The Impact of Sanctions on the Domestic Response of Autocrats as Conditioned by Political and Economic Structures

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The use of economic sanctions has grown exponentially since the conclusion of the Cold War, and research on these policy tools has similarly proliferated. Although much of this scholarship is dedicated to evaluating the efficacy of sanctions, in recent years researchers have begun considering the consequences of sanctions for target states, and the international community more broadly, while also exploring how the characteristics of the target state influence the effects and outcomes of sanctions. Nevertheless, fundamental questions remain unanswered: How do sanctions impact a leader’s domestic policy choices? How do state structures condition the effects of sanctions? And how do sanctions influence the relationship between leaders and their populace? This project addresses these issues by examining how the economic and political structures that define a state shape how sanctions influence the domestic policy choices of autocratic regimes.I argue that a leader’s domestic constituency is multifaceted, and policies that might quiet certain subsets of the population will have little impact on other groups. Autocratic regimes select a matrix of policies best suited to coopt or suppress different sources of threat, thereby achieving a status quo. When sanctions target a primed audience, autocrats must adjust their policy matrix or risk either a coup or rebellion. The groups that are impacted by sanctions, how these groups respond, and how autocrats can best mitigate unrest is contingent on the types of sanctions imposed (targeted or comprehensive) and the economic and political structures that define the state.
My theoretical arguments produce two hypotheses and eight sub-hypotheses. The first hypothesis deals with how the political structure (measured by the regime’s Loyalty Norm) conditions the regime’s domestic policy response (Systemic Repression and/or Patronage) to threats resulting from the imposition of targeted and comprehensive sanctions. The second hypothesis addresses how a state’s economic structure, measured by the regime’s income source (earned or unearned), conditions the response (Public Goods and/or Patronage) to threats that arise from targeted and comprehensive sanctions. I explore the relationship between sanctions, state structures, and response using a reconstructed dataset that examines sanction imposition at the target-year level of analysis. The quantitative study supports five of my eight sub-hypotheses. Interestingly, the three sub-hypotheses that are not supported involve the use of Patronage, suggesting that there are issues with the definition and/or measures of Patronage I employed that bear further investigation. To further clarify the dynamics between sanction type, economic and political structures, and domestic response, I conduct two case studies that focus on the leader’s use of Patronage. The first case study evaluates the impact of US sanctions on Nicaragua during the 1980s. The second explores how sanctions influenced the Qadhafi regime’s domestic policies in Libya from 1978 - 1999.
Taken together, the quantitative and qualitative studies confirm that economic sanctions can and do disrupt the relationship between autocrats and the populace, leading the regime to reconstruct their domestic policy matrix. The state’s structures condition this dynamic, and economic structures can be as influential as political institutions in shaping policies. Finally, this study demonstrates that traditional conceptions of Patronage require further consideration and a regime’s use of Patronage is typically more nuanced than it is for repressive strategies. Conventional measures of Patronage, such as corruption and clientelism, as well as the boundary between Patronage and the provision of Public Goods deserve closer scrutiny.