In recent years, US economic and financial sanctions have become favored tools of US power. The centrality of the US financial system and the ubiquity of the US dollar in the global financial marketplace make sanctions a powerful tool to have on hand when confronting foreign policy challenges. The great danger is, however, that sanctions become a substitute for actual policy, rather than merely a tool of foreign policy. In “US Sanctions: Using a Coercive Economic and Financial Tool Effectively” authors David Mortlock and Brian O’Toole, who are both senior fellows at the Atlantic Council’s, explain what sanctions are and why they are used. The authors assess the Trump Administration’s use of sanctions and outline the conditions under which sanctions are most effective. Finally, Mortlock and O’Toole provide specific recommendations on what steps the US government must take to ensure sanctions remain a key component of the national security toolkit.
Invest in the Sanctions Tool: OFAC’s budget should continue to increase, particularly for information technology and capable staff, and there should be a renewed push to fill the State Department’s related offices and roles.
Fully evaluate sanctions before imposing them: The whole point of sanctions is to harm the target more than oneself or one’s friends. Rushing to impose sanctions without understanding the impact and potential blowback has huge risks.
Use sanctions to achieve a clear policy goal: Do not use sanctions as a substitute for policy; use them only as part of a policy goal, in conjunction with diplomacy or military action to achieve a clear policy objective.
Develop new tools as a supplement or alternative to sanctions: There are many situations in which sanctions are not terribly effective against their targets but are used anyway. Other tools exist to achieve policy goals but may need to be tweaked to be more effective.
Work with allies and partners: Diplomacy can build broad coalitions to impose sanctions. Cooperation with allies and partners creates the conditions for successful sanctions.
Let the technocrats do their jobs: Sanctions are often at their best when the most knowledgeable people—those mid-level technocrats—are given latitude to execute approved policy.