Let's Talk About Sanctions | Opinion

It's no secret that Washington, D.C. loves economic sanctions. According to the Treasury Department's own statistics, there has been a 933 percent increase in the number of U.S. sanctions designations since the turn of the century. In the last three weeks alone, the U.S. has sanctioned four individuals for engaging in Russian government-directed destabilization activities in Ukraine, seven individuals and two entities for supporting the Myanmar junta and a non-governmental organization for providing financial assistance to an Indonesian terrorist group.

Barely a week goes by when the Treasury Department isn't sanctioning a new entity for one reason or another. As 130,000 Russian forces, major weapons platforms and military equipment are stationed on three different sides of Ukraine's border, the Biden administration is attempting to wield the stick of economic sanctions to deter a possible Russian invasion. At the White House this week, President Joe Biden pledged to "bring an end" to the Russia-Germany Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline if Russian President Vladimir Putin orders military action into neighboring Ukraine. On Capitol Hill, senators are in the closing stages of negotiating a Russia sanctions bill that would kick in if a single Russian troop crosses the Ukrainian border.

But are any of these sanctions having their desired effect? Very often, this straightforward question gets lost in the mountain of sanctions designations—a mountain whose paper trail must be the size of Mt. Everest at this point. It's as if the mere act of imposing sanctions is the objective, whereas the real objective—changing a government's policy—is dismissed as a technicality.

The Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., spends much of its time analyzing various sanctions in place in order to determine whether they have an impact in meeting U.S. policy goals. In perhaps its most infamous study, the organization assessed nearly 200 cases of economic sanctions in the 20th century, from the blockade of Germany in World War I to U.S. retaliation for the coup attempt in Ecuador in 2000. The results, in a nutshell: Sanctions aren't a magic bullet to the world's problems. Or as the study bluntly stated, "Sanctions often do not succeed in changing the behavior of foreign countries."

The trend isn't that much better in the 21st century. The U.S. has adopted so many sanctions regiments that it's overwhelming for non-experts to track. Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, China, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Turkey, Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and El Salvador (the list goes on and on) are sanctioned by the U.S. to one degree or another. Some of these sanctions are fairly specific, like Washington's inclusion this week of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández on a list of corrupt individuals, which bars him from entering the U.S. Other U.S. sanctions programs, however, are quite severe, designed to block a nation from its overseas reserves and cut off its exports to pressure leadership into eliminating policies the U.S. and much of the world finds objectionable. Iran and North Korea would fit this category.

The problem is that despite the strong economic impact U.S. sanctions can have on a target's general economic well-being, the pain often fails to produce the policy results the U.S. wants. The simple equation U.S. policymakers often use (more economic pressure = a greater likelihood of a target will capitulate) is frequently disproven.

President Joe Biden speaks
President Joe Biden speaks about lowering health care costs. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

There are a number of factors that help explain this phenomenon. First, even weak states like North Korea and Syria don't want to be thought of as chumps caving to the demands of a foreign power. Surrendering in the face of foreign pressure merely incentivizes the use of similar tactics in the future. For countries like Iran whose foreign policy platform is inextricably tied to resisting U.S. demands, capitulation is out of the question.

Second, the longer states are sanctioned, the more incentive they have to devise ways to work around them, thereby mitigating their impact. North Korea has been the target of an ever stronger U.N. Security Council sanctions regime over the past 16 years, yet Pyongyang has adapted and become a master at evading them through deceptive tactics like ship-to-ship transfers of coal and crude oil in the dead of night and cyberattacks on crypto currency exchanges.

Third, some targeted states have powerful benefactors who have their own reasons for not enforcing sanctions. China, for example, is more concerned with maintaining stability in North Korea than it is with depriving Pyongyang of the resources it needs to continue refining its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

The most significant explanation for why sanctions rarely succeed is because the U.S. simply asks for too much. The Trump administration would only contemplate U.S. sanctions if Iran essentially changed its entire foreign policy, a total non-starter for the Iranians. North Korea's only chance of receiving relief is eliminating its nuclear weapons program, the very definition of an unattainable objective. And unless Syria democratizes and holds free elections, something nobody seriously believes will happen, the Syrian population will remain stuck between a ruthless, kleptocratic government in Damascus and a U.S. sanctions regime that deters foreign reconstruction funds from entering the country.

Can sanctions be a useful tool for the U.S.? The answer is yes, but only under a set of specific circumstances: when U.S. policy goals are realistic, the sanctioned actor believes penalties will actually be lifted in exchange for modifying its behavior, and when the country on the receiving end of U.S. financial pressure calculates that the benefits of changing are higher than the costs of staying still.

Unless these conditions apply, U.S. sanctions announcements are nothing but an exercise in virtue signaling.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.