The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has returned from Antarctica and tried to process everything that has gone down over the past two weeks. The big thing that dropped over the weekend was the administration’s new National Security Strategy, just a short two years after it was scheduled to come out.
While I’ve been traveling back from the White Continent (yes, it’s called that), the new NSS has been parsed to death. I see that the president is now augmenting things by talking to Vox about it. But there’s one specific element of the NSS that’s worth focusing on: the very prominent role of economic sanctions.
Sanctions are mentioned nine times in the 2015 NSS. They only got one offhand mention in the 2010 NSS — which, by the way is one more mention than they got in George W. Bush’s 2002 NSS. But it’s not just the word count that matters. They’re a key pillar to enable Obama to avoid using military force unless absolutely necessary.
Early on, the NSS states “Targeted economic sanctions will remain an effective tool for imposing costs on irresponsible actors and helping to dismantle criminal and terrorist networks.” Later on, there’s this explanation:
Targeted economic sanctions remain an effective tool for imposing costs on those irresponsible actors whose military aggression, illicit proliferation, or unprovoked violence threaten both international rules and norms and the peace they were designed to preserve. We will pursue multilateral sanctions, including through the U.N., whenever possible, but will act alone, if necessary. Our sanctions will continue to be carefully designed and tailored to achieve clear aims while minimizing any unintended consequences for other economic actors, the global economy, and civilian populations.
In many cases, our use of targeted sanctions and other coercive measures are meant not only to uphold international norms, but to deter severe threats to stability and order at the regional level. We are not allowing the transgressors to define our regional strategies on the basis of the immediate threats they present. Rather, we are advancing a longer-term affirmative agenda in each of the regions, which prioritizes reinvigorating alliances with long-standing friends, making investments in new partnerships with emerging democratic powers with whom our interests are increasingly aligned, and continuing to support the development of capable, inclusive regional institutions to help enforce common international rules.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but make no mistake, the 2015 NSS is giving pride of place to sanctions in a way that I’ve never seen before in a U.S. national security strategy. This is consistent with his clear and present aversion to using military force in places where he doesn’t think the cost-benefit analysis justifies it.
The question, however, is whether the 2015 NSS is right about what sanctions can do. And the answer here is decidedly mixed.
Are targeted sanctions “an effective tool for imposing costs” on actors resisting U.S. foreign policy preferences? Sure. They clearly brought Iran to the negotiating table and have pushed Russia’s already tottering economy toward further contraction. One can also argue that the administration has embraced the idea that official sanctions have the added benefit of scaring away private sector actors from targeted economies.
But — and this is important — sanctions really can’t force adversaries into making strategically significant concessions. On their own, the most powerful sanctions in the world will not force Russia out of Ukraine or cause Iran to completely abandon its nuclear program. They can force some concessions, to be sure, but in these cases, the expectations of future conflict will make Russia and Iran dig in their heels.
So I don’t think sanctions will be as useful as the administration thinks in wrangling stray actors back toward the global rules of the game. But that said, the administration is asserting something new and interesting about sanctions: their deterrent value. It’s clear that Obama’s foreign policy team thinks that targeted sanctions are a refined and powerful instrument. Even if they do not alter Russian or Iranian behavior, the imposed sanctions will supposedly alter the incentives of other countries to become the next Russia or Iran.
Will this work? I don’t know. The sanctions scholarship doesn’t really know. It’s a hard counterfactual to prove. One could argue that it’s played a part in China acting much less belligerently in 2014 than Russia, for example. But proving that assertion would be damn tough. But that doesn’t mean that Obama is wrong. It seems pretty clear that governments interested in promoting economic growth would like to avoid getting sanctioned. The question is whether sanctions will have any effect on the countries that are less interested in promoting economic growth.
So to sum up: I don’t think sanctions will be as effective a tool as the Obama administration thinks. But if they are correct about their deterrent value, then us scholars and pundits are focusing on the wrong cases. It’s not whether economic statecraft is working in places like Russia or Iran or North Korea. It’s whether these sanctions are discouraging other countries from following the path of Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang.