Asking the question: Are sanctions enough?

The question


In February 2020, the International Bar Association (IBA) released a report entitled “Report on the Use of Targeted Sanctions to Protect Journalists.” It was drafted by Dr. Amal Clooney, a renowned lawyer and human rights activist. 


According to the Executive Summary of this 2020 report, “abuses of media freedom around the world are stifling speech and shredding the very fabric of democracies…annual reports on democracy record that media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade in open societies and authoritarian states alike. 


“Of all the indicators that go into defining a liberal democracy, freedom of expression and the media are the areas under the most severe attack by governments around the world.”


In its 2021 analysis, the international watchdog group Freedom Watch stated, “the impact of the long-term democratic decline has become increasingly global in nature, broad enough to be felt by those living under the cruelest dictatorships, as well as by citizens of long-standing democracies. Nearly 75% of the world’s population lived in a country that faced [democratic] deterioration last year.” 


In Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s government has been consistently rated one the lowest on Freedom Watch’s “Freedom in the World Report” for many years. The “report card” that Freedom Watch issues on a yearly basis is a one out of 100 score, based on political freedoms and civil rights, like free and fair elections and protection of dissent. 


Russia’s 2021 “score” was 20 out of 100. Other non-democratic nations have received similar scores—China received a score of 9, while Saudi Arabia was awarded a score of 7 out of 100. 


The Biden administration recently disclosed an Office for the Director of International intelligence (ODNI)  report on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, regarding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, confirming that the Saudi Government, specifically the Crown Prince Mohummad bin Salman, were directly responsible for Khashoggi’s death.


The Biden administration has issued sanctions and warnings to the Saudi government, but continues to participate economically and diplomatically with the Kingdom of Saud unabated. This manner of punishment on the world stage is common among resource-rich, diplomatic partners of the U.S. and other western democracies, and some experts wonder if this is sufficient to combat such violence and anti-democratic action. 


Several professors at Portland State weighed in on the issue of whether sanctions are enough to curb these assaults on democracy, and what the nature of their use means in a political context. 


The responses


From Professor Gerry Sussman, Ph.D., who bridges urban and international studies through a joint faculty position with the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning and the International and Global Studies Program:


“As I see it, there are many forms of sanctions, and they’ve been practiced for a long time, with varying levels of success. The sanctions used against Japan in 1940—oil and metals cutoffs—led to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War. The sanctions used against the apartheid regime in South Africa, on the other hand, were quite effective in bringing down that racist regime,” Sussman said. 


“Currently, the [United States] is using sanctions against many countries, some 30 countries in total, either the whole country or persons in those countries. For the most part, they do not seem to be working to force changes that the U.S. is seeking…It’s quite interesting how public officials decry the rebellion that took place on the Capitol in January, yet look the other way when US foreign policy is deliberately promoting rebellion in other countries, including those that have had democratic elections,” Sussman continued.


“If one believes in international law, then sanctions imposed without provocation, i.e., used as interventionist tools, are illegal. The U.N. Charter calls for respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and self-determination of all nations, which the U.S. in the postwar era has never respected. Saudi Arabia is a case of a brutal dictatorship, yet the U.S. supports it completely out of a sense of ‘national interest,’ without any real consideration of human rights. The same could be said about the human rights abuses in other allied states that the U.S. chooses to ignore.” 


From Professor Leopoldo Rodriguez, an associate professor at PSU affiliated with International Development Studies, Latin American Studies and the Economic Department:


“U.S. foreign policy responds to geopolitical interests, not to human rights or democratic principles. Sanctions come in many forms and vary greatly in intensity. Severe sanctions are often imposed on nations that do not conform to U.S. interests, such as Venezuela or Iran, while less democratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia literally get away with murder,” Rodriguez said. 


“So, [this is] the wrong question because sanctions never seek to stop authoritarian regimes. They are meant to prop up vital geopolitical interests around the world. A highly visible assassination took place under the directions of the Saudi prince and all that comes out of it is a minor slap on the wrist for his henchmen.”


“Such a response is basically a declaration that the Saudi government can continue to act with full impunity as far as the U.S. is concerned. I do not need to explain why Saudi Arabia is a key geopolitical asset for the U.S.,” Rodriguez said. 


From Shawn Smallman, a professor of International Studies with a Ph.D.: 


“This is an interesting question. While sanctions are an important tool, alone they are not enough to prevent the murder or kidnapping of dissidents. For example, many Russian dissidents and oligarchs have moved to Britain. In two cases—Litvinenko in 2006 and Sergei V. Skripal in 2018—dissidents were poisoned by Russian agents.”


“The British investigation was very thorough, and the guilt of particular Russian agents was clearly established. In the aftermath, Russian individuals were sanctioned, but this has not greatly changed Russian behavior,” Smallman said.  


“Similarly, after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea in Ukraine, Russia faced significant U.S. and EU sanctions. Such sanctions, however, cannot change behavior when a regime believes that its survival is threatened, or key national interests are at stake.”


“We have seen proof of this with the Navalny case. Sanctions do, however, raise the cost so that regimes are less likely to carry out such murders or actions. Sanctions are much more effective when done in concert with allies, and when accompanied by other tools of diplomacy,” Smallman said. 


Economic and otherwise, sanctions are often popular methods of punishing or holding responsible those countries that refuse to adhere to democratic norms. So, If the question “do sanctions work” is not the right one, what question is?