Every Tool Against Autocracy: A Progressive Case for Sanctions

By Neil Bhatiya

In November, Nicholas Mulder took to The Nation to make the case against economic sanctions as a tool of leftist foreign policy. Sanctions, he argued, have a far less effective record than US policymakers’ instinctive preference for them would suggest, and cause more damage to innocent parties than the foreign policy establishment should be comfortable with; in either case, Mulder is skeptical progressive should desire applying them to US adversaries.   

However, in calling for the rejection of sanctions, Mulder is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. When it comes to the left foreign policy goals Mulder rightfully lauds–enforcing international norms on nonproliferation, human rights, and corruption, as well as busting oligarchs, ending tax evasion, and deterring other financial crimes–sanctions are a more realistic and more effective tool than any alternative at hand.

Mulder is right that we should use economic leverage to crackdown on international oligarchic corruption. Cleaning up the international financial system will lead to a more equitable global economy–international financial institutions should be facilitating economic development and responsible deployment of capital to help governments, not tax evasion and the proliferation of anonymous corporations for the global rich and criminals to move money around. But that will never happen if progressive are not ready to wield strong sanctions. Safe havens for dirty money have to fear swift response.

Lessons learned from past failures

Progressives hesitate to support policies that disproportionately hurt those without political power, which is a concern when sanctioning authoritarian countries who have no compunction about squeezing their populations. Yet refraining from trying to impose those costs on authoritarians directly; indeed, abandoning sanctions completely, is not a politically sustainable approach.

That strategy would amount to unilateral disarmament in the face of illicit economic strategies used by hostile autocrats, including directing state resources to fund terrorist activities, proliferate chemical weapons (or underwrite their use in the case of the Salisbury attack), and further their own corruption and abuse of human rights. Sanctions policy has to walk a line between inflicting pain on the powerful and limiting the pain they can shirk onto those they oppress. Latter day sanctions practitioners have learned valuable lessons about the necessity of walking that line from the disastrous experience with Iraq, where sanctions caused great humanitarian suffering and enabled corruption in a United Nations-sponsored Oil-for-Food program.

The 1990s era comprehensive economy-wide sanctions have rightfully fallen out of favor. Targeted financial sanctions can have unintended consequences like any coercive economic measure, but they are a vast improvement over pre-existing tools. More work remains to be done, especially as adversaries learn to adapt to how US sanctions operate, which will require efforts to educate policymakers on how to better use the tool in the future, and provide more resources for the front-line implementers.

Sanctions cannot work alone

Sanctions are more coercive than diplomacy alone, but far less disruptive than the use of military force. While they can be misused, in the main progressives should agree that any measure that widens the distance between peace and war should be in the foreign policy toolbox. Mulder dismisses this argument by saying that “[t]hey have rarely prevented military action, brought down opposing governments, or incited populations to successfully revolt against their rulers.” Sanctions cannot and should not be expected to achieve goals like that in isolation. Mulder acknowledges Iran prior to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is an exceptional case of sanctions preventing military action, but it is a significant exception–war with Iran would have made the catastrophe of Iraq look humdrum by comparison. If sanctions took us away from that path, should we not learn from the experience in applying them in the future?

Because of their economic impacts, sanctions are a useful messaging tool, adding teeth to the ideal of a values-based foreign policy. When properly applied they can advance US foreign policy goals, like nuclear nonproliferation, and enforce international norms, like human rights. Mulder wants the United States to use “better inducements” to achieve those goals, identifying situations where “real economic benefits [are] often a far better stimulus than the threat of coercion and isolation.” But if the idea is to both change current bad behavior and deter future bad behavior, this seems like an inefficient way to accomplish it. Economic benefits must be accompanied with some real negative consequences to be effective.

If the United States drops sanctions from the toolkit, it is not clear how that equation works. US aid policy to Pakistan since 2009 should be an object lesson in how misguided an overemphasis on economic carrots can be.

The actual practice of sanctions policy formulation and implementation, when appropriately conceived, firmly embeds a multilateral outlook in US foreign policy. This ultimately serves progressive ends, as it incentivizes the building of an international order where the United States resists the temptation to use its financial weight indiscriminately for goals that are perceived as serving America first and America only.

When sanctions do work, they demonstrate clearly why multilateralism is not just a nice-to-have aspect of US foreign policy, but an essential precondition for protecting US national security. Sanctions work most effectively when: the United States can communicate to allies and partners a clear set of reasonably achievable goals, which they also find it in their interest to achieve; when it can leverage the influence of international institutions to give legitimacy and force to sanctions measures, which strengthens the political valence of those institutions; and the US is willing to compromise when an adversary can demonstrate a change in some malign behavior.  

