Does the G-8’s suspension of Russia actually matter?

April 3, 2014

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin met during last year’s G-8 summit. (AP)

Felicity Vabulas is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

 On Monday March 24, 2014, seven of the world’s wealthiest industrialized democracies suspended Russia from the Group of Eight (G-8) for its whirlwind annexation of Crimea.  The G-8 arguably represented the world’s most exclusive club.  Its summits and supporting ministerial meetings have among other things dealt with macroeconomic management, international trade, energy, terrorism and development since 1998.  But what impact will the suspension of Russia by the G-7 countries—the United States, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy —actually have?

This question lies at the intersection of two trends in international politics.  First, states increasingly use informal intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) such as the G-8—which are not based on a formal treaty and have no permanent secretariat—rather than formal IGOs such as the United Nations—which are based on a binding commitment under international law and have a stable headquarters—to achieve multilateral collaboration and cooperation.  Second, states are increasingly using suspension as a tool to punish member states for violating their IGO commitments.  My research examines both trends. Here are four general findings that provide context and that may shed some light on the possible impact of Russia’s suspensions.

(1) Suspension from IGOs is rare

Based on a comprehensive examination, I found only about 100 occurrences of suspensions from the approximately 300 IGOs in existence since 1945.  About 55 percent of these suspensions occurred after political backsliding (adverse regime changes, coup d’états, undemocratic elections, human rights violations, government-sponsored violence, and government-invoked political states of emergency). A further 30 percent of suspensions have occurred because of financial arrears.

While the G-8 is not included in my set of formal IGOs, this suspension would be classified as “military intervention”, which is extremely rare.  Other examples of formal IGOs suspending states because of military intervention include the Organization of Islamic Conference suspending Afghanistan from 1980 – 1989 after the Soviet military intervention on Dec. 24, 1979, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe suspending Yugoslavia in 1992 for aggression against its neighbors.

This means two things.  First, we don’t have a lot of similar data points upon which to compare the G8’s suspension of Russia. Second, there are a lot of politics tied up in previous suspensions to make systematic comparisons even more difficult.  My research does show, however, that regional or club rather than “global” IGOs are more likely to suspend states (for example, the African Union, the Commonwealth, and the Economic Community of West African States are some of the most frequent suspenders) probably because of the closer level of shared understanding and the stronger impact of peer pressure.  Second, middle powers, rather than weak or strong powers, are most likely to get suspended probably because the IGO is reluctant to suspend the extremes: it relies on powerful states for funding and weaker states have less capacity to actually change their behavior after they have been punished.

This means that the suspension of Russia is an anomaly in multiple ways.

(2) Suspending a state from an informal IGO is much easier than a formal IGO

One of the reasons that suspensions from formal IGOs are rare is that they are difficult to enact.  While voting rules change from IGO to IGO, many charters require super majorities to suspend a state, and some (like the League of Arab States, the Central European Initiative, and the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries) need consensus of members minus one.  This is a high threshold to pass given voting blocs and alliances that naturally exist among IGO member states.

One of the reasons that states are increasingly working through informal IGOs is that they can provide benefits that are difficult to achieve in formal IGOs, and suspension is one of these factors.  Across the board, states look to informal IGOs to provide more flexibility, faster decision-making, and management of high uncertainty especially in times of crisis (all of which seem apropos in the situation of the G-8 suspending Russia).  For example, the G-7 nations didn’t need to host a cumbersome meeting at an IGO secretariat to suspend Russia, but instead met during an hour-long evening meeting on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague.  But while suspension might have been relatively “easy” in the case of the G-8’s ouster of Russia, it also might not mean as much as suspension from a formal IGO.  In fact, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov alluded to this when he said that the “G8 is an informal organization that does not give out any membership cards and, by its definition, cannot remove anyone.”

 (3) Its difficult to tell whether IGO suspensions have any significant impact on their own

The preceding discussion is interesting from a historical and comparative standpoint, but it doesn’t get to the fundamental question of “does this matter?”  Unfortunately, that’s a difficult question to answer.  First, how should we measure “success” of the suspension here?  Would Russia have to move the needle on its policy toward Crimea/ Ukraine to show that the G-8’s suspension has worked?  Or can the suspension be regarded as successful if the diplomatic effort deters Russia from further steps – that is, if President Putin does not move beyond Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine?

