Unilateral and Extraterritorial Sanctions Symposium: The Future of Sanctions

Unilateral and Extraterritorial Sanctions Symposium: The Future of Sanctions

[Elin Hellquist is a researcher in the Department of Political Science at Stockholm University.]

If you want to take the temperature on international relations (IR), study sanctions. Competing understandings of core IR-concepts such as sovereignty, power, legitimacy and justice are embodied in the politics of sanctions, classically described as an instrument ‘between words and wars’ (Staibano & Wallensteen 2005). Moreover, the empirical universe of sanctions is an excellent setting for exploring the relationship between material and ideational bases of action. Despite being such a rich IR laboratory, the dominant interest in mainstream scholarship has been to assess and debate the effectiveness of sanctions (a few examples are Pape 1997; Elliot 1998; Hovi, Huseby, Sprinz 2015; Bapat et al 2013; Peksen 2019). Whereas the question of ‘do sanctions work’ is of obvious interest, it has sometimes overshadowed logically preceding questions about the nature and meaning of the instrument in international relations. The handbook edited by Charlotte Beaucillon is different; refreshing in its truly interdisciplinary approach, impressive in its empirical breadth and incisive in its observations.

The following discussion focuses on Part I of the handbook, which is devoted to contemporary practices and developments. The seven chapters in this part do not only provide an excellent overview of the diversity of approaches to sanctions that currently exists, but also give enlightening flashbacks into formative historical sanctions episodes. In addition to the excellent thematic analysis by Erika Moret (chapter 2) on the trend of extraterritoriality, the reader is served innovative perspectives on long-established senders such as the European Union (Charlotte Beaucillon, chapter 7) and the US (Zachary Goldman and Alina Lindblom, chapter 8), as well as rare accounts on China (Congyan Cai, chapter 5), Russia (Ivan Timofeev, chapter 6), India (Rishika Chauhan, chapter 4), and South Africa (Hennie Strydom, chapter 3).

Together, these contributions offer an unusually rich and nuanced account of the different facets of sanctions in times of increasingly polarised international relations. Piece by piece, a picture emerges of a phenomenon that structures international interactions at both macro and micro levels. Certainly, sanctions have always shaped international relations beyond those formally involved, as both senders and targets routinely seek support for their stance. However, in recent years some (coalitions of) states have made sanctions the default answer to an ever-expanding range of norm violations. The expansion of extraterritorial/secondary sanctions as well as other institutionalised practices of alignment increasingly implicates countries, companies and individuals throughout the world with the sanctions of others, without them being either first-hand senders or expressed targets.

Whereas the main take-away of the chapters is empirical, the spiraling expansion and contestation over sanctions also has important implications for future theorization of the nature and meaning of sanctions. This commentary aims to inspire such further discussions, by engaging with four central propositions derived from the chapters. First out is the suggestion that unilateral sanctions are becoming the ‘new normal’. Thereafter follows the distinction that the chapters apply between multilateral and unilateral sanctions. The third proposition in focus is that rising powers are likely to become (more) active as senders of sanctions. The review concludes by zooming in on the claim that a third crisis of sanctions is underway.

Sanctions as ‘The New Normal’

In her introduction to the handbook, Charlotte Beaucillon asks whether unilateral and extraterritorial sanctions are “the new normal” (Introduction: 9). Judging from the vast span of unilateral sanctions, the answer would appear to be yes. An oft-quoted estimation holds that more than one third of the world’s population lives in a country targeted by unilateral sanctions (e.g. OHCHR 2015). The extraterritorial reach of sanctions, additionally, has made the price of neutrality vis-à-vis the sanctions of others too high for even sanctions skeptics to stomach (this would be a supplementary interpretation of India’s adaptation to US sanctions, cf. Rishika Chauhan, chapter 4). Hence, most countries around the world are in some way implicated in unilateral sanctions.

Yet, traditionally sanctions have been framed as extraordinary measures against extraordinary behaviour. That sanctions are measures that constitute a rupture with ‘customary’ or ‘normal’ interactions has long been recognised in leading scholarship (e.g. Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott 2009, 3; Baldwin 1985). Thus, typically, the target of sanctions is excluded from contexts and exchanges it previously had access to. As is well-known, this rupture takes on a variety of concrete forms, from the classical comprehensive and sectoral trade embargoes to measures typical of the contemporary era, such as deprived access to finance/banking, asset freezes and travel bans. The extensive, expansive, and increasingly detailed catalogues of unilateral sanctions do not only describe such ruptures with normality, but in doing so also depict normality itself. In that sense, sanctions characteristically communicate what is ‘normal’, by taking measures against what is ‘abnormal’. If it were not normal to trade, to invest in other countries, to hold assets abroad, or to travel across borders, rupture with such interaction could not possibly qualify as sanctions. This still holds, but at the same time the expansion of sanctions step by step establishes a new normality of restrictions that shape both macro- and micro levels of international interactions. This is a non-trivial development both for concerned actors and for the nature of the instrument itself.  

Much criticism of sanctions imposed by any other actor than the UN revolves around their (il)legality. The chapters appear to agree that unilateral sanctions, and even more so extraterritorial measures, lack explicit support in international law. Yet, the urgency of reacting to norm violations has repeatedly proven to beat such considerations. Hennie Strydom (chapter 3: 37) puts it well in the chapter on South Africa: “for the cohort of sanctions lobbyists, the political objective was so all-consuming that there was little, if any, concern for legal distinctions” between sanctions of different origins.

Although unilateral sanctions are not endorsed under international law, there is no obligation for a (coalition of) states to engage to the same extent with all other states in the world. This ought to be uncontroversial, given the propensity of, for example, selective trade agreements and visa unions around the globe. Relatedly, already at the turn of the millennium David Baldwin (1999, 100) reasoned about the impossibility of ‘doing nothing’ in reaction to norm violations: “What is usually implied by such phrases is that a country should do what it would have done had the problem at hand not arisen.” In other words, if you continue to play in the same way as before with a buddy that has grossly misbehaved, that is not a neutral act but could be seen as an encouragement. Shmuel Nili (2016) has reasoned in a similar direction, arguing that no special justification is needed for a state to reduce or cease (economic) interactions with norm violators in order to avoid complicity with their wrongdoings. Whereas this argument has potential bearing for unilateral sanctions, it can hardly be extended to secondary sanctions, that constrain the relational options of third countries.

The Neglected Who in Sanctions Scholarship

By building on the crucial difference between multilateral and unilateral sanctions, the handbook acknowledges that it matters who the sender of a sanction is. This may appear trivial, but it is highly welcome in a literature has tended to disregard the relational fundament of sanctions.

The handbook’s delineation of multilateral sanctions to UN sanctions also has the advantage of avoiding a common trap: reducing multilateralism to a matter of how many senders are behind the measure. As argued by Ruggie (1992, 567), “what is distinctive about multilateralism is not merely that it coordinates national policies in groups of three or more states […], but that it does so on the basis of certain principles of ordering relations among those states”. Thus, I agree that – for instance – the European Union’s CFSP sanctions are to be regarded as unilateral, as they one-sidedly – that is, without a contractual basis – impose punitive measures on third countries. As such, they would appear to lack what Ruggie calls the “qualitative dimension” of multilateralism (1992: 566), as collective action where a group seeks to reach solutions to their collective problems.  

