What do Russia, Donald Sterling and Boko Haram have in common? At some point in the last few weeks, they’ve all been nominated as targets for sanctions.

Of course, the sanctions the NBA is considering for Clippers Owner Don Sterling are different than the ones government officials are mulling for Russia and the Nigerian terrorist group that abducted more than 200 schoolgirls. But they all share a common characteristic: mixed motivations – and uncertain outcomes. Are we actually trying to change the behaviors of Vladimir Putin, Sterling and Boko Haram – or simply trying to send a message that we condemn their behavior? Will sanctions save the Nigerian school girls from being sold as sex slaves – or are they designed to weaken Boko Haram or deter other groups from such actions? Or are the sanctions designed to express moral outrage at egregious behaviors about which we can’t simply stay silent and not act?  In other words, will sanctions in any of these cases “work” to alter or reform the target’s behavior…and is that even the point in all cases?

Sanctions have different purposes in different cases – and may even have multiple purposes in the same case. And so when we ask whether or not sanctions are going to be effective, we must first understand and identify the underlying motivations or aims for the situation at hand. Too often, we reflexively slap sanctions on people and places and ask experts whether or not they will be effective without thinking about the motivations and defining what we are trying to accomplish. But if we don’t have a clear understanding of why we’re imposing sanctions and what we are hoping that they will achieve, we can’t really assess their effectiveness.

In most cases, there is a simple desire for justice at the heart of sanctions. We view sanctions as a mechanism by which we can inflict punishment, deter problematic behaviors and mark certain activity as intolerable.  The desire to sanction is often rooted in the idea that staying silent and not taking action in the face of a certain injustice would be morally unacceptable.

When we ask whether or not sanctions are going to be effective, we must first understand and identify the underlying motivations or aims for the situation at hand.

Let’s say changing the target’s behavior isn’t the primary objective. In that case, imposing the most punitive sanction may be the most effective strategy. In the Sterling case, for example, the NBA is probably less concerned about reforming Don Sterling for future interactions with him than it is about making a statement that such behavior won’t be tolerated by the organization.

However, if you do, indeed, want to modify the behavior of a person or state, it doesn’t work to simply ramp up the costs until the sanctioned party breaks down. What happens if the individual or state is willing to endure increased costs? Or what if the costs are hurting others – like civilians– and not the actual decision maker?

Sanctions’ effectiveness ­– whether in trying to combat terrorism or prevent the construction of nuclear weapons – is by no means a perfect science. However, in the realm of international affairs, research suggests strategies that focus solely on ramping up the costs of economic sanctions tend to fail to change behaviors for a variety of reasons. Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner has described a “sanctions paradox,” arguing that states targeted with sanctions are often primed for failure because they already have higher expectations for future conflict and are therefore more concerned about the longer-term material and reputational losses of conceding to sanctions. As a result, the target is less likely to concede to demands because it fears this will make it lose leverage in future disputes with the state sanctioning it. Drezner’s argument could also apply to terrorist groups with a similar logic, but given that such groups generally have less overall resources available to them than a state, their behavior might be more impacted than states  through the imposition of greater sanctions costs. On the flip side, terrorist groups’ generally asymmetric tactics may allow them to still be operational and inflict harm with little resources, so while sanctions might slow operational tempo or modify strategy, it might not change the underlying drivers or truly coerce groups to radically and fundamentally change their behaviors over time. Other research on sanctions suggests that sanctions are less likely to be effective against autocracies, such as Iran, than against democracies. Under a dictatorship, there’s a more tenuous link between the population ­– which feels the costs of sanctions most directly – and the regime that has the ability to modify the state’s behavior. That’s why the US has moved towards more tailored and targeted sanctions strategies against specific businesses, individuals and those more directly linked to the country’s decision-making behavior.

We view sanctions as a mechanism by which we can inflict punishment, deter problematic behaviors and mark certain activity as intolerable.

The bottom line: imposing harsh costs may be effective for punishment or expressing moral outrage or deterring others in the future from adopting a certain behavior, but in many cases it may not be enough on its own to change the target’s behavior.

My research looks at the international realm and shows that to change states’ behavior towards desired outcomes you need to truly be willing to talk and engage even when imposing strong sanctions. There needs to be an understanding of the target and a willingness to engage in genuine and authentic diplomacy. In my research, I looked at more than 100 episodes in which the U.S. imposed sanctions on other countries. I found that diplomatic engagement makes sanctions more effective, whereas diplomatic disengagement has the reverse effect. I found that when the U.S. closes its embassy in a targeted country, for instance, the probability that sanctions will fail increases to 73 percent from 42 percent. That’s because engagement produces better intelligence on the targeted country and enhances communication channels. It improves the ability to convey demands, target the correct entities, monitor the impact of sanctions on the ground and calibrate policies over time. Diplomacy also provides a window into the regime’s decision-making processes, motives and vulnerabilities. Increased diplomatic interaction also helps clarify the nature of the demands on a sanctioned country and resolve ambiguity between the parties.

Unfortunately, even when sanctions are crafted perfectly and the US engages in adept diplomacy, success is not guaranteed.  Genuine and honest diplomacy is a two-way street. One party may ultimately continue to deceive the other or lack the self-awareness necessary to take responsibility or have an honest discussion about the disagreement. These pitfalls are not limited to states. Unfortunately, there will always be actors who persist with negative behaviors in light of costs and who evade honest attempts at diplomacy  – whether in business, sports, politics or personal affairs.

But even if sanctions don’t always completely achieve their official goals, it doesn’t mean that they’ve completely failed: Smart sanctions strategies may still produce a more desirable outcome than doing nothing at all, albeit sometimes an imperfect outcome. In addition, often a parallel effect of sanctions is to  help  define the realms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and strengthen international, cultural and social norms for the future.

About the Author

Tara Maller
Tara Maller is a research fellow in the International Security Program at the New America Foundation. She also currently serves as the Associate Director for Strategic Communications for the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute. She received her Ph.D. in political science at MIT, where her dissertation focused on sanctions. Previously, Maller worked as a military analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. Tara has appeared as a commentator on Bloomberg, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, Al Jazeera America and HuffPost Live. Follow her on Twitter @TaraMaller.