Sanctions are increasingly common in U.S. foreign policy and economic statecraft. But they are not a cure-all. Sanctions are effective only when used alongside other tools in a coherent strategy and aimed at clear policy objectives. CNAS experts are examining how and when the United States can employ sanctions most successfully. Continue reading this edition of Sharper to explore their ideas about how the United States must recalibrate sanctions policy.
Strengthening the Economic Arsenal
Policymakers need a clear framework for how to use economic coercion that complements and works alongside existing frameworks for the use of military coercion. In the CNAS report “Strengthening the Economic Arsenal: Bolstering the Deterrent and Signaling Effects of Sanctions,” authors Elizabeth Rosenberg and Jordan Tama outline ways to improve how the United States uses sanctions, including by making U.S. sanctions-removal assurances more credible, rethinking the role of sanctions in pressure targeting adversaries, and emphasizing the importance of information-sharing and transparency around sanctions for effective foreign policy.
Any U.S. administration seeking diplomatic engagement with Iran will be forced to deal with a number of complicated challenges, including: the technical complexities of Iran’s nuclear program; the ability to unwind or reimpose a complex sanctions regime; the difficulties imposed by both Iranian and American domestic politics; and the interests and concerns of key international actors. To address this challenge, the CNAS report “Reengaging Iran: A New Strategy for the United States,” authored by Ilan Goldenberg, Elisa Catalano Ewers, and Kaleigh Thomas, outlines a phased approach for engaging Iran in 2021 that takes into account economic, regional, and nuclear issues.
Sanctions by the Numbers
While no quantitative list or specific number of designations can exactly gauge the coercive pressure applied on a target or the efficacy of using sanctions, CNAS' sanctions data-tracking project provides basic information about U.S. sanctions designations and delistings. In the first presentation of the series, Johnpatrick Imperiale examines the last ten years of U.S. financial sanctions designations as a core instrument of foreign policy. In the second installment, Abigail Eineman presents heat maps of the most heavily targeted states in three periods of time: over the course of the Obama administration from 2009–2017, the Trump administration from 2017–June 2020, and a snapshot of the past decade through June 2020.
Experts from across the Center have offered timely analysis on the future of U.S. sanctions.
- In March, Peter Harrell argued in Just Security that "there is growing discussion in Washington about potential reforms to presidential emergency powers, a debate that will only intensify as a result of the coronavirus pandemic."
- "National security policymakers are overdue to incorporate economic instruments, such as sanctions and trade controls, into planning for conflicts and crises," Elizabeth Rosenberg and Jordan Tama wrote in Defense One in December 2019.
- Edward Fishman argued in a June piece for Lawfare that "U.S. policymakers owe it to both themselves and the people in the countries that confront American sanctions to think seriously about how the U.S. government can leverage economic damage to advance worthy policy goals."
- Edoardo Saravalle wrote in a July commentary for CNAS, "A clearer view of international monetary affairs and the Federal Reserve’s actions can improve sanctions policy."
- In November 2018, Kaleigh Thomas warned in World Politics Review that "squeezing Iran financially will feed the division between the United States and Europe over how to address threats from Iran, whether its destabilizing activities in Syria and Yemen or its ballistic missile program."
- "If the U.S. government takes a few bold steps to combat North Korea’s financing of proliferation," Elizabeth Rosenberg and Neil Bhatiya wrote in a CNAS commentary this March, "it could lead us to a much safer and more secure world."
In the News
Featuring commentary and analysis by Elizabeth Rosenberg, Peter Harrell, Kristine Lee, and Ilan Goldenberg.
About the Sharper Series
The CNAS Sharper series features curated analysis and commentary from CNAS experts on the most critical challenges in U.S. foreign policy. From the future of America's relationship with China to the state of U.S. sanctions policy and more, each collection draws on the reports, interviews, and other commentaries produced by experts across the Center to explore how America can strengthen its competitive edge.
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