Sanction China? Remember: Sanctions Rarely Succeed—And Often Backfire | Opinion

With more than 35,000 Americans dead and unemployment expected to reach its highest rate since the Great Depression, Washington is pointing its finger at Beijing. China's obfuscation on coronavirus and lack of cooperation during the early phase of the crisis have produced a loud drumbeat on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for some kind of punishment. And as usual, economic sanctions are leading the discussion.

During an appearance on Fox News Thursday, Senator Lindsey Graham recommended that the Trump administration and Congress "sanction China to get them to change their behavior." Others are demanding China pay reparations to compensate for the physical and economic damage the coronavirus has caused in 180 countries.

Questions of how such measures would be accomplished, whether they are remotely realistic and whether they are even wise are swept under the rug. Second- and third-order consequences, including all-but-certain Chinese retaliation, take a backseat to the heat of the moment.

In reality, the rising angst in Washington against Beijing is an extension of the years-long U.S. addiction to sanctions as a tool of statecraft. Hardly a week goes by when the State Department, Treasury Department or White House doesn't announce a new sanctions designation on an individual, company or foreign financial institution. It wouldn't be farfetched to say sanctions have become the U.S. foreign policy tool of first resort; according to the law firm Gibson Dunn, the Trump administration designated 3,210 entities over the past three years, with a record 82 sanctions announcements in 2019—beating the previous record set in 2018.

Sanctions are a popular instrument in the Beltway for a reason. By passing sanctions-related bills, lawmakers get to show their constituents that Congress is taking action. Declaring sanctions designations also provides the executive branch with an opportunity to "show strength" for holding bad actors accountable. Yet the truth is that sanctions rarely succeed in forcing targeted countries to moderate their behavior. Indeed, taking action against another country's economy can produce precisely the opposite of what the U.S. is hoping to accomplish.

This isn't to say U.S. sanctions don't put severe pressure on a country's economy. Because the global financial system is based on the U.S. dollar and banks large and small depend on this system to process payments and conduct business around the world, the United States can cause significant financial distress. U.S. sanctions authorities leveled against the Maduro regime have decreased Venezuelan crude oil exports by a third last year. Iran's crude exports have taken an even stronger beating, contracting by 90 percent over the last two years. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani admits U.S. economic penalties are straining Iran's national budget, claiming a lost $200 billion in potential revenue.

The purpose of sanctions, however, is not merely to collapse economies or punish an adversary—the objective is to persuade the target to change its policy in tandem with U.S. demands.

When an action requested of a foreign government is relatively insignificant, sanctions can be a powerful and effective instrument to move that government in the right direction. The textbook case of a successful sanctions policy was when the Trump administration sanctioned Turkey's defense and interior ministers in 2018 over the imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson. Once Brunson was released, Washington lifted the economic and travel restrictions on those Turkish officials.

Unfortunately, sanctions don't have a good track record of success when the U.S. demand involves a complete shift in a target's foreign policy. Nor is it effective at instigating regime change—a dubious policy to begin with. If a country under sanctions views the U.S. objective as a direct threat to what it perceives as its own national security interest, sanctions will not only fail—they could result in that country doubling down on its previous behavior, making the issue at hand more complicated and dangerous.

Lindsey Graham
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol regarding the stimulus bill intended to combat the economic effects of the coronavirus, on March 25 in Washington, D.C. In an appearance on Fox News, Graham called for sanctions against China in retaliation for the coronavirus pandemic. Win McNamee/Getty

This is the reality Washington faces with Venezuela, Iran, North Korea and Russia. These countries are experiencing extreme economic distress due to various U.S. sanctions. Venezuela is hemorrhaging cash, and Maduro himself is now considered a fugitive by the U.S. Justice Department. Tehran has witnessed nationwide protests over poor economic conditions and has been forced to pursue unpopular austerity measures domestically, yet Iran has become more, not less, aggressive in the region since "maximum pressure" began. North Korea continues to test, produce and improve its ballistic missile program, with the Kim regime as resistant to denuclearization as it has ever been. Meanwhile, Moscow's Ukraine policy shows no signs of moderation.

U.S. economic sanctions also have humanitarian consequences. Despite technical exemptions for food, medicine and medical equipment in most U.S. sanctions programs, financial institutions are so petrified of being fined or cut off from the U.S. financial system that they still refuse to process exempted items. The 60-year old U.S. embargo on Cuba reportedly prevented a flight of face masks and COVID-19 diagnostic testing kits from being transported to the island. Iran faces similar problems, with the country's health agencies unable to acquire the medical equipment it needs to combat the worst COVID-19 pandemic in the Middle East. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. human rights chief, stated last month that "over-compliance with sanctions by banks will create long-lasting harm to vulnerable communities" fighting the coronavirus.

None of this is to suggest sanctions are an illegitimate tool for the United States. Under some circumstances, sanctions are not only appropriate but the most plausible option available to U.S. policymakers. When attached to clear, attainable demands, and assuming the U.S. will actually lift the restrictions when its demands are met, sanctions can spark negotiations.

Regrettably, far too many policymakers and lawmakers view economic sanctions as a panacea. The U.S. foreign policy elite risks forgetting that the tool is a means to an end—not an end in and of itself.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.

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