In March 2016, shortly after the United States lifted sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, then–Treasury Secretary Jack Lew gave a speech reflecting on the lessons Barack Obama’s administration had learned. Sanctions, he said, had “become a powerful force in service of clear and coordinated foreign policy objectives,” but the United States should be sure to use them “only to address significant threats to national security.” Overusing them, he warned, could dull their effectiveness. His logic was simple: Sanctions work because they cut targets off from dealing with U.S. citizens and American financial institutions—a complete severance from the world’s largest economy and its most important financial center. If Washington used this power idly, Lew suggested, it could encourage countries to find partners outside of the United States, and undermine sanctions’ deterrent effect.
These days, policy makers not only impose sanctions with greater frequency—they’re also considering ever more extreme measures, and paying less and less attention to the drawbacks. At their most effective, sanctions are the product of multilateral efforts to solve clearly articulated, shared global-security concerns. Now they are becoming strident expressions of displeasure from an isolated United States, often wielded in service of domestic partisan priorities—a careless approach that may well neutralize the effectiveness of these powerful tools.
In past successful sanctions efforts, officials in Washington, D.C., worked closely with allies and international organizations to roll out new sanctions regimes. In 2014, for example, the United States and the European Union worked together to minimize any collateral costs the Russia sanctions in response to the Ukraine crisis might impose on their own economies. Such international buy-in does more than simply preserve norms or alliances—it gives sanctions real teeth. When the United States and Europe collaborated on oil sanctions on Iran in 2012, they nearly halved Tehran’s oil exports. These efforts helped decrease Iran’s GDP by 9 percent from March 2012 to March 2014, and ultimately helped bring Tehran to the negotiating table.
America’s new penchant for unilateral sanctions is now jeopardizing long-standing relationships with allies. When the Trump administration left the Iran deal, the EU responded by updating a law that prohibited European companies from complying with certain U.S. sanctions. As a result, the United States did more than lose a helpful partner—it set back its own program. Today, while lobbying major Iranian trading partners such as India and China to comply with new sanctions, the United States remains bogged down in a transatlantic tit for tat.
Another major problem with the current use of sanctions: It treats them as an end in and of themselves, rather than as a means to an end. Sanctions are meant to induce adversaries to come to the negotiating table; when they achieve their goals, they should end. Attacking each and every foreign-policy problem with sanctions will make them more rigid and harder to lift. Whereas policy makers once articulated clear conditions that would lead to sanctions relief, U.S. officials now layer sanctions authorities on top of one another for each new perceived transgression.
Consider the U.S. sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine. These measures went into effect in 2014. But a year later, U.S. officials tied sanctions relief to Moscow’s compliance with the Minsk II peace road map, which outlined steps including a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, and the reintegration of the separatist regions. As tensions with the Kremlin have grown, the sanctions’ goals have seemingly multiplied. When the Trump administration sanctioned major Russian oligarchs in April 2018, the Treasury Department added a laundry list of complaints to its original Ukraine justification, including Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, its election meddling, and its malicious cyberactivity.
While all these activities surely warranted pushback from the United States, they’ve led to a sort of mission creep. Sanctions work best as narrowly targeted measures tied to clear demands—an approach most likely to lead to practical deals. Turkey offers a new test for Washington’s sanctions discipline. So far, the administration has outlined a very specific goal: Brunson’s freedom. Can it stick to that approach and lift the sanctions if they succeed? Or will it succumb to the momentum created by sanctions and tack on new goals, like countering President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism?
The track record is not encouraging. By constantly expanding its demands, the United States may have given the impression that its negotiations are not in good faith, and that rather than trying to reach a diplomatic resolution, it is simply trying to punish the target. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 points for resetting relations with Tehran tied so many goals to each sanction program so as to render such measures useless as conflict-resolution tools.
Domestic politics are also harming sanctions policy. Congress tends to see these measures as a way of seizing control of foreign policy back from the executive. Both congressional Democrats and Republicans have used sanctions against Russia to score points against the president (albeit, each side for its own partisan reasons). Now Democrats may be using this playbook with North Korea sanctions. For example, after the Singapore summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, they floated measures like making sanctions relief dependent on a Senate vote on any deal between Trump and Kim, which seemed aimed at tying the president’s hands and making him appear weak.
The harder sanctions programs are to lift, the greater the chances are that they will become entrenched policy. If countries and companies begin to see certain sanction programs as a new normal, they could make permanent adjustments that would dull U.S. sanctions’ effectiveness. They might even start thinking of sanctions on Russia or Iran as more of a permanent inconvenience than a pressing crisis. Faced with U.S. sanctions, for example, the French energy giant Total used Chinese financing for its Russian liquified-natural-gas plant, thus dodging U.S. restrictions. Going forward, Total may be less intimidated by the threat of sanctions from Washington.
As U.S. sanctions cordon off greater slices of economic activity, they are fostering partnerships of convenience. Russia and Venezuela, both under the gun of U.S. sanctions, have strengthened their investment relationship. Moscow is even rumored to have helped Caracas create a cryptocurrency aimed at sanctions evasion. If Congress limits the Trump administration’s ability to strike a deal with Pyongyang, China will likely increase trade with North Korea as sanctions will seem less like a temporary tactic and more like a permanent state of affairs. More countries and firms may even emulate Total’s approach to circumvent U.S. measures. In chipping away at U.S. sanctions’ reach, they will find eager partners in Beijing. Ad hoc workarounds could even give rise to “coalitions of the sanctioned,” or ecosystems of sanctioned countries and companies that operate freely having accepted their sanctioned status.
A better U.S. approach to sanctions will ultimately hinge on policy makers refining their understanding of these measures. But whether they can find the political will to do so soon is doubtful.