Political scientist wins grant to study effectiveness of economic sanctions

Political scientist wins grant to study effectiveness of economic sanctions

Rice News staff

With the frequent talk in the U.S. of imposing economic sanctions — on countries from Iran to Sudan to Zimbabwe — it would seem to make sense to understand their effectiveness. Rice’s Clifton Morgan, the Albert Thomas Professor of Political Science, received a grant from the National Science Foundation that will allow him to study every case of economic sanctions around the world for the last 65 years to see if the sanctions had their desired effect.


The NSF grant will fund a collaborative effort with Rice alum Navin Bapat ’01, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Morgan and Bapat are interested in both the use and the threat of sanctions. “The focus on only the use of sanctions underestimates effectiveness,” Morgan said. He calculated that economic sanctions are effective in less than one-third of the cases when they are actually employed. However, that figure could rise to 40 or even 50 percent when the threat of sanctions is included in the equation.

Factoring in the threat of sanctions is crucial to understanding what works on an international level, Morgan said. Targets of sanctions threats can anticipate the costs of sanctions and, if they would change their behavior because of those costs, they can change their behavior before sanctions are imposed. Moreover, it is inaccurate to call sanctions ineffective when the sender — the party imposing sanctions — does not get everything it demands, he explained. People may go to a car dealer wishing to purchase a vehicle for zero dollars; the fact that they end up paying some portion of the seller’s asking price doesn’t mean they have failed. “You don’t want to hold sanctions to an unreasonable standard of perfection,” Morgan said.

Morgan’s project will build on previous research that resulted in the creation of a data set containing 888 cases of sanctions between 1971 and 2000. This data set’s temporal domain is too short to permit adequate tests of several theoretically important questions. For example, Morgan explained, the time span is too short to investigate the changes in sanctions usage over time, and the fact that many major cases of sanctions last longer than 30 years illustrates a shortcoming in the data for studying sanctions duration.

With the NSF grant, Morgan and Bapat plan to extend the data back to 1945 and forward to 2010. The data will then be used to test hypotheses on the duration of sanctions, how the pattern of sanctions usage has changed over time and what has influenced these changes, and how the ability of specific states to use sanctions has changed over time.

Tracing the trajectory of a sanctions regime sometimes requires the expanded time frame. U.S. efforts to change Cuban behavior (and the Cuban government) have gone on for almost five decades. While some critics have used that example to argue against the use of economic sanctions, Morgan said such cases are prominent precisely because they are difficult to resolve. Other cases of sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, may have been successful without reaching the longevity and notoriety of the U.S.-Cuban dispute.

Because economic sanctions are a political tool, policymakers have tended to support them when the targets fit their political point of view. For instance, some of the opponents of economic sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa now favor economic sanctions on Iran, and vice versa. Morgan said his intent is to present the facts on sanctions without the partisan overlay. “We want to get our analyses of sanctions out of the realm of rhetoric,” he said, “and into the realm of science, in which we draw upon systematically generated empirical data.”

Morgan said he expects the findings from analyzing the data to contribute to the theoretical understanding of sanctions processes, which can in turn inform policy debates; they will identify the conditions that affect sanctions’ success as well as highlight the threat strategies that are more likely to meet with success. The ability to anticipate the duration of sanctions will be particularly useful because it will allow policymakers to better anticipate the costs of their sanction strategies.

Moreover, since sanctions are often seen as a more palatable means of coercive diplomacy than is the use of military force, Morgan hopes the research can guide the development of foreign policies that are more effective and less lethal.

The NSF grant covers a three-year period. Morgan said he plans to publish his findings sometime after 2012.

About admin