The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Trump, sanctions substitute for foreign policy

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For all the talk of “fire and fury” we once heard from President Trump, his administration’s most-frequently used weapons have been not have been explosive — they’ve been financial.

Since entering office, Trump has often used economic sanctions (and, concurrently, tariffs) in an attempt to bend other countries to his will. The administration feels, with some justification, that tough sanctions brought North Korea to the negotiating table.

Now Trump hopes that reinstating sanctions on Iran will also force that country to bargain with the United States and craft a new nuclear deal.

But the evidence that these sanctions are working as a foreign-policy tool isn’t convincing. And there is considerable concern that the Trump administration is overusing them while neglecting other important facets of foreign policy, like simple negotiations or coordination with allies.

The Washington Post’s Carol Morello recently outlined just how prevalent sanctions have become in the Trump era in a recent article. She found that during just one month — February 2018 — the United States had imposed sanctions not only on North Korea, but also groups or individuals in Colombia, Libya, Congo, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Lebanon and more.

Though their use may be increasing, sanctions are not a new idea — they date back hundreds of years, if not further. Yet academic research has found that they often don’t work as intended. One study looked at 200 sanctions from between 1914 and 2008 and found only 13 that were clearly instrumental in achieving their creators' aims.

The problem isn’t necessarily that they can’t inflict financial damage on a foe (given the power the United States holds over the global economy, that much is now a given). Instead, the issue is that this damage doesn’t always contribute to any logical foreign policy goal. This problem may be particularly acute for the Trump administration, in which sanctions are sometimes a substitute for a broader foreign policy rather than a way to implement one.

Consider North Korea, the great success story of the current U.S. sanctions regime. Following the rapid advances Pyongyang made in its weapons programs in 2017, the United States was able to impose some of the strictest unilateral and multilateral sanctions (via the U.N. Security Council) ever placed on North Korea. The evidence we have suggests that these sanctions hurt: South Korea’s central bank estimated last month that North Korea’s economy suffered its steepest decline in two decades in 2017.

Sanctions, therefore, seem to have played at least a supporting role in moderating North Korea’s behavior and helping pave the way for the June 12 summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But the summit itself was not the goal. The whole point, from the U.S. point of view at least, was that North Korea would agree to denuclearize. And that part is not going well.

Just under two months after the summit, North Korean diplomats are verbally sparring with their U.S. counterparts again. Even among officials, there is growing acceptance among experts that denuclearization may not happen in any kind of meaningful way. As Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based expert on North Korea, put it after a recent visit to Washington: “Bureaucrats admit that they understand that denuclearization is no longer a realistic goal.”

Yet Trump now seems to be applying the North Korean playbook to Iran. The president pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal and officially started reinstating sanctions on Tehran on Monday. He also said last week that he would be open to meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “anytime” without preconditions. To many, it was the repeat of a cynical tactic — threaten, sanction, then voilà, a summit! — that is unlikely to produce meaningful results.

This time around, the sanctions part of the plan has even more obvious flaws. For one thing, Iran has a complicated and divided civil society that will not necessarily fall into line behind its leadership. As my colleague Ishaan Tharoor wrote earlier this week, new sanctions may not weaken Iran’s hard-liners, but rather embolden them.

The international situation is much different, too. America’s major European allies are opposed to Trump decision to exit the nuclear deal; some have suggested they may try to actively undermine U.S. sanctions by instructing state-owned banks and energy companies to do business with Iran.

Then there’s China, which was clearly so instrumental to the success of North Korean sanctions but is now anticipating a trade war with the United States. Why would they bother help to Trump on Iran — or again on North Korea, for that matter?

The simplest issue with Trump’s sanctions-heavy, strategy-light policy is the wasted effort. But they could also produce more subtle effects that would be bad for the United States going forward. For example, there’s growing agitation in South Korea as sanctions continue to block economic rapprochement with North Korea — likely to the eventual benefit of China and Russia.

And it’s worth remembering that one reason that the United States can effectively employ sanctions is because of its hegemonic power over the global financial system. In the long term, that could change as foreign powers grow more and more disillusioned with Washington’s supposedly steady hand.

For now, it looks like Trump’s dreams of sanctions bringing peace seems unlikely to turn into a reality any time soon. As Daniel Larison of the American Conservative put it in a response to Trump’s tweet on Tuesday: “Nothing says world peace like economic warfare with the rest of the world.”

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