Scaling Back Sanctions

#8 in a series of policy briefs laying out clear steps to re-think and re-orient US foreign policy.

By Andrew Leber

Key takeaway: Progressive foreign policy should demote sanctions as a policy option, favoring diplomatic coalition-building and policies that strengthen, rather than warp, rules governing the global financial system.

One of the most welcome shifts in US foreign policy debates is the mounting criticism of the US sanctions regime, which all too often takes the form of expressive cruelty rather than forming a part of purposeful policy. Decades after conventional foreign-policy thinking turned against comprehensive sanctions (such as those placed on Iraq in the 1990s), commentators and policymakers have begun to raise questions about the effectiveness and basic morality of supposedly “targeted” financial sanctions. 

From the view of ethics and morality, scholars such as Joy Gordon have weighed in to note that even “smart” sanctions generally aim to deal considerable damage to the most profitable sectors of national economies, while inevitably imposing a form of collective punishment to try and change the behavior of a handful of select individuals. Academic work has long been skeptical of sanctions’ effectiveness absent a number of specific conditions, while pointing out the potential for sanctions to backfire in protecting human rights or promoting democratization.

Even proponents of sanctions as a kind of “Swiss Army knife of statecraft” are increasingly on the defensive, though cautioning that sanctions implemented “in a disciplined manner” can still lock in US policy aims. Now is the time for proponents of sanctions relief to press their advantage. A progressive foreign policy agenda should aim to weaken old structures of “economic statecraft” that amount to collective punishment while finding ways to garner political support at home by garnering international goodwill abroad – not by inflicting suffering on distant societies.  

Putting Sanctions Relief on the Agenda

The outgoing administration shone a spotlight on just how often US policies fall short of a “disciplined” ideal. The cruelty is often the point when it comes to sanctions. Moreover, as Richard Hanania notes, politicians see a political benefit in inflicting costs (read: suffering) on distant enemies, while avoiding the risks associated with a more direct military confrontation.

A policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, for example, cranked up economic misery within the country in the hopes of mass grievances mobilizing against the regime, but mostly served as a way for Trump and like officials to pursue political support at home. As sanctions continued even into the COVID-19 pandemic, no less than the man who first filed Iran within the “Axis of Evil” ventured that some sanctions relief amid the pandemic might – just maybe! – be smart policy. Even scholars at the hawkish-as-a-falconry-mews Foundation for the Defense of Democracies ventured that a policy of “maximum support” for the Iranian people might be a useful counterpart to the devastation caused by sanctions. Instead, the Trump administration continued to pile on penalties right up to its final days in power.

There is clear momentum behind efforts to dial back US sanctions programs in Congress and foreign-policy commentary. In the House, Representatives active on foreign policy issues from the left – such as Reps. Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar – have made challenges to the existing sanctions regime a core critique of standing US approaches to foreign policy. In the pages of the New York Times, Peter Beinart recently pulled no punches in calling most US sanctions programs “ineffective and immoral,” delusional, and equivalent to “besieging weaker nations.”

Even good-faith efforts to defend such economic warfare have conceded that US approaches sanctions are often “counterproductive,” while the Biden administration has pledged to at least review existing US sanctions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Avoiding the Next Sanctions Regime

This matters particularly in thinking through US policy approaches to global challenges in the years ahead – most notably the open question of how the United States engages with China. With concerns about “countering China’s rise” becoming a bipartisan priority, it will require Congressional leadership and broad-based advocacy to keep US foreign policy focused on broader strategic goals than the all-too-easy option of sanctions.  

To be sure, much as China’s increasing assertiveness has frequently been asserted rather than demonstrated, China’s leaders are increasingly willing to deploy their own forms of economic coercion to pursue a wide range of policy goals. This was seen most recently in the heavy tariffs it piled on Australian goods after the Australian government called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. US politicians should resist any effort to pursue in kind, however, working instead to develop a broader set of tools to ward off conflict and encourage equitable prosperity the world over.

 One alternative to punitive measures would be to “compete” via public investments in US economic and scientific output, yet policymakers should be mindful of the tradeoffs they may face in securing legislation. Building industrial policy around a foreign threat contains its own risks – not the least stoking violent xenophobia at home. Furthermore, more hawkish voices will likely push for punitive sanctions as the price of signing on to bipartisan legislation, while others might settle for the same if the filibuster continues to throttle policymaking in the Senate. 

To be sure, specific sanctions can and should stigmatize select clear human rights abuses – such as the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang. Yet wherever possible these sanctions should serve to target individuals as an example of specific “bad behavior” rather than attempting major policy change by imposing sector-wide or country-wide costs. Broader sanctions stand no better chance of coercing China than a years-long trade war that damaged economies on both sides of the Pacific while securing the Trump administration nothing but vague promises in return. 

One alternative area to focus on might be to impose costs on “bad activity” by bringing greater transparency to the international financial system, rather than wielding US economic heft like a club. As Ashley Pratt has argued in these pages, there is plenty that the United States can do within its own financial system to go after global financial crimes, break open shell companies, and force companies that want access to US markets to demonstrate greater transparency – including those from China

This can form part of a broader effort to ensure that the rich pay their fair share of taxes, at home and abroad – one with clear potential to garner political support at home – with positive externalities for global commerce. 

Furthermore, given the increasing recognition of states’ and leaders’ concern with international status, alternative proposals might center on policies that seek to motivate change through threats to states’ or leaders’ status rather than collective pressure on citizens who often have little say in their countries’ foreign policy. Yet this will require the United States to invest in shoring up its own standing in the world – and one way to do so is to avoid punitive campaigns with little support even from close partners and neighbors.

At a minimum, and as Nicholas Mulder has argued (also in these pages), progressive approaches to foreign policy should demand a clear theory of change for any new claims that economic pressure will work wonders for US policy aims – lest they become the kind of decades-long (and fruitless) economic siege that the US has inflicted on Cuba. Policymakers in Congress should demand clear assessments of existing sanctions, highlighting the human suffering imposed or exacerbated by these sanctions, and throwing all imaginable procedural hurdles in the way of punitive proposals with no clear objectives or theory of change. 


Andrew Leber is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Department of Government, where he studies the politics of policymaking in authoritarian regimes and dabbles in foreign-policy research.

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