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In-Depth Research & Reports

November 16, 2020

US sanctions policy: Lessons learned and recommendations for the new administration

By Daniel Fried

Economic sanctions have become a default setting for the US government and Congress to respond to policy problems that do not require military action. As US administrations have increasingly turned to sanctions as a policy tool, they have gotten better at using it. Sanctions policy with the best chance of success is as multilateral as possible, offers credible relief when policy aims are achieved (i.e., no moving the goalposts); and is implemented in a disciplined manner. Author Daniel Fried argues that the Trump administration has gotten some sanctions steps right and has some small achievements to its credit. However, he outlines that the current administration’s sanctions policy did not meet the principles outlined above.

Sanctions are not a policy. They are a tool in the service of a policy that must make sense and be achievable and articulable. In policy making generally, one cannot be greedy or impatient. 

The report provides case studies of Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Russia, China, and human rights sanctions that focus on specific recommendations for the next administration. While this paper draws attention to the shortcomings of the Trump administration in regards to economic sanctions, these pitfalls are not irredeemable. These problems are ever-changing and fixable, and the next administration has the power to reverse the damage. Fried cautions that the next administration must employ sanctions more carefully and remember that they are only one tool in a versatile toolkit available for use in economic statecraft. 

Remember that the structure of the international system gives the United States a natural advantage in the use of the dollar and other tools of economic statecraft. Weakening that system out of frustration or pique risks doing long-term damage to the United States and the system that we built, defended, and enlarged, and that served us and the world well for seventy-five years.

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