Joe Biden and new administration could restore economic sanctions

As Joe Biden assembles his national security and foreign policy teams, an important issue will be economic sanctions. The need to restore this once effective, but recently misused, tool for advancing our American interests has never been as challenging. Unlike rejoining several critical treaties, or dispensing seasoned emissaries to mend fences with allies, reformulating how and where to impose sanctions marks a complex dilemma.

In the last four years, the Treasury Department sanctions lists have grown to more than 20 countries and nearly 8,000 individuals and entities. The choice of some targets was sensible, as in the case of officials engaged in repression in Belarus and Hong Kong, or of war crimes in the Congo. Yet others, such as officials of the International Criminal Court, and various entities in Iran that were added over the last month, lacked evidentiary and political credibility. This plus stubborn faith in the use of maximum pressure sanctions as the way to achieve nuclear nonproliferation aims constitute the flawed ideas about achieving sanctions success.

In crafting the rehabilitation of sanctions, Biden and his teams can draw with confidence from the research findings that have emerged from the success and failures over the last three decades. Knowing that sanctions will achieve compliance from the targets only about a third of the time is critical. In terms of American actions, our most effective sanctions have originated in the United Nations Security Council and were bolstered by our narrowly targeted financial sanctions aimed at those individuals and entities that are primarily responsible for the wrongdoing.

Sanctions also work best when they are one of a number of diverse tools used to achieve a set of strategic policy goals which are consistent and articulated in a manner that is fully understood by the target around the behavior that must change in order to lift the sanctions. Sanctions must not just enrage the target. They must include diplomacy to engage the target. Sanctions which fail are ones that have moved from being a tool for achieving a policy to actually becoming the policy.

When sanctions have led to halting a nuclear weapons program, as in the cases of Ukraine, Brazil, Libya, and Iran, this is due to the strategic vision and adept diplomacy that provide a notable multiplier effect to an astute application of narrowly targeted sanctions on those most responsible for nuclear development, and the materials and the finances which sustain it. Moreover, these sanctions work only when diplomacy forges new security promises and when solidified by a versatile array of economic incentives that await the country to renounce nuclear weapons.

Success in articulating where and why strong sanctions serve our policy goals will also take structural moves at the National Security Council and in the State Department. As Jake Sullivan rebuilds the National Security Council as a robust entity for policy advice at the White House, he should add a number of individuals with sanctions expertise in counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation. Another sanctions specialist might also hold the director of multilateral affairs position in order to coordinate American policy with allies and the United Nations Security Council. These practices have been virtually abandoned over the last few years.

Moreover, Antony Blinken should restore the State Department sanctions policy branch that was eliminated by the current administration. Those of us who previously interacted with that office understand that the absence of such concentrated expertise with a focused mandate led to a dramatic drop in timely sanctions, consistent enforcement, and ultimate success. By being in close contact with the country and regional directors in the State Department, this branch also plays an important role with making effective sanctions adaptable to changing circumstances.

The sanctions agenda for the new administration certainly does not end here. Two dimensions of sanctions which have most damaged our world standing in the last few years are in dire need of timely correctives. These have been the use of nonterritorial or secondary sanctions, especially on our allies, and our failure to reduce the negative humanitarian impact of sanctions on civilians, especially in the pandemic. If these can be tackled, along with consensus for when sanctions work, then a sane and sensitive era of sanctions success lies within reach of our country.

George Lopez is professor emeritus and a founding member with the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and is a nonresident fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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