U.S. sanctions still favored by Trump lose punch as policy tool
Announcements of U.S. sanctions — and calls from Capitol Hill for more — come with numbing regularity, targeting Russian oligarchs, Venezuelan oil executives, Nicaraguan politicians, Chinese coal traders, Iranian bankers, Turkish Cabinet ministers, North Korean shippers, human rights violators in Myanmar and, just this month, any foreigner who tries to “interfere in or undermine public confidence in United States elections,” among others, according to the U.S. Treasury.
Since the start of his term, President Trump has aggressively employed one of the most potent weapons of international statecraft to bolster his “America first” foreign policy, but analysts worry that sanctions have been so overused by Democratic and Republican administrations that their effectiveness is blunted.
The power of the sanctions is obvious, effectively shutting out the sanctioned from the world’s largest economy and America’s globe-spanning financial system.
Trump administration officials credit a U.S.-led campaign for international sanctions for helping bring North Korea to the bargaining table over its nuclear weapons. They are organizing a similar effort using sanctions to pressure Iran.
But skeptics say there is a sense of overkill and that Washington often targets foreign figures and organizations that have minimal or nonexistent ties to the U.S. economy. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill recently complained that the executive branch is failing to enforce many of the sanctions on the books.
Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics has studied the global use of sanctions since World War I. He has explored more than 200 cases and has co-authored one of the leading books on the subject, “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered,” which was first published in 1985 and been updated multiple times since.
“Sanctions are a part of diplomacy that wax and wane, and we’re now in a heavy period of their use,” Mr. Hufbauer said in an interview.
It’s not a new concern. Richard Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a study for the Brookings Institution 20 years ago warning against the overuse of unilateral U.S. sanctions to achieve foreign policy goals.
“All too often sanctions turn out to be little more than expressions of U.S. preferences that hurt American economic interests without changing the target’s behavior for the better,” Mr. Haass wrote at the time. “As a rule, sanctions need to be less unilateral and more focused on the problem at hand.”
It’s not just America’s major adversaries that have been targeted for sanctions.
Smaller countries, individuals and entities with bull’s-eyes on their backs include Colombian drug traffickers, Libyan oil smugglers, Hezbollah terrorist financiers and Congolese child soldier recruiters.
An analysis by the Washington-based law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher shows the increasing willingness of the U.S. government to resort to the sanction tool.
During Mr. Trump’s first year in office, nearly 1,000 people and entities were added to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons financial blacklist. That was roughly triple the number President Obama added during his first full year in office.
The Obama and George W. Bush administrations relied on “targeted sanctions” to punish terrorists, smugglers, human rights violators and foreign policy rivals, but the Trump administration has expanded the overall blacklist to an all-time high of roughly 6,500 names, according to the Gibson, Dunn numbers.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin is also taking a far more activist approach to sanctions as a foreign policy tool.
“In prior administrations, the Treasury secretary’s involvement in sanctions policy was intermittent and rare, leaving the dayto-day work and announcements of new sanctions” to the director of [the office of foreign assets control], Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher analysts wrote.