Second, evaluating the impact of IGO suspensions is difficult because they often occur simultaneously—or closely connected—with other diplomatic and economic actions by states (and other IGOs) such as economic sanctions, embargoes, and withholding foreign aid.  It is therefore difficult to isolate the “pure” effect of an IGO suspension.  There is promise, however, of isolating some of this impact using daily financial data in future research.

To be sure, the critics might be right: suspension of Russia from the G-8 may largely be symbolic and have no effect on Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine and Crimea.  Perhaps the suspension is just a “lowest common denominator” statement because the G-7 allies could not agree on tougher sanctions or action in the United Nations Security Council where Russia holds a veto seat.  I cautiously think, however, there is reason to believe that the G-8’s suspension of Russia may indeed have an impact on Russia’s future actions.

First, the G-8’s suspension of Russia shows one way in which the G-7 countries have come together to punish Russia using an institutional “sanction.”  While related research focuses on the power of economic sanctions, it is possible that this tool may also follow the pattern that multilateral sanctions have a stronger effect in exacting state level behavior change as opposed to unilateral action.  In this regard, the fact that the G-7 countries have come together in a collective fashion rather than “going it alone” in all diplomatic action is a powerful tool.

Second, there is increasing evidence that naming and shaming states that violate both explicit and implicit commitments in the international arena is both costly and can ultimately change a state’s behavior.  Why?  States care about their reputations, and as Michael McFaul, the just-departed American ambassador to Moscow, states, “symbols do matter.”   While the Russians have tried to downplay the G-8 suspension, it is likely that they are seething behind closed doors.  For them, the G-8 was an indication to the rest of the world that they were part of the “big-boy” great power club of democracies.  The role of prestige is paramount when rising powers choose to join international clubs.

Third, few suspensions give an explicit time frame for state behavioral change, so it is difficult to know when a suspension has or has not been successful.  In the case of the G-8 suspending Russia, the statement made no mention of expulsion or of any time-scale for the suspension. Diplomats said they wanted to leave the door open for Russia. “The way back in is clearly for Russia to change course,” said a Downing Street official.  The fact that they have not expelled Russia permanently is important because expulsion would eliminate the possibility of Russia being motivated to change its behavior in exchange for the “carrot” of re-entering the elite circle.

(4) Anecdotal examples show the spillover effects of IGO suspension

As previously mentioned, IGO suspensions can impose significant material costs when other countries and international actors use the suspension as a cue for further action themselves.  For example, the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe in March 2002.  The suspension was considered “largely a symbolic move, increasing international pressure on the Harare regime and sending a message that the Zimbabwean government’s actions were viewed as illegitimate.”  But even though the Commonwealth itself had little practical or financial leverage over Zimbabwe, other international actors used the IGO’s suspension as a cue for their own foreign policy.  “[Suspension] makes it more difficult for international institutions, such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, to deal with the country as normal.  It will hamper Zimbabwe’s efforts to raise funds on the international money markets.”


It will be difficult to tell the full impact of G-8’s suspension on Russia for a long time, but I expect these questions to resurface this June when the G-7 countries plan to gather in Brussels as a boycott to the previously planned G-8 meeting in Sochi, Russia.  It will also be interesting to see if the G-8 suspension triggers any other IGO (both formal and informal) suspensions.  For example, the G-20 group of nations is scheduled to meet in Australia next November, but the Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has already warned that Russia might not be welcome.

This potential future action shows a similar pattern to my research: that suspension from one IGO can often have a diffusion effect to other IGOs (further adding to the complication of evaluating IGO suspensions in isolation).  Indeed Russia might actually care more about a suspension from the G-20 given its increasing prevalence in world affairs, but more importantly, because of the symbolic role that it plays as an informal IGO counter to the previous dominance of the G-8.  Last, Russia has made it clear that the intersection of informal IGOs and suspensions from IGOs means something: it has leaned on the BRICS group of developing nations—an informal IGO that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—to denounce the suspension and sanctions from the G-8.  Only time will tell how the intersection of these two increasingly used tools in international politics will play out in the specific G-8-Russia case.

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