Sanctions are becoming a crutch for the US

Sanctions are becoming a crutch for the US
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It seems like every week, the Trump administration announces a new round of economic sanctions on a country, individual, or entity that is engaging in corruption, violating human rights, or engaging in business with those already on the U.S. blacklist. Levying sanctions on an adversary has become the most popular missile in America’s foreign policy arsenal — so popular, in fact, that cutting off rogue actors from the U.S. financial system is measure lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle can agree on.

In the last few weeks alone, the administration imposed sanctions on Iran that were previously lifted under the Iranian nuclear agreement; slapped new economic restrictions on Russia for its purported involvement in a nerve agent attack on U.K. soil; and increased tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel exports in retaliation for Ankara’s continued detention of an American pastor.     


In 2017 alone, the Trump administration placed nearly 1,000 individuals and entities on the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals List. And according to Gibson Dunn, an international law firm that has studied U.S. sanctions law, the White House is projected to rise above that marker this year.  

Foreign policy practitioners view sanctions as a relatively cost-free way to register U.S. opposition to an adversary’s behavior. Sanctions are also convenient politically — on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, going after a nation’s economy is a visible way to demonstrate to the American people that their government is taking stern action to address a problem.  

And yet economic sanctions have been deployed so often that the tool has become a crutch for the Washington foreign policy establishment. The discussion revolving around sanctions typically centers on the narrow obsession with inflicting economic pain for the sake of retaliation. This, however, is the wrong focus. The question is not whether sanctions will hurt a target country’s bank account, but whether the tool convinces an adversarial government to stop activity that undermines U.S. national security objectives.

By virtue of U.S. dominance in the international financial system, it is a given that sanctions imposed by Washington will have a significant economic impact on a target country. Sanctions in isolation of a diplomatic process, however, rarely work in compelling a change in behavior. Without a clear and realistic set of objectives and an assurance that the state being pressured economically will get something in return for its cooperation, sanctions boil down to an ultimatum: either surrender unconditionally to Washington’s demands or risk a recession. Predictably, the government given the ultimatum usually rejects it.

The economic consequences of U.S. sanctions policy are indisputable. Financial penalties against Russia since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula has been a factor in the Russian economy’s anemic state. It is no coincidence that Russia's economy suffered a two-year recession after the U.S. and E.U. sanctions were enacted.

Nor was it a mystery why the Trump administration chose a similar strategy against Iran; by starving Tehran of business opportunities and building a wall between Iran’s oil industry and Western consumers, the White House is aiming to squeeze the Iranian regime of the resources it needs to stay above water.  

Ruining a country’s economy, however, is not the same thing as forcing the country to comply with Washington’s dictates. Despite the two years of recession and a decline in Russia’s international reserves over that period of time, Vladimir Putin refused to withdraw Russian personnel from Eastern Ukraine; reverse his annexation of Crimea; pressure Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to negotiate seriously; or order a halt to the planning of additional cyberattacks on Western democracies. To Moscow, the benefits of preserving a Russian proto-state in Eastern Ukraine and preventing a useful proxy in the Middle East from being overthrown outweigh the cost of asset freezes, visa withdrawals, and limited trade ties with the U.S.

Without diplomatic concessions from Washington in exchange, it is unlikely that Putin would consider adopting a different course of action—no matter how rigid the U.S. sanctions architecture becomes.  

Sanctions on Iran tell a similar story.

While the Trump administration is confident that the return of oil, banking, shipping, and currency restrictions on the Iranian economy will force Tehran to walk back to the negotiating table in a desperate financial state, the Iranians are more likely to act defiantly.

Indeed, the administration’s conditions for dropping the sanctions—the withdrawal of all regular Iranian army forces, intelligence operatives, and militias from Syria; an end to weapons trafficking; a shutdown of its entire nuclear program; a moratorium on the testing and development of ballistic missiles; the release of all Americans in its custody; and an end to support for the Houthi militants in Yemen—are so numerous and far-fetched that Iranian officials view them as insincere at best and “psychological warfare” at worst. In place of a whole-of-government Iran policy that matches sanctions pressure with a pragmatic diplomatic endgame, the Trump administration has instead outsourced its strategy to the Treasury Department.

It would be unwise to simply discard sanctions as a U.S. foreign policy tool in all circumstances.

There have been cases in the past when governments have moderated their policy in order to eliminate the immense economic pressure on their shoulders. Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, for instance, decided to give up all his weapons of mass destruction in 2003 and 2004 in return for an end to his decades-long isolation. After decades of international pariah status and being largely cut off from western markets, Myanmar’s military loosened restraints on the country’s political system. Yet even in these two specific cases, U.S. officials were willing to grant Libya and Myanmar rewards beyond a lifting of sanctions. Washington was willing to match punitive measures with diplomatic concessions that were actually appealing enough to convince the Libyan regime and the Myanmar junta to reform. The Trump administration appears to have forgotten this critical lesson: in order for sanctions to have even a small chance at succeeding, the U.S. will also be required to put carrots on the table. Without those carrots, a government has very little incentive to consider adopting a new course of action.

Future presidents will no doubt continue to rely on economic sanctions in statecraft, and lawmakers will keep drafting and passing comprehensive sanctions bills as a way to punish bad actors around the world.

Policymakers, however, should remember the elementary logic of sanctions in the first place. Tanking a nation’s economy is a means to a clearly defined end, not an end in itself.  

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think-tank in Washington, D.C.