Nonviolent Sanctions and Incentives

Nonviolent Sanctions and Incentives

Cate Malek

Based on two longer essays (Sanctions and Incentives) written by Michael Shane Smith with Cate Malek for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess



Sanctions attempt to change an offending party's behavior by punishing them socially, economically, or politically, but not militarily. On the other hand, incentives reward another party for a change in behavior.


Anyone attempting to resolve a conflict without violence. Sanctions and incentives can be used to prevent anything from international war to a family dispute.



At the international level, sanctions include travel bans, arms embargoes and trade bans. At the interpersonal level, they include punishment of children (such as "grounding" or taking away a privilege), or in the organizational setting, it might mean a transfer, a demotion, or a change in assignments.  Sanctions are sometimes been effective, and are widely used. However, the use of sanctions is much more common than their success in changing behavior.

Shortfalls of Sanctions

Sanctions can have many unintended consequences. For example, the more harm sanctions have on their target, the more likely they are to influence the target's behavior. However, the human suffering caused by sanctions--particularly at the international level-- is often unacceptable. Additionally, sanctions may escalate a conflict by creating a hostile atmosphere. Often, targets would rather face a threat than be perceived as weak by giving in to a threat. Furthermore, when senders impose sanctions on a target, the target is much more likely to impose sanctions on the sender when given the chance. Finally, conflict is often caused by one party's political or economic insecurity. Sanctions further weaken the target further, often escalating conflict.  This is evident with the sanctions levied against both Iraq and Iran.  Those sanctions were crippling to both countries, though neither--as least as of May 2013-- bowed to the demands of the US or the UN to change their behavior.

Making Sanctions More Effective

Rather than simply dismissing sanctions as a destructive weapon of the strong, most analysts argue that they are viable, but imperfect, tools of foreign policy.  They are likely more effective at the interpersonal and organizational levels, but even there, positive incentives are often preferable.

Sanctions can be effective if:

  1. There is multilateral coordination. If the target is able to acquire sanctioned goods elsewhere, then the sanction is only symbolic and has little impact on the target.
  2. The targeted government faces domestic opposition. Domestic weaknesses lessen the ability for leaders to play the nationalist card, rallying support against external threats.
  3. Sanctions are combined with incentives.


Incentives are prizes, in a sense, for doing what is desired.  At the international level, they include economic rewards, security guarantees, or membership in an organization.  At the interpersonal level they might include more privileges, raises, better assignments, or any other desired reward. 

Incentives can be powerful tools and can alleviate some of the problems of sanctions. They can create an atmosphere of cooperation instead of hostility. They will not only influence the immediate behavior of the target, but can also enhance the willingness of the target to cooperate on future issues. Also, it is generally much easier to increase another's prosperity in return for a desired action, than to forcibly deprive them of something. Additionally, unlike sanctions, which require multilateral coordination, incentives can be unilateral. Finally, conflict largely arises out of unmet needs. Incentives help to meet those needs.

However, incentives do have significant liabilities as well. They are often associated with weakness or indecisiveness. Therefore, the reputation of a political leader may be damaged by offering incentives. Furthermore, the use of incentives may encourage attempts to blackmail the sender. Other parties may try to extract similar incentives from the sender or the target of the sanctions may devise strategies to obtain more incentives. Incentives can be used to reward evil. Countries like the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia) and China have rewarded despotic leaders to encourage them to support one side instead of the other.  Moreover, an incentive may inadvertently go to hard-line factions in the recipient nation, weakening reform movements. Imposing changes on a society, whose existing institutions or culture are unable to handle the proposed changes, may do more damage than good. Finally, incentives inevitably create invested interests internally. For instance, the US agricultural or defense industries benefit when the United States provides a country with grain or military assistance. These sectors may then protest future policy changes.

Incentives and Sanctions

There is a growing literature on combining incentives with implied sanctions, which underscores the "carrot" as opposed to the "stick" when seeking to influence change. Thus, undesirable behavior generates punishment, but favorable behavior merits a reward. Experts argue that this increases the chance of avoiding violent conflict and reaching a political goal.


At the international level, sanctions were used to try to prevent Iraq from developing or maintaining weapons of mass destruction after the first (1991) Iraq war; for pressuring South Africa to dismantle apartheid, and for preventing human rights abuses in many, many countries. Desmond Tutu does credit the sanctions for the nonviolent end of apartheid, and Iraq apparently did not have WMDs--though it is not clear that it was UN sanctions that can be credited with that fact.  Incentives have also been used for political aims: the U.S. promised funds to the Palestinians several times in an effort to get them to agree to a peace with Israel;  we have offered aid to many other countries if they would change their behavior in ways that met U.S. interests.  Many have; others have not.


In addition to being used as an alternative to violence at the international level, sanctions and incentives operate at the interpersonal level as well. For example, parents punish children who misbehave, and reward children who do well. Childrearing literature agrees with the international literature: successful discipline is based on a combined "carrot and stick" approach, although a predominance of rewards over punishments and "natural consequences" instead of arbitrary punishments are generally preferred.

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