The United States and nearly 40 other countries have responded to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine with some of the harshest economic measures enacted in the post–Cold War era. In the early weeks of the conflict, media attention focused on the stunning speed with which new sanctions restricting Russia’s access to global capital and financial markets began to hinder key parts of the country’s economy. But even more consequential than sanctions are new sweeping controls on exports to Russia that Washington and its allies have imposed to restrict the flow of many goods. These new controls break the traditional mold of regulating only sensitive military technology and items relevant to weapons by seeking to advance broader strategic and economic policy goals—namely, to weaken Moscow’s war machine.

Unlike sanctions, which inflict economic pain by restricting trade and banking, export controls have traditionally been designed to curtail a country’s access to commodities, software, technology, and services. Since the start of the Cold War, the United States and its allies have used multilateral export control regimes and domestic controls to staunch the flow of so-called dual-use items—those with civilian and military applications—to adversaries, thereby preventing them from developing, producing, or using certain weapons. The new controls targeting Russia vastly expand the list of dual-use and other controlled items, cutting off the supply of vital inputs for Russia’s industrial base. They also block the Russian military from accessing all U.S.-made commercial items, regardless of whether they have military applications. Furthermore, the new controls are coordinated with U.S. allies, which for the first time since the end of the Cold War have enacted a common licensing policy and imposed common restrictions on a broad range of dual-use and other items destined for Russia.

This unprecedented response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shifted the culture around export controls by achieving in weeks what would have previously taken months. It has also created an opening for Washington and its allies to go even further and adopt a new formal export control regime, one that not only weakens President Vladimir Putin’s Russia but moves export controls into the twenty-first century by advancing goals beyond traditional nonproliferation objectives. The United States and other technologically advanced democratic countries have the opportunity to reassess their export and broader trade controls to better align them with new and emerging foreign policy and national security challenges—from terrorism to rogue isolationist regimes to competition with other great powers. The nature of these challenges is shifting. So, too, must the tools that the United States and its allies use to respond to them.


The export control laws of the United States and its allies mainly regulate specific commodities, software, and technologies that have been identified as potentially risky by one of four multilateral export control regimes: the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Australia Group, and the Wassenaar Arrangement. The NSG and the MTCR focus on nuclear- and missile-related items, the AG covers items related to chemical and biological weapons, and the WA covers conventional arms and related dual-use items. All four are informal voluntary arrangements whose members agree to regulate the export of identified items based mainly on assessments of how these items might be diverted for a purpose that is deemed unacceptable. Although Washington has sometimes used export controls to achieve other foreign policy objectives, their use has traditionally been limited to nonproliferation-related goals. In some instances, export controls have been used to support U.S. economic sanctions against comprehensively embargoed countries such as Iran and North Korea, advancing limited, unilateral human rights objectives such as controlling instruments of torture.

These regimes have achieved many of their objectives. For example, the Australia Group, which emerged in response to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, made it much harder for Baghdad to procure components of and precursors to chemical weapons through legitimate trade channels. Since chemical weapons would not be made illegal until 1997, twelve years after AG was founded, this regime served an important function during this time. But as successful as they were during the Cold War and immediate post–Cold War era, these long-standing regimes cannot meet the demands of the current moment. For one thing, Russia is a member of three of them—the WA, NSG, and MTCR—and because regimes make their lists of controlled items by consensus, Moscow has the ability to inhibit discussions. Making matters worse, Russia cannot be removed from any of these regimes—not even for invading a fellow member––without its consent. In fact, Russia is the MTCR’s chair this year.

Aside from the obvious problem of Russia’s membership in three out of four of them, these regimes suffer from an outdated definition of national security. As China seeks to achieve strategic dominance in key sectors through subsidies and unfair trade practices, the narrow definition of national security that has long shaped multilateral export controls is no longer adequate. After all, such controls have not traditionally been designed to pick economic winners and losers, a practice that analysts and officials had begun to question even before the war in Ukraine.

The unprecedented response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shifted the culture around export controls.

Another problem with the current export control regimes stems from the gradual blurring of military and civilian lines. In recent years, China has encouraged the erosion of boundaries between its domestic military and civilian sectors through a policy known as military-civil fusion, creating obstacles to differentiating between dual-use and purely civilian items. Moreover, existing regimes are destination-agnostic; in fact, the WA explicitly states that its restrictions “will not be directed against any state or group of states and will not impede bona fide civil transactions.”

