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Sanctions are no substitute for sound US grand strategy

After the Cold War, Washington has relied on economic warfare to achieve its goals, but it hardly ever works.

After Myanmar’s military overthrew the country’s civilian government and returned the nation to military rule on February 1, President Joe Biden announced the United States would place financial sanctions on the generals who orchestrated the coup d’état. The sanctions, designed to prevent the new military junta from accessing $1 billion in Burmese funds located in U.S. banks, aim to push the military to reverse course and restore the civilian leadership.

The situation with Myanmar is not unique; it is part of a long and expanding list of nations and entities that are sanctioned by the United States. Yet as sanctions have grown as a favored tool of American policymakers seeking to cheaply and quickly punish international behavior they do not like, they have become an end unto themselves rather than part of a larger strategy to influence their intended targets. Absent a comprehensive plan, sanctions alone are unlikely to accomplish much, and may in fact harm U.S. global interests.

Sanctions have a checkered history in the United States as an instrument of state policy. After Thomas Jefferson’s 1807 Embargo Act spectacularly failed to stop  European powers from violating U.S. neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars, sanctions fell out of favor. Over a century later, interest in them revived when Woodrow Wilson promoted economic and trade sanctions as a method for his proposed League of Nations to enforce peace. But after the United States failed to join the League, sanctions had limited utility.

Before World War II, increasingly punitive sanctions had the intended effect of squeezing Japan, but failed to convince the Japanese government to halt its imperial expansion. Instead, they attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and plunged the United States into war. During the Cold War, decision makers used sanctions against the Soviet Union and its allies as a mode of economic warfare to contain its chief geopolitical rival, but since East-West trade was often minimal, they had limited impact on Soviet behavior.

During recent decades, sanctions use mushroomed as the United States sought to clamp down on various threats like arms and drug trafficking, human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism. While there has been some success in mitigating some of these activities, sanctions have typically fallen short of their objectives because they have become divorced from larger strategic frameworks devised to fulfill broad foreign policy goals. Over the last four years, former President Donald Trump employed sanctions at dizzying levels, but it is difficult to argue they attained their desired results. 

In Venezuela, the Trump administration built on years of American sanctions against the regime there in an attempt to oust President Nicolás Maduro, but he has only tightened his grip on power. Trump exited the Iran nuclear deal and imposed punishing economic and financial sanctions on Iran in an attempt to pressure it to renegotiate the agreement. While the sanctions devastated the Iranian economy, the Iranians refused to return to the negotiating table and escalated its proxy influence campaign throughout the Middle East.

Closer to home, Trump reversed the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba and reinstituted broad sanctions in a half-baked attempt to compel the Cuban government to enact political and economic changes. It was another chapter in a long series of U.S. sanctions on Cuba since 1960 with the stated goal of forcing the communist government from power. That has not happened and to date, sanctions have done little to change Havana’s behavior except to make frustrating American foreign policy a central tenet of the Cuban regime.

The use of sanctions is not inherently a bad idea, and when used in conjunction with a sensible diplomatic strategy, they can be effective tools of foreign policy. Sanctions against the United Kingdom and France during the 1956 Suez Crisis forced both nations to end their invasion of Egypt and bolstered the American position that the world had moved beyond colonial interventions. The U.S.-led sanctions campaign on Iran leading up to the Iran nuclear deal were also effective, largely because they had wide ranging international buy-in with a specific goal — limiting Iran’s nuclear program — realistically on the horizon.

Yet when sanctions are enacted with only vague or amorphous goals, rather than a concrete plan of action, they become a detriment to proactive negotiation while also fortifying hostile regimes’ power and locking the United States into perpetual low-level conflict. In addition to Cuba, this has occurred with countries like Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Russia, and recently China. Each of these situations that led to sanctions is unique, but a common thread that runs through them is the question of what the ultimate objective is.

Consider the case of North Korea. Despite efforts to engage with the Trump administration, a U.S. prerequisite for any sanctions relief was full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Though this requirement is popular with American domestic audiences, it has become an unrealistic aspiration because the North Korean regime sees its arsenal as critical to its self-preservation. Moreover, other states with weaker governments have been nuclear powers for decades with no serious threat to U.S. security.

So, what is the U.S. goal with sanctions here? Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, global denuclearization, and preventing North Korea from developing an ability to threaten U.S. regional allies or the continental United States have all been cited as potential ends. Yet, it seems that the United States is trying to accomplish all of these goals at once and in doing so, has incentivized the regime to continue expanding its nuclear program despite the crushing sanctions placed upon the country.

An often-overlooked issue with sanctions is the undesirable effect of alienating not just individuals within targeted countries, but American allies, businesses, and other private interests. The numbers and kinds of sanctions have also proliferated without any clear strategy for how they should be equitably applied. The CAATSA sanctions, for instance, are applied on a case-by-case basis. Although justified to the American public as a means to limit Russia’s ability to profit from arms sales, other U.S. allies that are also major Russian weapons customers, like India and Turkey, can become ensnared in the sanctions. The presidential waiver for CAATSA does little to mitigate this problem. The Justice Department’s ability to prosecute sanctions violations, even in third-party countries, has only exacerbated the issue.

While sanctions are an important instrument in the diplomatic toolbox, it is one that should be used sparingly and with thoughtful precision. Sanctions, as they are currently enacted, allow the U.S. government to be seen by voters as doing something to punish perceived enemies. But sanctions accomplish little more than toughening adversarial resolve. Secondary sanctions also alienate both broader populations and a wider array of elites in other countries. If the United States wants to see real behavioral change from its targets, it needs to cultivate those elites and their populations. If Mikhail Gorbachev or his allies had faced grinding sanctions, it is unlikely he would have been able to convince much of the Soviet ruling class to enact reforms. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. grand strategy has become listless and unfocused, leading to short-sighted actions like sanctions enactment to become the default American response to many challenging situations, but with no end goal in sight.

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