Explaining Which International Organizations Can Best Contribute to the Success of Economic Sanctions

In his essay, Daniel Drezner shared some insights from his past research about how international organizations contribute to multilateral sanctioning efforts. Drezner argues that multilateral sanctions supported by international organizations are apt to be more successful than both unilateral sanctions and multilateral sanctions that lack organizational support. While Drezner’s original arguments weathered the test of time quite well, they offered few insights to policymakers about which types of international organizations could best contribute to making sanctioning efforts more successful. 

Building on Drezner’s original theory, my coauthor Robert Spice and I theorized that smaller-sized international organizations like the European Union (EU) should be far more effective at obtaining their members’ sanctions-related cooperation than large organizations like the United Nations (UN).  Drezner argues that international organizations offer critical support to multilateral sanctioning efforts by preventing member states from engaging in sanctions busting and from reneging on their sanctions obligations. We argue that large organizations lack the resources to effectively monitor, let alone prevent, their members from engaging in extensive trade-based sanctions busting. Similarly, large organizations also face difficulties in using side-payments to maintain the cooperation of states that can otherwise profit from sanctions busting. This explains, for example, why UN-backed sanctioning efforts against Libya and Iraq were routinely violated.

In contrast, we argue that smaller-sized organizations are better able to monitor the behavior of their members and maintain compliance for the sanctions they impose. There’s also likely to be a stronger consensus within smaller-sized international organizations about the need to impose sanctions against a target state. Both of these factors are likely to make the sanctions obligations imposed by smaller-sized international organizations more effective at preventing their members from sanctions busting than larger international organizations. For example, the sanctions against Iran really started taking a significant toll on the country’s economy when the EU began cooperating with U.S. sanctioning efforts. Prior to that, a number of EU countries had been actively sanctions busting on Iran’s behalf. Given that even a small number of sanctions busters can undermine the success of a sanctioning effort, having the support of international organizations that can actually prevent it from occurring should substantially contribute to the chances that sanctions succeed.

To test our theory, we examine the factors associated with whether or not third-party states engaged in trade-based sanctions busting on behalf of sanctioned states in 164 sanctions episodes from 1950-2002. We examine the roles played by the five international organizations that were most actively involved in imposing economic sanctions. These organizations include: the Arab League, EU, Organization of American States, Organization of African States, and the UN. Based upon the size of their memberships,[1] we categorized the Arab League and EU as smaller-sized organizations and the other three organizations as being larger-sized. We than analyzed how being a member of those specific organizations and whether those organizations imposed sanctions obligations upon their members affected third-party states’ likelihoods of engaging in trade-based sanctions busting.

What we found was quite striking. Despite being very different from one another along a range of different factors, the sanctions imposed by both the Arab League and European Union were very effective in preventing their members from engaging in sanctions busting. The impact for members of the EU was especially notable, as EU members were otherwise significantly more likely to become sanctions busters when the organization did not participate in sanctioning efforts. In contrast, none of the larger sized organizations appeared to be effective at preventing their members from sanctions busting when they imposed sanctions. The failure of UN sanctions to meaningfully constrain its members from sanctions busting is quite noteworthy, especially given the significant diplomatic investments required to get the UN involved in sanctioning efforts. Simply put, UN sanctions do not appear to be a deterrent for potential spoiler states.

If policymakers want to prevent sanctions busters from undermining their sanctioning efforts, our research suggests that gaining the support of smaller-sized international organizations is better than gaining the support of larger ones. Size does matter, but larger is not better. More specifically, our findings suggest that policymakers will be far better served by seeking the support of the EU as opposed to the UN if they want to make their sanctions more effective.


[1] The size of these organizations varied over time, but the EU and Arab League were consistently smaller than Organization of American States, Organization of African States, and the UN. See my article with Spice for more details.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Gary Clyde Hufbauer reviews some of the factors that can lead to a successful sanctions policy - or that can prevent sanctions from succeeding. Sanctions seldom achieve major objectives without the threat of force, but they often achieve minor ones. They work better against friends and worse against autocracies. Sanctions strategy is important too - it’s better to impose a severe regime immediately, rather than slowly ramping up. Coalitions are not terribly helpful. Even despite their weaknesses, sanctions aren’t going to disappear anytime soon: They’re just too useful, as they fill a void between talk and armed conflict.

Response Essays

  • Eric B. Lorber faults Gary Clyde Hufbauer for overlooking a key moment in sanctions history - the year 2005, when the United States began using its financial and technological prowess to isolate Iran and Russia. The new sanctions it deployed rely on third countries’ reluctance to abandon their economic and technological ties to the United States. No coalition building is necessary; faced with a choice between, say, Iran and the United States, others fall into line, because trade ties them more closely to the United States. That said, Lorber remains skeptical that sanctions, even of this new variety, can be effective at moving their targets toward the goals desired by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Indeed, they may simply hurt ordinary Iranians and Russians, while hardening resistance to American foreign policy objectives.

  • Daniel W. Drezner reviews the pros and cons of economic sanctions, with a focus on their hidden effects, including corruption. Although Drezner agrees that the simple alternative - “they work!” versus “they don’t work!” - is inadequate, he suggests that the present debate could benefit from still more nuance than is offered in Hufbauer’s lead essay. Drezner subdivides autocratic regimes into those that face a significant civilian constituency, and those that do not; he subdivides coalition-based sanctions into those that are under the aegis of an international organization, and those that are not; and he stresses the deadweight loss that comes with failing to reach a bargain in any case. He ends on a fairly damning note, observing that trade sanctions encourage black markets and organized crime. This suggests that perhaps the reputation of sanctions as a foreign policy tool has been too high in recent years.

  • Bryan Early discusses sanctions busters: Countries that profit from flouting international trade sanctions. His research shows that these countries commonly manage to frustrate American sanctions. States including Cuba and Iran have been the beneficiaries of sanctions busters. Sanctions busters make it significantly less likely that a sanctions policy will succeed and significantly more likely that it will be called off entirely.