This week, the people of Crimea overwhelmingly voted to join Russia. They were jubilant, the Russian people were prideful, and Europe and the United States acted like it was the start of a World War. President Obama levied sanctions on President Vladimir Putin's friends, leading the Russian Deputy Prime Minster to ask if it was some sort of joke.

They are right to wonder. Sanctions often don't work anyway, and sanctions on 11 individuals are even less useful. Iraq had sanctions, for example, and plenty of countries were happy to help them violate them, including sending in everything needed to create weapons of mass destruction. If the sanctions had just been on Saddam Hussein's friends, they would have been even more pointless.

In the case of Russia, this geopolitical version of Naming And Shaming is instead getting a Soviet-era Slut Walk. Isolation and rhetoric are boosting national pride and sense of cohesion and supporting the government.  

“In the West, we have long believed that we could educate other countries to behave according to our norms, and during the past 20 years we have witnessed an increase in the use of ‘shaming’ in international politics. Western ideals about human rights and democracy are used to justify the use of international pressure to force other nations to adhere to our norms and values. However stigmatization and shaming often fail to work. Sometimes it actually backfires, and ends up affecting the instigator instead,” says University of Copenhagen associate professor Rebecca Adler-Nissen, who goes on to highlight that Cuba has made a virtue out of being excluded from Western-dominated international society for almost 60 years, by claiming that it must be a better model of society even while they drive cars from the 1950s and won't let the public own a computer.

Germany, Austria, Cuba, Iran, South Africa - have sanctions ever really worked when it mattered? 

“Western politicians should be more careful when using these political instruments, because they do not always work as intended. We need to have a deeper knowledge of the countries in question, and to ask ourselves if the elites aspire to share Western values in the first place. If not, sanctions and pressure may still be used, if so it is more a question of the us needing to send a signal that a global set of values, dominated by the West, still exists, rather than attempting to influence the countries in question,” Adler-Nissen says.

3 Things Can Happen

Adler-Nissen says three things are likely to happen: acceptance of the stigma, rejection of the stigma, and counter-stigmatization.

She uses the cases of Germany, Austria and Cuba to illustrate the three strategies. She explains that Germany is a country where sanctions and stigmatization had the intended effect - the second time anyway. After the Second World War, the country accepted its guilt, and Germany is today democracy and has respect for human rights. Sanctions and reparations had a much different effect on the country after World War I, they gave us Nazis overrunning Europe.

By contrast, Austrian political elites rejected suggestions that they had any part in the horrors of Nazism. Cuba, in the wake of its violent overthrow of the government, made a virtue of not giving into Western demands in spite of sanctions imposed by the United States, and continued killing anyone who got in the way of their Communist agenda.

“In the long term, knowledge about shame, pride and stigma may help us understand why diplomatic pressure on a country such as Iran has had limited effect, while it did influence the apartheid regime in South Africa to some extent,” says Rebecca Adler-Nissen. “Attempts to generate shared norms for state behavior will become even more difficult in the future. The values of the Western world – and of the United States in particular – dominated international relations in the past century, and they were the standards by which other countries were measured. But now that countries including China, India and Brazil are beginning to play a more prominent role in the global world order, the West can no longer count on the predominance of our perception of right and wrong.”

Citation:  Rebecca Adler-Nissen, 'Stigma Management in International Relations: Transgressive Identities, Norms, and Order in International Society', International Organization Volume 68 Issue 01 January 2014, pp 143 - 176 DOI: 10.1017/S002081831300033