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Narrowing the Application of Targeted Sanctions in US Foreign Policy

John David Logan was a 2019-2020 Young Scholar Awards Program recipient. He is a graduate of Union University where he majored in political science and international relations.

There is a tendency among policymakers to absolutize situation-specific solutions of historical cases, especially in foreign policy. The temptation to seek the panacea to all our foreign policy woes is great, and mounting domestic pressure further incentivizes the search. The attachment to targeted sanctions is the biggest current example of this problem.

Targeted, or “smart,” sanctions are uniquely attractive to policymakers because they are a form of coercion that is both bloodless and limited in scope. Rather than targeting an entire economy, targeted sanctions focus their impact on particular actors or entities, in an effort to minimize collateral damage. They were innovated due to the failures of their predecessors, broad economic sanctions, which can be useful for coercion but incur devastating effects on the receiving economy, often resulting in the loss of lives and livelihoods of innocent civilians. Targeted sanctions, then, represent a post-9/11 shift from big bombs to smart bombs, or in this case, big sanctions to smart sanctions.

However, due to their early success and rhetorical value, these valuable tools have been misused and over-applied to the extent that their integrity hangs by a thread. Sanctions, targeted or otherwise, derive their greatest value from their ability to serve as deterrents, and in order for a deterrent to be effective, it must have a rich history of successful implementation. Thus, when the United States carelessly whips out targeted sanctions for a variety of actors ranging from the Mohammad-bin Salman’s aides (already on death row) to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the sanctions are reduced to the mere rhetorical device that politicians think they are–a tool that does “something” while achieving nothing.

Make no mistake: targeted sanctions are an incredibly valuable form of economic statecraft, but they are also an incredibly specific and precise tool, not to be wielded as a sledgehammer. Used properly, targeted sanctions can be a helpful asset to U.S. policymakers in advancing our interests abroad. However, their scope and implementation must be narrowly tailored to the conditions that ensure efficacy if we are to regain and preserve their integrity.

Narrow Policy Goal

Before implementing sanctions, it is important for the sender country to clearly define goals and, even more critically, ensure the goals are narrow in scope. While democracy and human rights are laudable goals that ought to be encouraged, they are far too broad for a tool as limited as targeted sanctions.

In Libya, for example, targeted sanctions were successful in part because the goal was narrow: extradite the Pan Am bombing suspects. In the unsuccessful case of Burma, in contrast, where the U.S. sanctioned the military junta for their crimes against the Rohingya, the main goal was to promote human rights. The use of the sanctions demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of Burmese culture, because the hostilities against the Rohingya minority were rooted not in deviant elitism, but in the entirety of Burmese culture, something that targeted sanctions are (by design) ill-equipped to address.

Sanctions’ goals must be narrowly tailored to fit the culture of the receiving country. If properly implemented, targeted sanctions can isolate bad actors from their supporters and the general population, thus compelling a policy concession. However, as in the case of Iran, targeted sanctions have often created a rallying effect that has effectively stifled any kind of liberal reform.

Minimize Collateral Damage

The entire reason for the innovation of targeted sanctions was to limit the impact on civilian populations, so to say that they must be designed to minimize collateral damage should go without saying. Nevertheless, it is important to do so because collateral damage not only hurts foreign peoples but also impacts the efficacy of the sanctions themselves.

If a sanctions regime negatively impacts the civilian population, it supports anti-Western sentiment that inhibits U.S. influence. Not only that, but when targeted sanctions harm civilians, they bolster regime legitimacy, rather than isolating the targeted actor from the general population as they are supposed to.

This is particularly problematic because targeted sanctions, though limited in scope, can still have dramatic effects on the general population. While bad actors are targeted, these actors are often leaders in the economy, like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is greatly interconnected with the Iranian economy. Directly targeting such leaders indirectly targets the people, rendering the targeted sanctions ineffective.

Because targeted sanctions, like their broad-based predecessors, have deleterious effects on the whole of the economy, targeted sanctions must be carefully considered before implementation. In the successful case of Libya, economic sanctions, in conjunction with diplomatic sanctions, targeted specific sectors and actors while refraining from crippling major industries, preserving the welfare of civilians.

Broader Strategy

Targeted sanctions should not be considered as a strategy in themselves, but rather as an important component of a broader strategy. Their limited nature prohibits them from effecting deep institutional change; they can only be used supplementally. The connection of targeted sanctions with diplomatic sanctions, threats of military force, and further economic damage was what made the Libya case successful.

While it is intuitive to state that sanctions in general are best served on a multilateral basis, it is especially true of targeted sanctions. Without a multilateral basis, targeted actors will be able to divert trade elsewhere, to countries like Russia or China, as Burma did. Having the UN or other multilateral bodies implement targeted sanctions lends greater credibility and enforcement to the sanctions, which is especially important for a tool that is limited in its scope.

Targeted sanctions are important tools for the policymaker when it comes to economic statecraft, but they must be recognized as the limited tools that they are. They are not a panacea and they are not without their flaws. Implementing targeted sanctions when the chance of success is low or when the goals are broad not only makes ineffective foreign policy, but also serves to damage U.S. credibility in future deterrence-dependent events. In order to preserve their integrity, it is necessary for policymakers to understand that sometimes, with targeted sanctions, “less is more.”