Penalty Box

How Sanctions Trap Policymakers

A representation of Vladimir Putin, October 21, 2010.
A representation of Vladimir Putin, October 21, 2010. (Vladimir Konstantinov / Courtesy Reuters)

In recent months, U.S. President Barack Obama has imposed multiple rounds of economic sanctions on Russia. Their purpose, according to the president, is threefold: to punish Moscow for its intrusion in Ukraine, to deter it from further destabilizing the region, and, ultimately, to persuade it to reverse course and pull out of Ukraine entirely.

Obama has often relied on sanctions to address difficult foreign policy challenges. His aides have described them as the prudent middle path between intervening militarily and standing idly by. Over the past few years, he has put them to use against Iran, Libya, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Myanmar (or Burma), and North Korea. But this is not merely an Obama phenomenon: President George W. Bush sanctioned many of the same countries, and President Bill Clinton did too. Nor is it purely an executive branch trend. Where Obama has been reluctant to impose sanctions -- for instance, on Iran during his first term, when he was still holding out hope that a more conciliatory approach could work -- Congress has forced his hand.

Washington’s reliance on sanctions has increased as it has developed more effective types of penalties and ways of implementing them. For example, policymakers have become particularly skilled at leveling sanctions on the financial institutions through which target countries access the global financial system. These penalties are designed to choke off foreign governments and companies from the global economy -- the benefits of which are getting larger as the world grows more interconnected. Many new sanctions go beyond merely restricting a target country’s access to U.S. companies; they use legal designations to scare off foreign companies from doing business in that country as well.

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