The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Do Trump’s sanctions on foreign countries work? The government doesn’t know.

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump listen as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announces sanctions on Iran during a meeting with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sept. 20 in the Oval Office. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The Trump administration has made sanctions a key part of its foreign policy arsenal, placing enormous economic pressure on nations like North Korea and Iran in a bid to force concessions in negotiations with the United States. But is there real evidence that this tactic works?

The U.S. government, it turns out, can’t be sure. A new report released by a government watchdog this week found that although the agencies that implement sanctions track their economic impact, they do not measure whether the sanctions achieve their aim in forcing a target to change its behavior.

Officials from the Treasury, State and Commerce departments told researchers from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that there were several difficulties in assessing whether they are achieving their aims, including the shifting nature of foreign policy goals and the difficulty in isolating the effects of sanctions.

The report appears to contradict statements made by Trump and other high-level officials. “I think the sanctions work,” President Trump said during a news conference last month in which he lauded sanctions placed on Iran that he said were “the strongest sanctions ever put on a country.”

In August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that sanctions on Iran had “denied the Iranian regime wealth.” He said that for the administration, “that is working.”

The Trump administration’s widespread use of sanctions has long been a subject of debate. Though all U.S. governments in recent years have used economic pressure to try to achieve foreign policy aims, Trump has taken it further, imposing a number of sanctions on states and a record number of targeted sanctions on individuals and entities.

Critics have argued that the administration’s use of sanctions is haphazard: Recent sanctions that targeted a Chinese shipping firm appeared to have inadvertently affected ships carrying American oil, for example.

Even in the most high-profile cases, sanctions can sometimes look more like an impediment than a tool: Although the Trump administration has imposed significant sanctions on Iran and North Korea, in talks with both countries the removal of those sanctions has become a sticking point in negotiations.

The GAO conducted its audit of the performance from May 2018 to October 2019, including both primary research with government agencies and a review of available studies on the effectiveness of sanctions.

It found that Treasury, State and Commerce used analysis from the intelligence community to estimate the effect of the economic effect of sanctions. They said that these sanctions often contributed to broader interagency discussions, typically coordinated through the National Security Council.

Officials, however, suggested that a variety of factors made accurately gauging the effectiveness of a sanction a difficult task. “For example, a sanctioned country may decide to cease certain behavior for any number of reasons that may be unrelated to the sanctions or other U.S. policy measures,” the report argued, noting that sanctions are often used in conjunction with diplomatic engagement and other tools.

The report also said that officials said that foreign policy aims may change over time and that a lack of underlying data made it difficult to make accurate assessments.

The report found that the available research from sources outside the government suggested there were two key factors that increased the effectiveness of sanctions: whether they were implemented through an international organization like the United Nations and whether the target was dependent on the United States.

The United States has had some success in coordinating international sanctions under the current administration, most notably in the case of U.N. Security Council sanctions installed on North Korea, but Trump has generally moved unilaterally on sanctions.

That tactic has sometimes brought the United States into dispute with other allies, such as those who stayed in the nuclear agreement with Iran after the Trump administration pulled out and reimposed sanctions.

The administration has also been criticized for imposing sanctions so wide-ranging that they pose a humanitarian risk in economically fraught countries like Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. The GAO report suggested that sanctions that have a bigger effect economically often have knock-on effects.

“Sanctions may also have unintended consequences for targeted countries, such as negative impacts on human rights or public health,” the authors wrote. “In some studies, larger economic impacts were associated with more unintended consequences, suggesting an important policy trade-off.”