Sensible Sanctions

Using Financial Penalties the Right Way

A Russian convoy of trucks drives along a road as Russian servicemen look on, near Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, August 14, 2014. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

The United States has used economic sanctions to address a wide range of undesirable activities, from Russian aggression in Ukraine, to human rights abuses in Syria, to cyberattacks from China and North Korea. Recently, U.S. President Barack Obama is employing sanctions for a new purpose: to deter international aggression and uphold international norms. Such sanctions allow Obama to take nonmilitary action in cases where the costs of using force are too high but a strong response is required. Yet while these tools may deter aggressive actions in certain circumstances, they may actually encourage bad behavior by signaling to international aggressors that the United States is unwilling to use military force to prevent those countries from threatening U.S. interests. 


The practice of using sanctions to disrupt malicious financial activity and target illicit actors goes back to U.S. President George W. Bush, who used key regulatory tools to cut off access to the U.S. financial system for terrorist organizations, their host countries, and the financial institutions helping them. Obama, along with Congress, picked up this practice and expanded it, using financial tools to pressure states such as Iran to give up illicit weapons programs. Over the past ten years, these financial tools have become increasingly popular among policymakers for dealing with an even wider range of issues, including human rights abuses, public corruption in foreign countries, and, most recently, cyberattacks and cybertheft.

During the past few months, however, the Obama administration has announced its intention to employ sanctions to achieve a new, broader objective: to deter aggressive actions toward the United States and its interests. In the case of Russia, now former Treasury Department Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen noted late last year that while “these sanctions are intended to impede dangerous behavior and, above all, to influence Russian decision-making  . . . we may never know what additional Russian aggression the sanctions, and the threat of additional sanctions, may have deterred.” This language is mirrored by the 2015 National

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