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International sanctions as international punishment


  • Nossal, Kim Richard


Much of the contemporary literature on the utility of international sanctions approaches the apparent riddle of why sanctions are embraced so eagerly when they are supposedly such an “ineffective” tool of statecraft by focusing on the instrumental and rational purposes of sanctions. As a result, one purpose that does not always lend itself to a rational means-end calculus—the purpose of punishment—tends to be overlooked or, more commonly, dismissed outright. This article explores punishment as both a useful and an effective purpose of international sanctions. It argues not only that sanctions should be distinguished from other forms of hurtful statecraft but also that they are a form of “international punishment” for wrongdoing, despite the difficulties of applying the term “punishment” in the context of international relations. The article then examines the purposes of punishment and reveals that only some are understandable when a model of means-end rationality is used, suggesting that the element of the nonrational also plays an important role in international sanctions. The argument is then applied to the case of U.S. sanctions imposed after the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan to demonstrate the different purposes of punishment at work in this case. The article concludes that just as we cannot understand punishment as a purposive human activity solely by reference to a rational model of a means to a clearly delineated end, so too we cannot entirely understand sanctions as a form of international punishment by an attachment to a rational model of policy behavior. However, some forms of punishment are exceedingly effective, and this may explain why sanctions continue to be a popular instrument of statecraft.

Suggested Citation

  • Nossal, Kim Richard, 1989. "International sanctions as international punishment," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 43(02), pages 301-322, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:intorg:v:43:y:1989:i:02:p:301-322_03

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    Cited by:

    1. Daniel Verdier, 2009. "Sanctions as revelation regimes," Review of Economic Design, Springer;Society for Economic Design, vol. 13(3), pages 251-278, September.
    2. Denise Guthrie & Erick Duchesne, 2003. "(Mis)Selection Effects and Sovereignty Costs: An Alternative Measure of the Costs of Sanctions," University of Western Ontario, Economic Policy Research Institute Working Papers 20032, University of Western Ontario, Economic Policy Research Institute.

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