A while ago I did a gag about how the Washington Post had a sad, having discovered that economic sanctions have done little to endear America or its government to the majority of Russian people.
Now the New York Times haz a sad too, having just published an article entitled “Why Russians Hate America. Again.”
I can only presume that they expected to be greeted as liberators.
Of course, there’s a serious point to this: sanctions don’t work. The idea is that the people of the sanctioned countries should think to themselves “Hmmm. The free world disapproves of our leaders’ decisions. Clearly we should get rid of them.” You know, like when your parents tell you not to see that particular boy with the tattoos and the motorbike and you immediately break off all contact with him because you know that mummy and daddy only have your best interests at heart? Like that.
So why bother with them? Well, they’re an excellent form of virtue signalling, can be used to reinforce international norms and a good placebo policy when public opinion demands that something be done but you can’t face the hassle of actually doing it.
This begins to break down, however, when:
a) The target is clearly not just embracing but rejoicing in its role as the villain of the piece and,
b) A large part of your audience doesn’t buy into either your own moral authority or the norms that you’re trying to enforce, or both, as is the case here, where pretty much the entire world outside of Europe and the US does not give two hoots about the Crimea.
Will economic sanctions continue to be a thing as we move towards a multipolar international system? Almost certainly: the fact that they don’t work hasn’t stopped them from being used widely up until now, largely thanks to the other advantages that they present, as mentioned above. However, it is likely that the way in which they are deployed will change. If you risk being laughed out of court by your targets, then states are going to have to be much more careful about how they frame their sanctions, and the results that they admit to wanting to achieve. Sanctions applied for in retalliation for some slight or perceived slight will remain a valid option; sanctions imposed for a moral or legal purpose will be much less plausible.