Supporters of President Nicolas Maduro hold a banner during a rally to reject U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Last month, Venezuela, a longtime U.S. adversary in international relations, was hit by American sanctions to punish democratic backsliding in the country. The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act targets government officials deemed responsible for human rights violations against anti-government protesters with visa bans and asset freezes. Since the end of the Cold War, sanctions have been an important tool for Western governments in their efforts to promote democracy and human rights abroad.

Yet critics argue that these democracy sanctions are used selectively and are mere window dressing in order to promote other Western foreign policy goals such as strengthening international security or fostering economic interests. Indeed, it may seem suspicious that international rivals such as Venezuela are targets of U.S. sanctions whereas autocracies that are American allies, like Egypt under Hosni Mubarak or Saudi Arabia, have been spared from coercive measures ostensibly to improve the state of democracy.

In a recently published article (temporarily ungated) in the Journal of Peace Research, we gather statistical data on all “democratic sanctions” issued by the European Union and the United States to systematically study when and where Western democracies use sanctions to promote democracy. We find that the promotion of democracy or punishing of backsliding has been the single most important goal when initiating sanctions against authoritarian regimes. Other sanction goals can be to fight nuclear programs or terrorism or to help end civil wars abroad.

Yet our analysis confirms that all dictators are not equal. Some are more likely to be exposed to democratic sanctions than others. Moreover, the way in which democratic norms are violated matters. Most notably, dramatic and highly visible events, rather than consistently low levels of democracy, are especially likely to result in democratic sanctions. Sanctions are most likely after military coups. In any given year, the probability of a Western sanction increases by 50 percentage points when a democratically elected leader has been ousted from power. To mention just a few examples, military coups in Ivory Coast, Haiti, Fiji and Thailand all resulted in E.U. or U.S. sanctions. We also find that fraudulent elections, such as those arranged in Belarus or Zimbabwe, increase the chances of democratic sanctions, albeit to a lesser extent than military coups.

Most importantly, as suggested by the Venezuelan example, our statistical investigation shows that autocratic behavior and the level of democracy is not enough to explain variations in the probability of democratic sanctions. Two additional factors fundamentally change the propensity. First, Western governments tend to focus on poorer and therefore more vulnerable countries, especially those enduring a severe economic crisis. In their decision to impose external pressure, Western leaders regularly react to domestic political dynamics in the target states. If authoritarian regimes are already troubled by domestic turmoil, sanctions are more likely to push the balance and appear successful to domestic and international audiences. For instance, in connection with the Asian financial crises and massive protests, the E.U. issued democratic sanctions against the Suharto regime in Indonesia in 1999. Similarly, the United States decided to increase the intensity of already existing sanctions, shortly before the fall of Suharto. Needless to say, the Suharto regime had been highly repressive and non-democratic for decades, but the intensity of the political crisis in the late 1990’s made the timing for Western sanctions particularly beneficial.

Second, the expected political and economic costs for Western powers of exerting pressure count. In support of general public and academic suspicion, we find that the relationship between an authoritarian regime and the West does matter for the likelihood of democratic sanctions. Simply put, authoritarian regimes on friendly terms with the West are less likely to be punished for democratic wrongdoings. In this way, the lack of sanctions or other external pressure against countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Qatar represents a broader pattern: Strategic allies are often spared from Western pressure to democratize, and enforcement of democratic norms is much more selective where geostrategic interests prevail. When the Zimbabwe government arranged highly controversial and massively fraudulent elections in 2002 it resulted in democratic sanctions from the West, whereas Mubarak’s resounding electoral victories throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s did not trigger similar reactions. Our strongest statistical results are obtained when we look at the relationship between foreign direct investments and democratic sanctions and when we observe how well a country’s foreign policy agenda is aligned with the interests of the West. More foreign investments and a more pro-Western foreign policy agenda significantly reduce the probability of Western democratic sanctions.

The West has clearly had an important role in promoting democracy abroad. There are several instances when different forms of pressure have resulted in democratic improvement in authoritarian states. For instance, conditionality related to E.U. membership in Eastern Europe has been hugely important for democratic development within the post-communist block. Similarly, active aid policies and aid sanctions against African one-party states was instrumental in the vast wave of African democratization in the early 1990’s. Mounting evidence also suggests that the expansion of election monitoring has been beneficial in many new democracies. Nevertheless, our study casts serious doubts on whether the West has actually fulfilled its role as an active and consistent democracy promoter globally. Not only is U.S. assistance to democracy in other countries declining, but more generally, consistent democracy promotion seems to be restricted to countries where democracy is not trumped by other foreign policy goals and more likely when dramatic and highly visible events such as military coups put a country’s lack of democracy in the international limelight.

 Christian von Soest is a Senior Research Fellow, GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies. Michael Wahman is a Swedish Research Council Fellow, London School of Economics and Political Science, and as of September 2015 Assistant Professor, University of Missouri-Columbia