In the near future, the Biden administration will reveal a much-needed review of the United States’ broader sanctions policy.
A comprehensive review is long overdue, not least because certain sanctions policies in places like North Korea and Iran have been in place for decades. And sanctions regimes have only expanded in recent years, whether it pertains to the Trump administration leveraging sanctions in Venezuela or the Biden administration recently launching sanctions against entities in Belarus. Together, these sprawling sanctions orders have created a cobweb of confusion for private entities.
The “extensive review” will, as the Wall Street Journal reported, aim “to stem sweeping pressure campaigns” as well as mitigate collateral damage and encourage coordinated, multilateral sanctions responses. But many observers are increasingly concerned the administration will come to one underlying conclusion: American sanctions need to be scaled back to an unprecedented degree, unwinding years of work from multiple administrations.
That would be an understandable impulse amid ongoing questions about the efficacy of sanctions as applied to everything from Cuban brutality to Russian aggression to Iranian nuclear weapon production. But a wholesale scaling back of the use of sanctions would also be an overreaction. Certain categories of sanctions have proved both effective and efficient—it’s just a matter of realizing which ones.
Much of the focus on sanction center efficacy is on so-called “behavioral change” or whether or not the imposition of sanctions actually affects the sanctioned party’s behavior. In many ways, this is the simplest rubric for measuring sanction efficacy. After all, if the targeted regime specifically pursues a different course of action—if it ends its nuclear weapons program, for instance, or if it removes its forces from a neighboring country—the efficacy of the sanctions is there for all to see. Few recent moves better encapsulate how this theory can work than the release of pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkey after the United States issued sanctions against two high-level Turkish officials—though even the direct causality of that move is debated.
Yet there are any number of examples in which these efforts at behavioral change clearly failed. North Korea is the prime example of a regime apparently unfazed by ongoing and expanding sanctions. Despite decades of U.S. sanctions on Pyongyang, the Kim regime nonetheless still stands, still brutalizes its population, and still enjoys the use of nuclear weaponry. Other regimes, whether in Syria or Venezuela, also appear to be following similar paths, sloughing off U.S. sanctions while continuing to smother any efforts at democratization. Those opposed to U.S. sanctions programs understandably focus on this behavioral school of thought. And they have a point: Not only have these regimes remained, but they’ve even led to situations in which regimes solidify authoritarian grips on power, enabling dictators—such as the Kim regime in North Korea or Saddam Hussein in Iraq—to allocate increasingly scarce resources for the despot’s own benefit.
Yet those focused on behavioral change as the sole raison d’être of sanctions programs miss the forest for the trees. Because as the past decade has illustrated time and again, behavioral change is hardly the lone purpose for U.S. sanctions. If anything, sanctions have evolved in a far more effective direction in recent years, with an entirely different ethos than simply behavioral change. Instead, sanctions have increasingly—and increasingly successfully—been used to target, upend, and dissolve networks of malign figures: of kleptocrats and oligarchs and organized crime organizations around the world. In doing so, they’ve developed not only into key blocking tools, preventing these malign networks from worming their ways into Western polities, but they’ve also become key tools in the United States’ broader counter-kleptocracy arsenal—and deserve far greater expansion than they’ve seen thus far.
The initial forays at using sanctions as tools specifically dedicated to dismantling specific networks date back to the war on terror. And it’s not hard to see why. As the late Sen. Carl Levin, considered the godfather of U.S. counter-kleptocracy efforts, said in 2004, “Osama bin Laden boasted that his modern new recruits knew the ‘cracks’ in the ‘Western financial systems’ like they knew the ‘lines in their hands.’” The sanctions levied against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations during the war on terror centered less on changing the terrorist organizations’ behavior and more on specifically disabling and ultimately destroying their networks, primarily via starving them of financial access. Even with the recent resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan
, the terror networks the Taliban once provided cover for have wilted, in no small part thanks to U.S. efforts at specifically targeting those groups’ financing and using sanctions to specifically disable those networks.
Yet sanctions experts are just beginning to apply this same logic—of using sanctions to specifically disable networks—to kleptocratic networks. And there is reason to believe that with the overwhelming focus on sanctions and behavioral change, this logic may simply fall to the wayside. Already, the administration decided to waive sanctions on those responsible for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, including managing director Matthias Warnig, even though the pipeline is widely considered a vessel for transnational corruption for the Kremlin’s benefit. The administration’s logic centered on the claim the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was nearly complete and further sanctions would not change the behavior of those responsible. And even with the administration’s welcome focus on combatting corruption, it has declined to issue further sanctions on Russian oligarchs. Once again, the administration’s reported concern is such sanctions would not change their behavior and may even force them closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin.