Economic sanctions have proven to be an important foreign policy tool for the Trump Administration. In less than a year, it has expanded existing economic sanctions in response to disputes with North Korea, Russia, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. In Secondary Economic Sanctions: Effective Policy or Risky Business, author John Forrer, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Business & Economics Program, explains that one specific strategy used to increase the effects of US sanctions is referred to as “secondary sanctions.” This type of sanction is adopted in addition to the “primary sanctions” imposed on a sanctioned individual or entity. The author adds that globalization has lessened many countries’ vulnerability to traditional sanctions, and poses severe challenges to designing and implementing economic sanctions. Mr. Forrer argues that secondary sanctions can bolster the effectiveness of primary sanctions. At the same time, he cautions that secondary sanctions can be controversial, and their effectiveness is highly contested. The author stresses the importance of fully understanding secondary sanctions’ promise and pitfalls, before embracing a strategy of expanded use of this foreign policy tool.


Key Recommendations:

The experience of secondary sanctions invoked against entities and individuals suggests a singular set of circumstances when secondary sanctions could be useful:

  • The sanctioning country controls a vital and singular commercial asset not available elsewhere in the global economy.
  • The sanctioned entity can deny access to this commercial asset, with limited prospects for replacement.
  • Denied access results in immediate and tangible economic losses, or certain losses in the near term.
  • The resulting economic losses for the sanctioned entity are significant and permanent.
  • Target countries comprise a comprehensive and multilateral force.
  • The sanctioned country’s policy in dispute is viewed as a significant international problem by the international community.