Paul Pillar

Sanctions as Feckless Disapproval

The recent bill imposing sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea, which President Trump is signing in the face of veto-proof majorities by which Congress passed the measure, partly reflects the peculiar relationships Trump has with both Russia and Congress.  But the bill is consistent with, and puts in stark relief, a larger problem of Congress habitually using economic sanctions against foreign states as an expression of disapproval that is poorly designed to achieve any U.S. foreign policy objectives.  Sanctions get used less often as a genuine instrument of foreign policy than as an instrument for elected politicians to register with domestic audiences their dislike for unpopular foreign regimes.

An Indiscriminate Approach

The lack of care in designing an effective policy instrument is underscored by how the current bill lumps together in a single piece of legislation sanctions against three very different countries that pose different policy challenges.  One of the targets, Russia, is a major power with diverse interests that intersect U.S. interests in different regions.  New sanctions against Russia collide immediately with economic interests of U.S. allies in Europe.  The biggest feature of recent relations with Iran has been conclusion of an agreement that ensures the Iranian nuclear program stays peaceful, with partial relief from previously imposed sanctions being the quid pro quo for Iran submitting itself to special nuclear restrictions.  North Korea is ruled by a thuggish family regime that already has nuclear weapons and mainly for that reason is widely seen as a security threat. 

Russia got most of the attention in debate on the sanctions bill, which is unsurprising in view of the controversial nature of Trump’s relationship with Russia.  Sometimes it seemed that the sanctions against Iran and North Korea were just going along for the ride.  (Senator Bernie Sanders was an exception in casting one of the lonely votes against the bill, saying he supported the sanctions on Russia but considered the sanctions against Iran to be ill-advised.)

The new bill gives the president less leeway in issuing waivers or removing sanctions than much other sanctions legislation has given.  The reason, of course, has to do with distrust of Trump regarding his relationship with Russia.  Although the desire of Congress to put Trump on a short leash is understandable, such restrictions make it even less likely that the resulting sanctions can be used as a flexible instrument of policy.  Waiver provisions in other sanctions legislation have been a tacit recognition of the conflict between policy effectiveness and the desire of members of Congress to make a simple statement of disapproval of certain regimes.

Requirements for Sanctions to Work

Occasionally a partial economic embargo is intended to deprive the targeted country directly of the wherewithal to do whatever it is that we don’t want it to do—for example, depriving it of material or technology that could be used in an unconventional weapons program.  More often, economic sanctions are instead supposed to inflict pain that will give the targeted regime an incentive to change its policy and to decide to stop what we don’t want it to do.  To the extent that public discourse addresses the issue of sanctions’ effectiveness, the focus usually is on how much particular sanctions can be expected to hurt, and on related questions such as whether other states will join with the United States in inflicting the pain.  Those questions matter, but they fall short of addressing several other fundamental requirements for sanctions to be effective.

First, there must be some specific, well-defined piece of behavior by the targeted state that we want to change.  Simply berating the state’s policies as malign or aggressive or something else is not enough.  General castigation means even a state that wanted to cooperate would not know what it was expected to do.  Moreover, a specific change in behavior means that what matters are actions in the future, not the past.  Punishment for past misdeeds may seem like just retribution, but it cannot become an effective policy instrument unless the policy objective is framed in terms of a commitment to refrain from similar deeds in the future.

A second requirement is that the desired policy change on the part of the targeted state must be feasible, in the political as well as practical sense of feasibility, taking into account all the reasons that state has for doing what it is doing and all the incentives that may be pushing it in directions other than the one we favor.  If decision-makers in the targeted state consider some action they are taking as vital for their security, even a large amount of inflicted pain through sanctions is unlikely to bring about any policy changes.  Failure to take this perspective has been common in the push to sanction Iran.  Ballistic missiles, for example, figure in much of the talk about sanctioning Iran, but it simply is unrealistic to expect even a heavily punished Iran—which fell victim to Iraq’s missiles in the war of the cities in the 1980s, sees some regional rivals well-armed with ballistic missiles, and is even further behind those rivals in air power—ever to halt its missile development.

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