Chapter 8 Sanctions Leaders (Week 8)

8.1 Discussion questions

  • Escribà-Folch and Wright (2010): What is the main argument of this paper? What lessons can we learn from this paper (e.g. recall the unintended consequences of eroding democracy)? What counterarguments can you offer?

  • Alexseev and Hale (2020): How do the authors disentangle the ‘scapegoating’ and ‘rallying’ mechanisms?

  • Do sanctions increase the risk of militarized conflict? (*)

Russia denies it intends to invade Ukraine

8.2 Do sanctions destabilize authoritarian rulers?

Escribà-Folch and Wright (2010)’s answer is: it depends. They start from the two main mechanisms for autocrats to stay in power: repression and buying loyalty. Personalist regimes are particularly dependent on the loyalty-buying mechanism and the support of external revenues. So when they are hit with sanctions, they will have fewer resources to buy off supporters. Moreover, they have weak institutions to help they rule.

  • With weak military, resorting to repression will be a risky strategy.
  • With weak political institutions, they also cannot credibly buy off supports with future rents and policy concessions. In contrast, single-party regimes can mobilize support via political institutions: limited access to the decision-making process, policy concessions, and public good provision. Military regimes can simply resort to repression given the risks are much lower.

Their empirical tests mostly confirm these differences. However, one may have at least two concerns. First, military regimes appears to be less likely of experiencing leadership turnover under sanctions. This at least cause some internal tensions of their theory. And note that in footnote 42, a reviewer also points this out. Second, and relatedly, all sanctions are not equal. A country sanctioned by arms embargo, for instance, would react very differently than another under diplomatic sanctions.

8.3 Do sanctions backfire?

Alexseev and Hale (2020) starts from an empirical challenge: when we observe high popularity of sanctioned leaders, “it can be very hard to distinguish whether a leader’s enduring reign and popularity occur because of or despite sanctions.” Theoretically, this ties back to the sanctions backfire argument, which can be divided into two main mechanisms (“scapegoating” vs "rallying).

They offer a very clear way to tease out the two mechanisms. If the scapegoating mechanism works, then it will weaken the negative correlation between poor economy and leader popularity since it operates by shifting blames to sender states. If, in contrast, sanctions backfire via the rallying mechanism, then it operates by the in-group vs out-group rationale. As such, when people are primed with poor relations with sender states, they will be more supportive of their leaders.

They survey results suggest that: 1. sanctions only backfire for the better-off and 2. while sanctions may cost target leaders mass support, this negative impact is overwhelmed by the sanctions-trigger events. As a result, for regimes that are already enjoying robust and non-economic sources of support, sanctions most likely will not work since leaders can booster their domestic approval via rallying events.

8.4 Do sanctions increase the risk of conflict?

8.5 Additional resources

Containment Beyond the Cold War: How Washington Lost the Post-Soviet Peace

AUTOCRATIC REGIME DATA, by Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz.