There is almost universal agreement that certain flagrant violations of international laws and norms require a strong and coordinated response. Just think, for example, of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the development of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea. Harsh economic sanctions have long been seen as the answer.

The eternal question, however, is: What’s next? When do sanctions stop working? Or worse, when they start working against America’s best interests?

These are important questions because, over the past two decades, economic sanctions have become a tool of first resort for US policymakers, used to disrupting terrorist networkstrying to stop the development of nuclear weapons and punishing dictators. The number of names on the sanctions list of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has grown steadily, 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 rate surpassed last year with the flurry of sanctions President Biden announced following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Given their increasing use, it is therefore useful to understand not only how sanctions can be a tool for successful diplomacy but also how, when not used well, they can ultimately undermine US efforts to. promote peace, human rights and democratic standards across the globe.


Policymakers turn to sanctions so often — the United States accounts for 42 percent of sanctions imposed worldwide since 1950, according to Drexel University’s Global Sanctions Database — in part because they are seen as low-cost, especially compared to military action.

In fact, the costs are high. They are carried by banks, businesses, civilians and humanitarian groups who bear the burden of implementing them, enforcing them and mitigating their effects. Sanctions can also take a toll on vulnerable people — often poor and living under repressive governments, as academics are increasingly documenting.

Officials rarely factor in such costs. While sanctions are easy to impose – there are dozens of sanctions programs administered by multiple federal agencies – they are politically and bureaucratically difficult to lift, even when they no longer serve US interests. What’s worse, sanctions also avoid important public scrutiny. Few officials are accountable for whether a particular sanction is working as intended rather than needlessly harming innocent people or undermining foreign policy goals.

Mr. Biden took office promising to rectify that lack of accountability. The Treasury has made a comprehensive a review of sanctions in 2021 and published a seven-page summary that October. The review process was an important step. It concluded, among other things, that sanctions should be systematically evaluated to ensure they are the right tool for the circumstances, that they be tied to specific outcomes and include our allies where possible and that care be taken to mitigate “unintended economic and political impacts” on American workers, businesses, allies and other innocent people.

The Treasury is making some progress in implementing the review’s recommendations, but Treasury is just that one of many government agencies responsible for enforcing sanctions. Each of them should conduct regular, data-driven analyzes to ensure that the benefits of sanctions outweigh the costs and that sanctions are the right tool, not just the easiest to achieve. It is also important that the results of such analyzes are communicated to Congress and the public.


What is already known is that sanctions are most effective when they have realistic goals and are paired with promises of relief if those goals are met. Perhaps the best example is the 1986 law targeting apartheid South Africa, which set out five conditions for humanitarian aid, including the release of Nelson Mandela. Sanctions by the United States and other nations helped convince the whites-only government of South Africa that its policies calling for racial segregation were unsustainable.

Sanctions on Communist Poland in 1981 in response to the crushing of the Solidarity movement is another example of how this can work. The US and its allies gradually lifted sanctions with the release of most imprisoned activists, helping usher in a new era of political freedom in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

It is noteworthy that the sanctions against South Africa and Poland were aimed at holding free and fair elections, not regime change. Sanctions aimed at regime change often encourage defiance, not reform. They have a terrible history, like the cases of CubeSyria and Venezuela explain.

In Venezuela, open-ended sanctions with a vast ambition – to remove the dictator Nicolás Maduro – have so far achieved the opposite. After he dissolved the democratically elected National Assembly in 2017 and was declared the winner of a presumptive presidential election in 2018, the Trump administration imposed maximum pressure sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company to cut off a crucial source of funding for Maduro’s dictatorship.

While severe individual sanctions against Mr. Maduro were necessary, the blacklisting of Venezuela’s oil sector has aggravated humanitarian crisis: As this editorial warned, cutting off oil revenue deepened which was already the worst economic contraction in Latin America in decades. Sanctions against the oil industry, which accounts for about 90 percent of the country’s exports, have caused a dramatic cuts in government revenue and significant increases in poverty, according to to study last year by Francisco Rodríguez, a Venezuelan economist from the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

Politics, meanwhile, has failed to push Mr. Maduro out of power. He has instead tightened his grip on Venezuela, blamed its economic woes on American sanctions and drawn his country closer to Russia and China. Sanctions are deeply unpopular in Venezuela, according to many opinion polls. Even the representative of Venezuela’s opposition in the United States, a group that previously supported broad sanctions, recently called on Mr. Biden to lift oil sanctions.

Since taking office, Mr. Biden has taken steps to modify the sanctions against Venezuela to add specific, achievable targets. His administration terminated some oil sanctions giving Chevron permission to do limited work in the countryprompted by the spike in oil prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The White House has promised more aid if Mr. Maduro takes steps to hold free and fair elections next year. Francisco Palmieri, the head of mission of the State Department of the Venezuelan affairs unit in Bogotá, Colombia, recently released detailed list about what needs to be done for the sanctions to be lifted. It includes setting a date for next year’s presidential election, reinstating candidates who have been arbitrarily detained and freeing political prisoners.

Mr. Maduro has so far failed to comply. On June 30, he blocked yet another known opposition figure of office However, that more modest policy, which supports a gradual return to democracy rather than sudden regime change, is a better approach.

The Biden administration should be more explicit about which sanctions in Venezuela would be lifted and when, especially those on the state oil company. That would make American promises more credible. Agreement in November between Mr. Maduro and the opposition to use Venezuela’s frozen assets for humanitarian purposes was another promising step, but it is in limbo because the funds have not yet been released.

According to the delay, Venezuelans are losing hope for a negotiated solution to the crisis Feliciano Reyna, the president and founder of Acción Solidaria, a non-profit organization that provides supplies for public hospitals in Venezuela. Although he has a special permit to import supplies, he said he still had trouble getting what he needed. Some companies, he said, preferred not to sell to Venezuela rather than deal with the headache of making sure it was legal — a phenomenon known as overcompliance.

“The situation inside is really terrible,” Mr. Reyna said.

The loss of hope is, in part, why more than seven million Venezuelans have fled their country since 2015, with more than 240,000 arriving at the southern border of the United States in the past two years. Many experts view sanctions as a major driver of migration from Venezuela because they worsen the economic conditions that push people to leave. In response, a group of Democratic lawmakers — including Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas, who is co-chairing Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign — begged to stop sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba.

In addition to fulfilling its commitments in Venezuela, the Biden administration can do much more to show that the United States is changing its sanctions policy to make it more humane. The first step would be to follow the recommendations of its 2021 review and formally consider the humanitarian cost of any sanction before it is imposed. The Treasury in May hired two economists to take on that task; this should become standard practice for any agency with the responsibility to implement sanctions.


Once the government begins conducting systematic reviews of existing sanctions, it is important to ensure that any punishment imposed can be overturned.

Consider the most glaring failure to do so: the open-ended trade embargo against Cuba. President John F. Kennedy placed the embargo in 1962 with the stated purpose of “isolate the current government of Cuba and thus reduce the threat posed by its alignment with the communist powers.”

In the years since, US presidents have sent very different messages about what it would take to lift sanctions. Barack Obama moved to raise many of them in 2014 — an effort that Donald Trump reversed three years later. Last year, Mr. Biden lifted some of the Trump-era sanctions. However, only an act of Congress can end the embargo.

Peter Harrell, who served on the staff of the National Security Council under Mr. Biden, argues that sanctions will automatically expire after a certain number of years unless Congress votes to extend them. That would reduce cases of zombie sanctions this continues for decades, long after US policymakers have given up on achieving their goals from the sanctions.

For sanctions to to encourage change rather than just punishing actions in the past, the US should be prepared to lift sanctions – even against odious actors – if the stated criteria are met.

Sanctions, as attractive as they are, rarely work without specific objectives combined with criteria for sanctions to be lifted. This applies to current and future sanctions. Without goals and aid criteria, these measures – among the most severe in the US foreign policy arsenal – risk working against US interests and principles in the long term.

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