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Working Paper

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How do we determine whether international economic sanctions are “successful”? So far, the sanctions literature has held closely to the answer that they believe policymakers would give: they are successful insofar as they compel the target of sanctions to comply with the senders’ stated demands. Yet in their haste to provide policy advice on whether sanctions work, scholars have neglected two critical points. First, even if the benchmark is "compliance", the assessment of sanctions’ success rate has proceeded without the development of a robust methodology for doing so. The subfield exhibits a "reverse" development where methodological considerations are only debated after the success rate. Secondly, the fixation on compliance neglects ample evidence that sanctions are intended to secure many other goals unrelated to the target’s behaviour, both domestically in the sender-states, and internationally. It makes no sense to evaluate these latter goals by reference to the target’s compliance. This paper provides a critical overview of these shortcomings, then specifies a broad range of target-related, sender-related, and system-related goals that are sought through the use of sanctions, briefly suggesting ways in which an interpretive methodology might be developed to properly evaluate “success”. It emphasises the need for critical reflection on the findings. Rather than being used to salvage the case for sanctions being "successful", success in sender- and system-related goals but failure in target-related ones is a cause for ethical concern, not celebration.


sanctions, international economics


Political Science | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration

Research Areas

Political Science



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University of London Queen Mary

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Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.