Finally, none of the regimes—nor any other international body—are responsible for or designed to identify and control the various technologies that have increasingly enabled authoritarian governments to commit human rights violations. Perhaps the most infamous example of this sort of abuse has been committed by the Chinese government against the minority Uyghur population in in Xinjiang. The U.S. the Department of Commerce and the Department of Treasury have condemned these atrocities. In addition, the Commerce Department has sought to block exports to Chinese entities complicit in island-building in the South China Sea and to bar transfers of technology to China’s military. Such efforts have been unilateral, however, making them less effective than a multilateral regime.


Given the shortcomings of existing export control regimes, the United States should take the lead in establishing a new one fit for the present geopolitical moment—something top officials in the Department of Commerce have been calling for over the last few months. The mandate of this new regime should be to identify the commodities and technologies that currently fall through the cracks as well as the institutions and individuals in whose hands these tools could pose a threat to national security, economic security, and human rights. The ability to blacklist specific buyers under specific conditions is essential to prevent human rights abuses involving widely available and generally benign commercial items, such as intelligent traffic cameras and smart doorbells.

As a first step toward such a regime, a small group of technologically advanced democracies could issue a joint statement outlining what they have already essentially agreed to do: impose similar controls on regime-listed items and on unlisted items that have been deemed critical to Russia’s economic and military objectives. Such a move would establish the first multilateral arrangement of the post–Cold War era to restrict the export of commercial commodities, software, and technology for strategic reasons beyond those articulated by the four existing regimes. The primary objective of these export controls should not be to damage the economies of adversaries. Although this may be a side effect, the primary objective should be to impose strategic delays on their ability to innovate in targeted sectors. The United States and its allies cannot prevent countries such as China and Russia from modernizing their militaries or innovating in their high-tech sectors, but they can work together using export controls to make it more difficult for China and Russia to achieve their objectives.

The signatories of this new arrangement could then draw up a joint statement similar to the one issued in September 2021 by the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council’s working group on export controls, which laid out plans to improve joint compliance and enforcement efforts, among other things. In addition, member countries would need to amend their domestic export control laws to authorize the new controls, including against specific countries. To help consolidate the new regime and guide its actions, member states could agree to harmonize their controls over regime-listed and unlisted items destined for China, Russia, and other countries of concern. Doing so would enhance the new regime’s effectiveness and level the regulatory playing field for competition between exporters in member countries.

Participation in this new regime would come with benefits and conditions. For example, members could aim to reduce or eliminate most formal and informal limitations on commercial and defense trade by and among companies in participating countries so long as the goods and technology exchanged are used in participating countries. U.S. allies and partners would need to commit to building and maintaining effective domestic export control enforcement systems. But as the new U.S. export controls on Russia have shown, eliminating most U.S. extraterritorial controls on exports from participating countries would provide a powerful incentive for adherence to and participation in this new regime.

In pushing for the creation of a new regime, the United States and its allies should neither end their support for the old ones nor reduce their commitments to making them as effective as possible. These regimes are the foundation of many countries’ domestic export control regimes and serve as critical venues for debate and diplomacy. But a new export control regime is sorely needed to meet the challenges of the current moment, both by providing a setting for regular policy discussions and by coordinating action among like-minded nations.

New export controls will be imposed with or without industry participation, and whether or not a new multilateral regime is set up to help design them. But companies and industry groups should not fear the creation of a new export control regime. Countries are steadily expanding their definitions of national security, often at the expense of what were traditionally viewed as purely commercial activities. A new regime will help manage that expansion in a productive way and level the regulatory playing field—but only if industries work together with governments to ensure that the export controls are precise, technologically accurate, and effective.

A new export control regime will likely open up fresh opportunities for joint investment by and among participating countries. It will also advance the economic and national security interests of those countries and help them defend human rights. The crisis in Ukraine has created a unique opportunity for the United States and its allies to reimagine one of their most potent economic weapons. Doing so is not just good strategy; it is also the right thing to do.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • EMILY S. WEINSTEIN is a Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
  • More By Emily S. Weinstein