However, next to UN sanctions and unilateral sanctions of (coalitions of) states, there is a third category of senders: regional organisations acting against their own members. Regional actors have become increasingly active as senders of sanctions after the end of the Cold War. Yet, they are only discussed en passant in the part of the book devoted to contemporary practices. Erika Moret (chapter 2: 24) categorises regional sanctions as unilateral, thus keeping with the book’s strict definition. Hennie Strydom’s chapter (chapter 3: 48) has a footnote with a quote where the UN Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures points out that regional sanctions “are not usually considered ‘unilateral’”, but none of the chapters elaborate an own take on the matter. This is unfortunate, since the unilateral label sits rather awkwardly with measures used by a group of states against a member of the own group. Instead, such in-group sanctions can be argued to have a similar qualitative multilateral underpinning as UN sanctions. Just as UN sanctions, regional sanctions result from a collective agreement that some types of behaviour are intolerable to the extent of justifying sanctions. What differs between the types of actors is – naturally – the scope of multilateralism, but both are versions of ‘in-group’ sanctions (see Hellquist 2021; Hellquist forthcoming in Portela and Charron 2022). The UN has a unique claim to universal multilateralism, but regional organisations can be argued to operate according to a regional multilateralism delineated to the community. In the case of the UN, sanctions refer to universal norms and the touched community amounts to all UN members. For regional organisations, sanctions refer to regional norms and the touched community amounts to all members of the organisation. In addition, as noted in Moret’s chapter (chapter 2: 19), the UN’s prima facie legitimacy advantage is threatened, as the world organisation is “criticized for failing to effectively coordinate appropriate responses to many of the world’s most pressing global security threats or breaches of international norms”. 

Rather than exploring how the type of relationship between sender and target shapes the way sanctions operate, the ‘who’ in sanctions scholarship has focused on impact. The dominating assumption has been that more senders produce more impact and – by extension – more effective sanctions (e.g. Martin 1994, 3-4). The chapters discussed in this review appear to adhere to this basic idea; at least they do not elaborate alternative views on effectiveness (Ivan Timofeev’s chapter 6 is a partial exception). According to Charlotte Beaucillon (chapter 7: 123; also Introduction: 4-5) “the effectiveness of international sanctions depends on their widespread application”,  “the objective of [‘multilateralization’] is to guarantee the effectiveness of unilateral sanctions”. Besides the question of whether sanctions are really multilateralised in a qualitative sense through extraterritorial application, a bigger concern is whether credible causal link exists between (a) the number of senders, (b) impact and (c) effectiveness. Notably, research on sanctions cooperation has yielded highly diverging results (see discussion in Bapat and Morgan 2009). In addition, classical comprehensive embargoes against cases such as Iraq, Haiti and Cuba, as well as mixed ongoing sanctions regimes against for instance Syria and Iran indicate that considerable impact (in terms of inflicted harm) may not lead into tangible political change. Inflicted harm is arguably only one step in a causal chain potentially leading to target change (see Jones 2010).

Sanctions, Power, and Symbols

A third message that can be derived from the chapters is that the propensity to use sanctions reflects how powerful a country is. True, sanctions tell us quite a bit about the prevailing power dynamics on the international scene, and prevailing power dynamics likewise tell us quite a bit about sanctions. In this respect, the evolving policies of China, Russia, South Africa and India are worth following. The chapters on these four countries all suggest that there are ambiguities in their positions to sanctions, pointing out that their tough rhetoric on unilateral sanctions does not preclude own similar action.  Furthermore, it is suggested that these countries may become more engaged in sanctions as they become more powerful. So, for instance, does Congyan Cai (chapter 5: 86) reason about the prospect that “as China raises as a world power, it will employ unilateral sanctions increasingly to pursue its state interest”.

I agree with the observation that unilateral sanctions reflect power asymmetries in international relations (e.g. Zachary Goldman and Alina Lindblom, chapter 8: 134), but it would be a shortcut to equate approaches to sanctions with material capabilities only. Given the central position of China in the world economy, it has plausibly been able to impose sanctions for quite some time (cf. Congyan Cai, chapter 5: 73), certainly more so than – for instance – some of the EU neighbours that join CFSP sanctions through alignment. Likewise, the suggestion that unilateral sanctions againstChina might become “less effective in changing China’s behaviour in the future” appears unsubstantiated both in view of the weak evidence that earlier sanctions have been effective, and in view of how countries with very modest “leverage” have e contrario managed to withstand comprehensive sanctions packages (Congyan Cai, chapter 5: 84). In sum, there is little reason to believe that the game of sanctions unfolds only – or even primarily – in the domain of material capabilities.

