanctions regime in a given context.

In examining 120 cases in which sanctions have been used against authoritarian regimes, Grauvogel and von Soest identify and test a number of potential factors in determining the degree to which such interventions are effective. These variables include both domestic factors—a regime’s claims to legitimacy, its use of repression, and the economic vulnerability of the target nation—and international contexts—the extent to which sanction “senders” and “targets” are linked, the target state’s economic vulnerability, and the comprehensiveness of sanctions.

Of these, the researchers acknowledge internal characteristics, such as the use of repression and claims to legitimacy, as being particularly difficult to measure. Using a number of governmental and international databases, the authors attempt to align these variables on a spectrum, distinguishing between “hard” and “soft” repression and “strong” and “weak” claims to legitimacy. Additionally, they note that their conception of democracy and authoritarianism is not a binary division, but accounts for processes of relative democratization.

The results of analysis support the notion that regime legitimacy plays a crucial role in the persistence of authoritarian regimes despite the imposition of sanctions. High levels of legitimacy allow for continued control using relatively low levels of repression, such as censorship of opposition voices, as opposed to violent political suppression. In addition, governments with strong legitimacy are more likely to withstand sanctions from a sender with whom they have a low degree of socioeconomic connection. The authors suggest this is due to a “rally-around-the-flag” mentality that is more easily produced when the sender can be demonized in the eyes of the target population. This effect is also cited as an explanation for the low success rate of comprehensive sanctions when compared to more targeted sanctions, given high regime legitimacy.

Economic sanctions have become a widely accepted method by which a state or group of states may exert pressure without having to bear the costs of other measures, such as the use of military force. But while sanctions may be presented as a more convenient or humane form of action, their effectiveness must also be taken into account. The findings of this study provide a contribution to this discussion and also highlight a path for further research. While the authors demonstrate the importance of regime legitimacy in the survival of authoritarianism, they also point out the extreme difficulties in measuring such a variable. Policy discussions would greatly benefit from a further examination of the nature of legitimacy and its effects.

Feature Photo: cc/(Trey Ratcliff)'
David Helfand
David Helfand is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in foreign affairs and Middle East issues. He has also been published in Palestine-Israel Journal.

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