Social Capital and the Success of Economic Sanctions

By Jaeyoung Hur, Sanghoon Park, Hanna Kim, and Taehee Whang in International Relations Economic Sanctions Social Capitals

November 30, 2020


What determines the success of economic sanctions? Although numerous studies explore the formal institutional characteristics of sanctioned countries and their effects on sanction effectiveness, few examine informal social institutions such as trust, membership, or, more broadly, social capital. Using the latest Threat and Imposition of Economic Sanctions data and cross-national World Values Survey data, this study examines how trust and social capital in sanctioned countries affect the target governments’ ability to endure the costs of economic sanctions. The findings support our theory that sanctions are less likely to be effective when imposed on countries with high trust, membership, and confidence in political institutions.


Economic Sanctions and Social Capitals

Assuming sanctions are in place, we argue that social capital measured by the dimensions of trust, membership, and confidence in political institutions affects how the leaders of sanctioned countries react to sanctions. In this study we develop how social capital can generate opposition effects and rally effects among the populace of sanctioned countries and demonstrate that they potentially influence whether sanctions succeed.

Opposition Effect

From the perspective of the targeted state’s society, sanctions are a tariff, even if they are imposed for reasons unrelated to trade, such as in response to the development of weapons of mass destruction and it is reasonable to expect the targeted society will hold its leader accountable for policies that generate these sanctions.

In this study we maintain that social capital supplements the gaps in the theoretical arguments concerning winning coalitions, encouraging people to collaborate and mobilize to demand policy concessions from their leader. Facing the mobilization, the leader should feel the pressure when he keeps fighting against economic sanctions. In other words, such mobilization provides an opposition effect, which makes the leader more likely to reverse his policies and comply with sanctions. Sanctions are more likely to be successful when social capital is higher as the increased social capital enables more effective collective action. This study develops the following hypothesis from this argument:

H1. Opposition Effect: As the level of social capital increases, the likelihood of sanction success increases.

Rally Effect

In this opposing scenario, strong internal ties in the sanctioned country prompt the populace to rally around its leaders. As with the opposition effect, the public bears most of the onus of sanctions and does not criticize the government’s policy because social capital creates conditions that support the leader’s decision to defy sanctions. For many cases of sanctions, it is also possible that social capital creates an environment in which the leader can employ social capital for personal political purposes. The leader dominates resources, controls information, and blames outside intervention by framing the sanctioned country as a victim of international conflicts.3 The populace consequently views sanctions as foreign interference and finds no need to revolt against them. The leader thus has an incentive to use high social capital as a tool to create a rally effect through which people are inspired to support resistance to sanctions and the sanctioned government continues its controversial policy. High degrees of social capital in a sanctioned country can be a double-edged sword in this regard.

In sum, there are two reinforcing effects that lead to the condition that is favorable to the leader of the sanctioned country. While social capital can spontaneously generate support to an extent, the leader can also manipulate the sources of information that create support. Thus, there are two kinds of rally effects–one spontaneous and another contrived. In reality, it is not easy to differentiate between the actions that create social capital, appeal to social capital, and suppress the opposition effect. However, in this study we note that they work in the same direction that hinders the success of sanctions.

H2. Rally Effect: As the level of social capital increases, the likelihood of sanction success decreases.

Fig 1. Offsetting effects of social capital on the likelihood sanctions are successful


Model 1 Model 2 Model 3
Trust -0.023+ (0.013)
Membership: Political Party -0.027 (0.029)
Membership: Prof.Association -0.034 (0.033)
Contig -2.689+ (1.566) -1.647 (2.122) -1.586 (2.117)
Distance 1.546+ (0.911) 0.905 (1.243) 0.881 (1.238)
lnGDPpc -0.071 (0.363) 0.453 (0.414) 0.434 (0.430)
Salience 0.885+ (0.455) 1.319* (0.514) 1.385* (0.547)
Alliance 0.767+ (0.424) 0.205 (0.588) 0.444 (0.525)
Target Democracy -1.328 (1.042) -1.315 (1.025) -1.237 (1.007)
Num.Obs. 116 94 94
AIC 115.0 87.3 87.3
BIC 137.1 107.6 107.6
Log.Lik. -49.521 -35.633 -35.632

Note: ^^ + p < 0.1, * p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01 Tab 1. Effect of social capital (Trust and Memberships) on success of sanctions

Fig 2. Predicted probability of successful sanctions as a function of Trust

Fig 2. Predicted probability of successful sanctions as a function of Membership: Political party and Professional association

Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Confidence: Political party -0.018 (0.052)
Confidence: Government -0.015 (0.031)
Confidence: Parliament -0.021 (0.034)
Confidence: Courts -0.034 (0.028)
Contig -2.456 (1.521) -2.297 (1.432) -2.603 (1.597) -0.571 (2.539)
Distance 1.434 (0.886) 1.365+ (0.828) 1.526 (0.938) 0.297 (1.495)
lnGDPpc -0.144 (0.433) -0.150 (0.392) -0.223 (0.439) -0.511 (0.737)
Salience 0.323 (0.522) 0.577 (0.654) 0.637 (0.439) 1.093+ (0.638)
Alliance 0.830 (0.581) 0.785 (0.524) 0.877+ (0.522) 0.803 (0.786)
Target Democracy -1.431 (1.428) -2.732+ (1.628) -1.753 (1.368) -0.685 (1.552)
Num.Obs. 76 68 102 65
AIC 89.3 80.9 112.3 74.0
BIC 108.0 98.7 133.3 91.4
Log.Lik. -36.656 -32.456 -48.149 -29.009

Note: ^^ + p < 0.1, * p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01

Tab 2. Effect of social capital (Confidence) on success of sanctions

Fig 4. Predicted probability of successful sanctions as a function of Confidence: Political party, government, parliaments, and courts.


This empirical study has illustrated that the influence of social capital can exert two unifying but contradictory effects on the success of economic sanctions. The opposition effect posits that sanctions are likely to be more successful as social capital increases, whereas the rally effect contends that sanctions are less likely to be successful as social capital increases.

  • After adding control variables and evaluating hypotheses using probit analysis with robust standard errors, we found that the empirical data supports the Rally Effect Hypothesis over the Opposition Effect Hypothesis.

  • As the degree of social capital increases in a sanctioned country, the likelihood of successful sanctions declines significantly.

Our findings imply that comprehensive sanctions aimed at the populace will not engender immediate opposition against its leader, as conventional wisdom suggests.

Posted on:
November 30, 2020
5 minute read, 1051 words
International Relations Economic Sanctions Social Capitals
See Also: