There is almost universal consensus that certain gross violations of international law and norms demand a strong and unified response. Just think, for example, of Russia's invasion of Ukraine or the development of nuclear weapons capabilities in Iran and North Korea. Harsh economic sanctions have long been seen as the answer.
However, the eternal question is: What will happen next? When do sanctions stop working? Or even worse, when did they start work against the best interests of the United States?
This is an important question because, over the past two decades, economic sanctions have been the tool of first choice for US policy makers, to use dismantle terrorist networkstry stop the development of nuclear weapons And punish the dictator. The number of names on the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the Ministry of Finance's sanction list has steadily increased, from 912 in 2000 to 9,421 in 2021, largely due to the increasing use of banking sanctions against individuals. The Trump administration added about three names a day to the list – a level that was surpassed last year by the many sanctions President Biden announced after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Given their increasing use, it is useful to understand not only how sanctions can be a tool for successful diplomacy, but also how, when not used properly, they can ultimately undermine American efforts to promote peace, human rights and democratic norms around the world.
The Invisible Cost of Sanctions
Policymakers turn to sanctions so frequently — the United States accounts for 42 percent of sanctions imposed worldwide since 1950, according to Drexel University's Global Sanctions Database — partly because they are perceived as low-cost, especially compared to military action.
In reality, the cost is enormous. They are borne by banks, businesses, civilians and humanitarian groups, who bear the burden of implementing them, complying with them, and mitigating their effects. Sanctions can also be in the form of a its toll on vulnerable people – are often poor and live under repressive governments, as academics increasingly document.
Officials rarely account for such expenses. While sanctions are easy to implement — there are dozens of sanctions programs administered by various federal agencies — they are politically and bureaucratically difficult to lift, even when they no longer serve U.S. interests. Worse, sanctions have also escaped significant public scrutiny. Few officials are held accountable for whether certain sanctions are working as intended rather than harming innocent people or undermining foreign policy objectives.
Mr. Biden came into office promising to fix that lack of accountability. Ministry of Finance perform comprehensive review sanctions in 2021 and released a seven-page summary that October. The review process is an important step. It concluded, among other things, that sanctions should be assessed systematically to ensure they are the appropriate tool for the situation, that they are linked to specific outcomes and include our allies where possible, and that care should be taken to reduce “undesirable economic and political impacts” on American workers, businesses, allies, and other innocent people.
The Department of Finance made some progress implementing the review recommendations, but the Department of Finance is fair one of many government agencies responsible for complying with sanctions. Each of them should carry out routine data-driven analysis to ensure that the benefits of sanctions outweigh the costs and that sanctions are the right tool, not just the easiest one to reach. It is also important that the results of the analysis are communicated to Congress and the public.
Sanctions Require Clear and Achievable Results
What is known is that sanctions are most effective when they have realistic goals and are coupled with promises of leniency if those goals are achieved. Perhaps the best example is the 1986 law targeting apartheid-era South Africa, which was styled five conditions sanctions relief, including the release of Nelson Mandela. Sanctions by the United States and other countries helped convince South Africa's white-only government that its policies mandating racial segregation were untenable.
Sanctions on Polish Communists in 1981 in response to the crushing of the Solidarity movement is another example of how this can work. The United States and its allies are gradually lifting sanctions by releasing most of the imprisoned activists, helped usher in a new era of political freedom in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
It should be noted that the sanctions against South Africa and Poland are aimed at bringing about free and fair elections, not regime change. Sanctions aimed at regime change often encourage defiance, not reform. They have a bad track record, just like cases CubaSyria and Venezuela explained.
In Venezuela, overt sanctions with big ambitions—to overthrow dictator Nicolás Maduro—have so far achieved the opposite result. After he dissolved the democratically elected National Assembly in 2017 and declared the winner of the sham presidential election in 2018, the Trump administration imposed maximum pressure sanctions on Venezuela's state-owned oil company to cut off a vital source of funding for the Maduro dictatorship.
