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Playing to the Home Crowd? Symbolic Use of Economic Sanctions in the United States


  • Author’s notes: For comments and suggestions, I thank the editor, anonymous reviewers, Michael Colaresi, Mark Fey, Hein Goemans, Yoram Haftel, Jeremy Kedziora, Taesuk Lee, Quan Li, Elena McLean, Irfan Nooruddin, Shawn Ramirez, Kyoungwon Seo, Curt Signorino, and Randy Stone. Replication materials will be available at the ISQ website. All errors remain my own.


Why do we observe economic sanctions despite strong doubts regarding their effectiveness? While the symbolic use of sanctions is advanced as an alternative to the instrumental use explanation, no one has assessed this alternative explanation empirically. I investigate the symbolic use of sanctions for domestic political gain in the United States, assessing in particular the effect of sanctions imposition on US presidential approval ratings. Findings suggest that policymakers benefit from imposing sanctions through increased domestic support. This domestic political gain can present policymakers with an incentive to use sanctions as a low-cost way of displaying strong leadership during international conflicts.