The current administration and many in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are ignoring those principles. The Trump administration has used sanctions as something more like blunt punishment. Congress has added to the pressure, contemplating sanction authorities against Russia that would threaten economies across Europe. When sanctions have been at their most destructive, it has not been because of the nature of the tool itself, but rather that policymakers have tried to apply them to maximalist policy aims in this fashion. It is in the fight against maximalism that progressives should be focusing their attention.

Limited means for limited ends

The Libya case demonstrates the danger of exchanging limited objectives for maximalist aims. In Libya, sanctions helped change Muammar Qaddafi’s calculus about maintaining a weapons of mass destruction capability. A combination of factors helped in this situation: clear demands from the United States and its international partners, the desire by Qaddafi to avoid continued damage to the Libyan economy, and the likely benefits of sanctions relief. The 2011 overthrow of Qaddafi undid the positive effects of the US sanctions effort. While the US had previously shown it could negotiate in good faith, the invasion showed that any deal would be temporary and that US policymakers would be unwilling or unable to stick to limited objectives.  

Unlike other strategies the United States has traditionally relied upon with devastating effect, like military intervention, the use of sanctions is not about the removal of regimes. It is about manipulating cost-benefit analysis to change regime decision-making using means that have a strong legal foundation, domestically and internationally.  

Only an irresponsible policymaker would argue that sanctions alone will induce significant change; even the Trump administration argues, however unconvincingly, that its new sanctions against Iran are a prelude to negotiations. The South Africa and Iran sanctions programs succeeded because those wielding the tool knew that it was strengthened by multilateral consensus, openness to risky diplomatic processes, and realistic conceptions of an achievable end-state. When used judiciously, sanctions are an instrument of a foreign policy outlook that is fundamentally a policy of restraint. This is why they should be a powerful tool in a left-oriented foreign policy paradigm, a tool that coerces hostile autocrats, but in a way that offers a realistic path to de-escalate tensions. Neither a first resort (which would be diplomacy), or a last resort (military intervention), it is a medium resort that progressive can use to build a sustainable foreign policy vision. 

The use of economic leverage through a sanctions framework, properly applied, also embeds progressive means in the pursuit of US foreign policy goals. Sanctions are most effective when used multilaterally; the United States should cooperate with a wide variety of actors–its allies certainly, but also states with whom it has profound disagreements. Sanctions also rely on international institutions to magnify their effects, underscoring those institutions’ importance. Even the Trump administration seemed to internalize this reality; for all of its disdain for the United Nations, it made the case for more stringent North Korean sanctions there.

At the same time, sanctions give teeth to the implementation of a moral foreign policy. Global Magnitsky human rights sanctions, the authority created to pursue human rights violators and corrupt public officials as a worldwide extension of measures to push back against Russia— may not turn a foreign autocracy into a paradise, but they are better than a State Department name-and-shame press release. Sanctions can raise reputational risk and encourage others to stop doing business with those targeted. This is why European powers, even those who find the current sanctions approach unhelpful, are pursuing their own human rights sanctions authorities, while adding to the pressure on long-standing transgressors like Myanmar. These are not insignificant achievements, and provide a strong foundation on which progressives can build.

What’s left for sanctions?

Leftist foreign policy practitioners can help enshrine the responsible wielding of sanctions by embracing strategies to use sanctions in a smarter fashion. Among these: a commitment to multilateralism, both to minimize unintended consequences as well to convey universal opprobrium; communicating clearly what behavior is being punished, and what changes in behavior can lead to the lifting of sanctions; and being willing to take yes for an answer, allowing the lifting of sanctions in exchange for better behavior, even if it does not give the United States everything it ultimately seeks from an adversary. The last principle requires a change in the foreign policy outlook of the Washington, DC foreign policy elite—learning to marry sanctions use to a sensible, achievable foreign policy strategy.

Progressives have been presented with an unprecedented political moment to begin to steer US foreign policy to a more sustainable path. Sanctions should remain part of that path. The Trump administration—and to a lesser extent the Obama administration before that—has been addicted to the use of US financial power. Using a more sober approach, sanctions can still be useful tool to pursue progressive foreign policy goals.


Neil Bhatiya is the Research Associate for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

7 thoughts on “Every Tool Against Autocracy: A Progressive Case for Sanctions

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