Quaker Universalist Voice

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Quaker Sanctions: How to Inflict Pain on Others to Change Their Behavior

A Book Review of Richard Nephew, The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field (2018)

Richard Nephew, The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field (2018) is a practitioner’s guide to applying pain through sanctions by the U.S. government to other countries in order to persuade them to change their behavior.  This sanctions process is global in scope and reflects universal cultural practice at both global and intimate levels in human experience.  This book is about the practice of the specific application of sanctions in current U.S. foreign policy.  The current U.S. visibility in use of sanctions does not mask the universal use of sanctions by other countries. Sanctions are also applied in all intimate communities.

Sanctions are currently defined as actions by one or more nations to restrict, penalize, or ban travel or a combination of financial and commercial transactions of other nations with the purpose to change those nations’ behavior domestically or in relations with other nations. Currently, sanctions include political (diplomatic), economic, military, and technological tools for inflicting pain on other nations.

The U.S. and other economically dominant nations have used sanctions throughout history.   Public attention to sanctions has increased in recent years, primarily due to the use of sanctions in place of otherwise more extensive military action.  This book focuses on the practical process of applying economic pain to Iran in relation to Iran’s nuclear program. 

As currently understood by national U.S. leaders and their employees, sanctions are among the coercive tools available to the U.S. for use in achieving U.S. foreign policy goals.  The practice of those sanctions has been mixed and erratic. The U.S. and the leaders of other nations are engaged in a learning process, including goal setting regarding sanctions.  U.S. Quakers are participants in that public learning process.

Sanctions are not new.  Sanctions have been applied throughout history with mixed and often unanticipated impacts. Humans are universally familiar and participants in the use of sanctions.  Quakers use sanctions in parenting children.  School leaders use sanctions in education. The law provides sanctions for managing social behavior.  Employers use sanctions in commercial organizations.

There is no currently known consideration of the U.S. as the future victim or target of the use of sanctions.  This myopicof U.S experience is similar to the unrecognized future domestic U.S. impact of current U.S. drone wars and U.S. social media interference in elections. Awareness of the future use of sanctions against the U.S. government should provide a caution on current U.S. behavior regarding sanctions.  What goes around, comes around.  The U.S. should lead in a global effort to structure and manage use of sanctions.

This book is written by a self-styled sanctions practitioner for future sanctions practitioners and provides a mental framework for considering whether, which, how, and when to apply sanctions as tools for implementation of U.S foreign policy.  The book provides the basis for a checklist for sanctions leaders and practitioners.  

The author argues from a position in the seat of current global power.  He argues for a trial and error approach of iterative, incremental design and application of sanctions aimed at clearly stated strategic U.S. foreign policy goals. The author sees sanctions as an art, not a formula.  He emphasizes the need for flexibility, adaptability, intuition, patience, and humility in the application of sanctions.  The author uses a distinctive, candid sanctions vocabulary of pain, tolerance, and suffering in the description and analysis of sanctions.

The author has little interest in the pain of sanctions for the people of victim countries, except for the added people-pain pressure generated toward leaders that their public constituencies’ pain provides.  He focuses on coercing national leaders to change their behavior.  The diffused and long-term harms to victim populations are of little interest.

The author seeks to present, like a drone pilot from afar, how to impose pain, how pain works, how to translate pain into practical action by the target nation, how pain is communicated and how to configure sanctions to fit and support a larger national strategy.  This requires flexibility, adaptability, and intuition focusing on how people in different cultures react to pressure and pain.  This is the non-lethal, but painful tool somewhere between the traditional carrot and stick of foreign policy implementation short of war.  Sanctions are worth Quaker attention.

Quakers: Where do Quakers stand on sanctions in their advocacy for the future? Quakers like sanctions better than military actions for the coercion of other nations to change their behavior.  But, Quakers like sanctions less than financial assistance, universal international consultation, and negotiated agreements with other nations to change their behavior.   Quakers deplore the negative effects of sanctions on populations, particularly the poor, but impliedly endorse sanctions as a lesser to the evils of war.

Quakers are relatively silent on sanctions policy in Congress (FCNL) and in public opinion advocacy (AFSC).  There are no known current Quaker efforts to consult among global Quakers regarding the merit and harm of U.S. sanctions policy.  There is no evident indication that Quakers generally are aware of the future use of sanctions.  There is  little current Quaker interest in the assessment of the success or failure of U.S. experience with sanctions.


  • How do Quakers speak of sanctions in their advocacy with governments?
  • Which Quaker institutions contribute to improving understanding of the benefits, costs and administration of sanctions in international relations?
  • Who are the Quaker leaders on the use of sanctions?
  • What forums are available for Quaker consultation on sanctions?


  • Richard Nephew, The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field (2018)
  • G. Hufbauer et.al., Economic Sanctions Reconsidered (3rd edition) (2009)
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