While tough individual sanctions against Maduro are needed, Venezuela's oil sector is blacklisted exacerbated humanitarian crisis: As this editorial board warns, cuts to oil revenues deepened what already worst economic contraction in Latin America in decades. Sanctions against the oil industry, which accounts for about 90 percent of the country's exports, are taking a dramatic turn government revenue cuts and a significant increase in poverty, according to to a research last year by Francisco Rodríguez, a Venezuelan economist at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
The policy, meanwhile, has failed to push Maduro out of power. He has instead consolidated his grip on Venezuela, blaming his economic woes on American sanctions and drawing his country closer to Russia and China. Sanctions are in not popular in Venezuela, according to various opinion polls. Even representatives of the Venezuelan opposition in the United States, a group that previously supported broad sanctions, recently asked Mr. Biden to lift the oil sanctions.
Since taking office, Biden has taken steps to modify sanctions against Venezuela to add specific achievable goals. His reign was lifted some oil sanctions by granting Chevron permission to do limited work in the countrydriven by the spike in oil prices after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The White House has promised additional assistance if Maduro takes steps to hold free and fair elections next year. Francisco Palmieri, head of mission for the Department of State's Venezuelan affairs unit in Bogotá, Colombia, was recently released detailed list what to do to get sanctions lifted. This includes setting a date for next year's presidential elections, reinstating candidates who have been arbitrarily arrested and releasing political prisoners.
Mr. Maduro has so far not complied. On June 30, he banned again famous opposition figure from holding office. However, these simpler policies, which favor a gradual return to democracy rather than abrupt regime change, are a better approach.
The Biden administration should be more explicit about which sanctions on Venezuela will be lifted and when, particularly on state-owned oil companies. It would make America's promises more credible. An agreement in November between Maduro and the opposition to use frozen Venezuelan assets for humanitarian purposes was another promising move, but it is in limbo because the funds have yet to be released.
The delay caused the Venezuelan people to lose hope in a negotiated settlement to the crisis, according to Feliciano Reyna, president and founder of Acción Solidaria, a non-profit organization that provides supplies to public hospitals in Venezuela. Even though he has a special permit to import supplies, he admits that he still has trouble getting what he needs. Some companies, he said, prefer not to sell to Venezuela rather than go to great lengths to ensure it is legal – a phenomenon known as over-compliance.
“The internal situation is absolutely dire,” said Mr. Reyna.
A loss of hope is, in part, why more than seven million Venezuelans have fled their country since 2015, with more than 240,000 arrived at the southern border of the US in the last two years. Many experts view sanctions as important driver of migration from Venezuela for worsening economic conditions that encourage people to leave. In response, a group of Democratic lawmakers — including Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas, who co-led Mr Biden's re-election campaign — plead him to lift sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba.
In addition to delivering on its commitments in Venezuela, the Biden administration could do more to demonstrate that the United States is changing its sanctions policy to make it more humane. The first step is to follow up on the recommendations of the 2021 review and formally consider the humanitarian costs of any sanctions before they are imposed. Ministry of Finance in May hired two economists to do the job; which should be standard practice for any agency responsible for implementing sanctions.
Sanctions Must Be Reversible
Once a government begins to carry out a systematic review of existing sanctions, it is critical to ensure that any sanctions imposed are repealable.
Consider the most blatant failure to do this: an open trade embargo against Cuba. President John F. Kennedy imposed an embargo in 1962 with stated purpose about “isolating the current Cuban government and thereby reducing the threat posed by its alignment with Communist power.”
In the years since, America's president has sent a very different message about what it takes to lift sanctions. Barack Obama moved to appoint many of them in 2014 – a bid that was reversed by Donald Trump three years later. Last year, Biden lifted some of the Trump-era sanctions. But only an act of Congress can end the embargo.
Peter Harrell, who served on the National Security Council staff under Mr. Biden, argue that sanctions will automatically expire after a certain number of years unless Congress votes to extend them. It will reduce cases zombie sanctions that spanned decades, long after US policymakers had given up on sanctions to achieve their goals.
For sanctions drive change rather than simply punishing past actions, the United States should be prepared to lift sanctions — even against perpetrators — if the stated criteria are met.
Sanctions, as attractive as they are, are seldom successful without a specific objective coupled with the criteria for the sanctions to be lifted. That applies to current and future sanctions. Without goals and criteria for relief, these measures — among the most egregious in the US foreign policy arsenal — risk running counter to American interests and principles in the long run.