Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The downside of shaming Russia

Why international sanctions don'€™t always work

March 30, 2014 7:00AM ET

Last week the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia. Western leaders said that this would put pressure on President Vladimir Putin to withdraw from Crimea; it also sent a strong signal about who Western leaders believed should be in charge.

The West has long believed that it could educate other countries to behave appropriately, and over the past 20 years we have witnessed a rise in the use of shaming to promote international norms through diplomatic pressure and sanctions. Human rights, free markets and representative democratic systems are now routinely invoked to justify international pressure to make states comply with shared norms and values. At the same time, norm-violating states are now routinely denounced as pariahs.

The problem is that sanctions do not always work. In fact, isolation and shaming may boost national pride and a country’s sense of cohesion, inadvertently helping support the regime in power. International sanctions can backfire, causing a country’s elites to band together in opposition, wearing the stigma as a badge of honor. Indeed, just days after U.S. and European sanctions were announced, Moscow imposed countersanctions on the U.S., and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle started bragging about being on the West’s most-wanted list. Vladislav Surkov, a close aide to Putin, said after the first round of sanctions that he considered the blacklist a “kind of political Oscar from America for best male supporting role.”

In some cases, such as South Africa in the 1990s, sanctions could be considered an effective strategy: Boycotts are widely thought to have contributed to the ending of South Africa’s apartheid laws. In other cases, such as present-day Iran, it may have merely helped entrench the power of the so-called enemy regimes, fortifying America’s “Great Satan” image inside Iran. Even when when it’s clearly in the country’s material interest to adhere to these imposed Western norms, as in the case of Cuba or Belarus, international shaming and sanctions often fail to work. Sometimes sanctions actually backfire and end up negatively affecting their instigators instead.

States of shame

The reason sanctions and international pressures don’t always work is that states that are unable or unwilling to conform to international norms interpret their status as deviants very differently. To understand why, we need to look at the role of national shame, pride or anger, in which continued norm violation makes sense. There are at least two ways that states cope with international sanctions and stigmatization: counterstigmatization and stigma acceptance.

Cuba is perhaps the most striking example of counterstigmatization. It has made a virtue out of being excluded from the Western­dominated international community by claiming that it is a different and better model of society. Beyond reacting with anger against the U.S. trade embargo, Cuban leaders have created a separate system of honor for the purpose of staying outside the discriminating identity system proposed by the United States. By aggressively stigmatizing Cuba, the U.S. has ultimately made itself the transgressive state in the eyes of the Cuban regime. States may be politically shunned and materially deprived, and their populations suffer, but their governments experience ideological victories through counterstigmatization. Other states such as Iran and North Korea — and perhaps Russia — show similar coping mechanisms.

The West can no longer count on the predominance of its perception of right and wrong.

A second option is stigma acceptance, wherein the sanctioned state identifies with the wider international society and apologizes for its transgressive conduct. This is when sanctions are successful. An archetypical example of stigma recognition is how Germany handled its Nazi past. After World War II, the country was shamed by the Western allies and the Soviet Union. This experience contributed to a domestic debate, and the country gradually accepted its guilt at home and abroad. Today Germany stands proud as a model of democracy and respect for human rights.

What works?

At least three factors are crucial to our understanding of how states cope with international shaming. First, there is the degree to which the norms that underpin sanctions are shared. If states do not share the norms underpinning their stigma — for example, when North Korea and the U.S. don’t see eye to eye on the merits of human rights — North Koreans are more likely to reject the norms and turn the sanctions into an emblem of honor. Indeed, nationalists pride themselves on standing up to foreign forces and safeguarding the pride and sovereignty of the North Korean people. Second, states that are very poor or conflict-ridden may have few choices when it comes to coping with sanctions. For instance, countries recovering from atrocities or civil war like Sierra Leone see the adoption of international norms as a requirement for their economic recovery program. Conversely, very powerful or rich states can easily feel they can ignore international shaming because of their resources.

Finally, and perhaps most important, international shaming is subject to domestic debate. “Are we ashamed?” “Have we been misunderstood?” “Should we resist?” These are questions that sanctioned states discuss domestically in the media and in public conversation. In some cases, however, political expression is restrained, limiting the possibility of self-reflective debates about national identity and shame. In President Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, for instance, a small elite considers how to deal with the international diplomacy of shame in relation to human rights violations. The possibility of such debate in Russia is also limited because of restrictions on media.

New world order

The patchy effectiveness of sanctions doesn’t mean that financial assets should never be frozen, that travel restrictions should never be put in place or that diplomatic ties should never be broken. What the record does suggest is that sanctions should be used wisely. Western politicians need to have a deep knowledge of the countries in question and ask themselves if the political elite or population aspires to share allegedly universal values in the first place. If not, sanctions and pressure may still be used, but if so, it often more a question of the West’s need to send a political signal that a global set of values, dominated by the West, still exists, rather than an attempt to influence the countries in question. For Western states, sanctions are also lessons through which they teach one another what international norms mean and how far they extend.

Attempts to generate shared norms for state behavior will become even more difficult. The values of the Western world — and of the U.S. in particular — dominated international relations in the past. They were the yardstick by which other countries were measured in the United Nations and other multilateral organizations. But now that countries, including China, India and Brazil, are beginning to play a more prominent role in the global world order, the West can no longer count on the predominance of its perception of right and wrong. If it does, its threats may fall on deaf ears.

Rebecca Adler-­Nissen is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Copenhagen. Her findings about shaming and sanctions were recently published in the article “Stigma management in international relations: Transgressive identities, norms and order in international society” in the scientific journal “International Organization.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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