The Multilateralist

The real target of international sanctions

The real target of international sanctions

Guest post by Joseph O’Mahoney, a visiting lecturer in political science at Brown University.

In a recent post, David Bosco asked about the value of additional U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea. Sanctions are always presented as being about changing the target state’s behavior. But if that’s the test, sanctions don’t work especially well. Even the recently popular micro-targeted "smart sanctions" have generally not gotten results.

That doesn’t mean sanctions aren’t worthwhile. As David Baldwin has pointed out, foreign policy decisionmakers can use sanctions in multiple ways that have little to do with changing rogue state behavior. In fact, sanctions like those recently imposed on North Korea are unlikely to be aimed at their nominal target. North Korea is not really hurting any more than it was before. Instead, as Bosco pointed out, the real target of weak sanctions is often the international community.

When rules are broken and no costly enforcement action results, members of the international community may wonder whether the rules are changing. In the rough and tumble of international politics, it’s often hard to know which rules really matter and which ones don’t. As Michael Chwe has shown, public rituals like mostly symbolic sanctions can help coordinate collective expectations. 

In effect, these sanctions can reassure the members of the community that they all still value the rule, even though they have not taken costly action to enforce it. For example, symbolic sanctions were instrumental in promoting the incipient laws of war when their status was under threat in the interwar period. Laboratory experiments have also confirmed that cooperation significantly increases if participants jointly agree to mild, non-deterrent sanctions.

The new U.N. sanctions might not alter Pyongyang’s course, but they’re quite good at generating reassurance that the international community is on the same page.