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Punishing the violators? Arms embargoes and economic sanctions as tools of norm enforcement

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2019

Jennifer L. Erickson*
Department of Political Science, Boston College
*Corresponding author. Email:


The persistence and strength of international norms are thought to depend partly on the willingness of actors to punish their violation, but norm enforcement is often inconsistent. This article investigates states’ use of economic sanctions in order to gain insight into the role of metanorms (norms about enforcing norms) in international politics and explain this inconsistency. The quantitative analyses examine patterns of economic sanctions and arms embargo practices across different security norms and reveal two central findings. First, international metanorms may accommodate important interstate relationships. Although severe human rights abuse, conflict, nuclear weapons development, and support for terrorist organisations tend to attract sanctions, they are infrequent in comparison with norm violations. Valued relationships between senders and targets seem to be an accepted limit to the pursuit of costly norm enforcement. Second, norm violations nevertheless remain rare, suggesting that factors other than the prospect of material punishment may encourage compliance. Indeed, by preserving interstate relationships, international metanorms may facilitate the engagement needed for socialisation and social pressures as alternative compliance mechanisms.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2019 

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27 See Friman (ed.), The Politics of Leverage in International Relations for an overview.

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46 See below for information on data.

47 Of course, arms embargoes cannot control (and may increase markets for) illicit arms supplies.

48 T. Clifton Morgan, Navin A. Bapat, and Yoshiharu Kobayashi, Threat and Imposition of Sanctions Data 4.0 (2013)

49 Erickson, Jennifer L., ‘Stopping the legal flow of weapons: Compliance with arms embargoes, 1981–2004’, Journal of Peace Research, 50:2 (2013), pp. 159–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For studies of UN arms embargoes, see Charron, UN Sanctions and Conflict; Fruchart, Damien, Holtom, Paul, Wezeman, Siemon T., Strandow, Daniel, and Wallensteen, Peter, United Nations Arms Embargoes: Their Impact on Arms Flows and Target Behaviour (Solna/Uppsala: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute/Uppsala University, 2007)Google Scholar; Moore, Matthew, ‘Arming the embargoed: a supply-side understanding of arms embargo violations’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 54:4 (2010), pp. 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For EU arms embargoes, see Kreutz, ‘Hard Measures by a Soft Sower?’. For UN, EU, and US arms embargoes, see Brzoska, Michael, ‘Measuring the effectiveness of arms embargoes’, Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, 14:2 (2008), pp. 134CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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81 Researchers should avoid treating ordinal variables as continuous in an OLS regression, since the distances between categories are unknown and violate linear regression assumptions.

82 Meernik, James, Krueger, Eric L., and Poe, Steven C., ‘Testing models of U.S. foreign policy: Foreign aid during and after the Cold War’, Journal of Politics, 60:1 (1998), pp. 6385CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although information is arguably more instantly available in one dataset's most recent years, this is not the case with the full period covered, nor is it clear how it might systematically change government decision-making, if at all.

83 Since CLARIFY does not accommodate dyadic panel data, I use the Delta method to calculate the predicted probabilities of the main independent variables of interest.

84 Amnesty-coded human rights produce no substantively different results from the DOS variable.

85 Using the DOS list alone also produces positive and significant coefficients. Support for anti-terrorism treaties is insignificant, presumably because of the extremely high membership rates.

86 It becomes significant only with the removal of human rights from the model.

87 Removing oil production from the relevant models produces no significant changes for the human rights or interstate conflict coefficients.

88 The human rights analyses end at 2006, because the (non-lagged) human rights organisations variable ends at 2005. Excluding that variable, the human rights coefficients for 2007–10 are positive and significant.

89 Robert Kahn, ‘Have Sanctions Become the Swiss Army Knife of U.S. Foreign Policy?’, Council on Foreign Relations (24 July 2017), available at: {} accessed 4 January 2018; Jacob Lew, ‘Remarks on the Evolution of Sanctions and Lessons for the Future’, Carnegie Endowment Peace (30 March 2016), available at: {} accessed 4 January 2018; Richard Haass, ‘Sanctioning madness’, Foreign Affairs, 76:6 (1997), pp. 74–85; Adam Szubin, ‘Remarks’, Center for a New American Security (15 April 2016), available at: {} accessed 4 January 2018.

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92 See Escribà-Folch, Abel and Wright, Joseph, ‘Dealing with tyranny: International sanctions and the survival of authoritarian rulers’, International Studies Quarterly, 54 (2010), pp. 335–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McLean, Elena V. and Whang, Taehee, ‘Friends or foes? Major trading partners and the success of economic sanctions’, International Studies Quarterly, 54 (2010), pp. 427–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

93 Scholars typically count sanctions that change target behaviour in accordance with sender expectations as ‘successful’ (Cortright and Lopez, Smart Sanctions; Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Reconsidered). Of course, defining and measuring success may vary, based on senders’ goals and expectations and targets’ responses – without even considering how to establish causality. ‘Success’ can also be difficult to detect, because those states with stronger incentives to resolve their issues may do so before attracting sanctions (Drezner, The Sanctions Paradox; Miller, ‘The secret success of nonproliferation sanctions’). On defining and measuring sanctions success/effectiveness, see Baldwin, David, Economic Statecraft (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985)Google Scholar and Brzoska, ‘Measuring the effectiveness of arms embargoes’.

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96 ‘The punishment of Sisi Fuss’, Economist (10 June 2017), p. 49.