Economic sanctions have been a fixture of U.S. foreign policy for decades, but never have they enjoyed so much popularity as they do today. On virtually every major foreign problem—North Korea’s belligerence, Iran’s nuclear aspirations, Russia’s aggression, the Islamic State’s (or ISIS’) brutality—the U.S. government has turned to some form of sanctions as an answer. Their value is one of the few things that former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump agree on: Obama used them more than any other president in recent history, and Trump, in his first eight months in office, oversaw significant expansions of U.S. sanctions against North Korea, Venezuela, and, despite his misgivings, Russia.
Some U.S. sanctions aim to stigmatize foreign leaders and human rights abusers, such as those against North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and the Russian officials responsible for killing the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Others are designed to deny terrorists, drug traffickers, nuclear proliferators, and other bad actors the money and tools they need to wreak havoc. It is a third category, however, that U.S. officials have come to rely on so heavily in recent years: coercive economic sanctions. Their purpose is to apply economic pressure to force a foreign government to do something it doesn’t want to do (or to refrain from doing something it does want to do). The prime example is the sanctions that pressured Iran to sign the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, under which it agreed to stringent limitations on its nuclear program.
For all the popularity of sanctions, however, the system for applying them remains underdeveloped. U.S. officials almost never design sanctions, much less negotiate them with allies, until crises are already under way, and so the measures tend to be either rushed and ill conceived or too slow to deter adversaries. These shortcomings make sanctions less effective in the present, and they will do even more harm in the
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