Editor’s note: a more detailed version of this post previously appeared on my personal blog.

If sanctions are to succeed as a tool of coercive diplomacy, they must impose real costs on the target. Yet, in most cases, they fail to do this—at least, directly. TYellow rubber duckhe economic costs tend to fall disproportionately on the average person, while the regime and its elite supports often find ways to benefit from newly emergent black markets. But might sanctions put pressure on the regime through some other channel? Say, by increasing protests?

There have been many attempts at answer this question, all of which have been plagued by serious measurement issues. The recent release of new data both on sanctions and protests allows for a more convincing analysis, which Julia Grauvogel, Amanda Licht, and Christian von Soest provide in this paper.


One big problem any study of the impact of sanctions must deal with is that of strategic interaction. When an episode ends at the threat state, we don’t get to observe what would have happened if sanctions had been imposed. So if we don’t look at what effect threats themselves have, we’re not getting the full story.

GLvS thus look separately at the impact of new threats and new impositions on protest activity. They also allow for the possibility that certain types of threats (impositions) might have a bigger effect. Under the assumption that the primary channel through which sanctions increase protests is through signaling that the international community shares (some of) the goals of the protesters, they check to see if it matters whether the sanctioners specifically targeted the human rights practices of the target regime, whether the sanctions are narrowly targeted at the regime and its supporters, and whether they are multilateral in nature.

Somewhat surprisingly, the authors find that none of that seems to matter. We of course need to be careful, because the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, but it appears that context isn’t too important. However, they do find, as expected, that threats are associated with an increase in protests, whereas the actual imposition of sanctions is not.