The overarching question imparting urgency to this exploration is: Can U.S.-Russian contention in cyberspace cause the two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war? In considering this question we were constantly reminded of recent comments by a prominent U.S. arms control expert: At least as dangerous as the risk of an actual cyberattack, he observed, is cyber operations’ “blurring of the line between peace and war.” Or, as Nye wrote, “in the cyber realm, the difference between a weapon and a non-weapon may come down to a single line of code, or simply the intent of a computer program’s user.”
Economic sanctions are a common policy tool for combating challenges in international security, often offered as a cheaper alternative to military force and a low-cost way of taking a strong public position. Many even argue that the threat alone can convince a target to comply without incurring the real costs of sanctions, making threats an efficient way to signal resolve. Sanction threats are therefore often used as the first policy choice against nuclear proliferation. But are these supposedly “cheap” threats an effective tool of statecraft, and are they actually inexpensive for the sanctioners that use them? This seminar evaluates sanction events from 1945-2012 and finds that threats of economic sanctions are particularly ineffective at combating security challenges like nuclear proliferation. Such failures can also have lasting counterproductive consequences. Sanctioners who fail to achieve their goals not only fail in the short term, but also damage their future credibility and undermine the effectiveness of their threats in subsequent disputes. As a result, “cheap” sanction threats may not be as inexpensive as previously assumed.