Rather, at the core of the nature of sanctions is their characteristic combination of symbolic disapproval with material harm (for a similar discussion see Alexandra Hofer, chapter 11: 198). As noted by Nossal in his classical International Organization article (1989: 305), sanctions are etymologically linked to what is “morally wrong”. Indeed, the deplorability of the target’s wrongdoing is often taken as sufficient justification for a decision to impose sanctions, regardless of the prospect of success. If symbolic distancing is an integral component of sanctions, publicly communicating them is not only expected, but could be considered a sound definitional criterium of what constitutes a sanction (as in Lindsay 1986: 154). Likewise, alignment with EU CFSP sanctions is effectuated through neighbours’ public declaration to follow EU decisions (Hellquist 2016).

In short, sanctions are by and large communicative acts, whose discursive disapproval goes hand in hand with concrete measures aimed at harming the target. If this holds, how are we then to make sense of a situation in which countries such as India and China use (allegedly) sanctions-like methods, “quietly” (Rishika Chauhan, chapter 4: 61), “without openly admitting as much” (Congyan Cai, chapter 5: 89)? If interactions with individual companies are altered for a limited period (Congyan Cai, chapter 5: 88) without it being publicly declared a sanction, is it then a ‘sanction’ in any conventional understanding of the term? Are they even imposed in “the pursuit of political objectives” (Lindsay 1986: 154), as would be anticipated from a sanction?

Presumably, actors’ varying inclination to impose, join or resist sanctions flows from a blend of material and ideational factors. So, for instance, can the systematic criticism of unilateral sanctions from a vast majority of the world’s states not be reduced to their collectively relatively weak position on the international scene. Instead, partly through this collective experience, these countries have developed a set of ideas about sovereignty, authority and rules of engagement at the international level. Even as the distribution of power changes, individual countries will long retain their memories from less privileged eras. Moreover, even among those powerful enough to impose sanctions, there is variation. As highlighted by Beaucillon (Introduction: 14; chapter 7: 112), the sanctions policies of the world’s two leading senders – the EU and the US – have rather different underpinnings.

A Third Crisis of Sanctions

Erica Moret’s (chapter 2) claim that the expansion of unilateral and extraterritorial sanctions is leading to a third crisis of contemporary sanctions wraps up well the combined insights of the chapters. In this normative traffic jam, Moret predicts that contestation over legitimacy and authority as well as practical consequences for private and public actors will further intensify in the years to come.

The instrument of sanctions has indeed repeatedly shed skin, illustratively mirroring prevailing political paradigms and normative trends, as well as technological advances. What is the role of scholars in this cycle of crisis and reform? Looking back at how the instrument of sanctions has evolved, the relationship between sanctions researchers and policymakers has sometimes been symbiotic. The invention of ‘targeted’ sanctions – also tendentiously labelled ‘smart’ – is a case in point. This concept was constructed by academics and policymakers jointly, during conferences sponsored by the Swedish, German and Swiss governments (see Biersteker et al 2015). That researchers aim at policy impact, and policymakers search to empirically validate their positions, is certainly not unique to the field of sanctions. Moreover, that research findings make their way outside of the academic world has an intuitive value. What is a potential concern is that the vast bulk of sanctions research internalises the sender’s perspective, seeing it as a task for scholars to contribute to “the art of tailoring international sanctions so as to best achieve their objectives” (Charlotte Beaucillon, Introduction: 4). Although the handbook is refreshingly critical when it comes to unilateralism and extraterritoriality, it still has a flavor of optimism as concerns the possibility to improve sanctions measures through design (“finer calibration”, Ivan Timofeev, chapter 6: 92) and/or legal scrutiny. To avoid collateral damage and grant targets of sanctions rights is certainly imperative from both a legal, political and ethical perspective. Nevertheless, sanctions’ notorious problems with effectiveness and legitimacy can hardly be resolved by modifying measures themselves. These issues are, rather, deeply inscribed in the relational asymmetries that sanctions emulate and reproduce. 

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