“We need to stop making sanctions the default option”

Connor Echols

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said in a hearing Tuesday that Congress does not “methodically and thoughtfully” review whether U.S. sanctions are really having their intended effect.

“We impose these things and then that’s it,” said McGovern, who has long led efforts to sanction human rights abusers. “And then there are all kinds of political forces that make it very difficult to revisit these things.”

McGovern also contended that broad sanctions are ineffective, serving no purpose “except punishing people into ever-deepening misery and fueling anti-American sentiment” while encouraging countries to stop using the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency.

The comments came during a wide-ranging congressional hearing on the humanitarian impacts of sanctions. Noting the deadly effects of U.S. sanctions in countries like Myanmar, Venezuela, Syria, and Iran, experts suggested a range of reforms that could make the measures less costly for civilian populations.

Among other things, each of the witnesses who spoke during the hearing argued in favor of a built-in review process that would force Congress to reauthorize sanctions regimes after a given period — or at least evaluate their effectiveness and impact on civilians.

In this vein, Delaney Simon of the International Crisis Group proposed that all sanctions programs be accompanied by “clear statements of [the] foreign policy objectives they are trying to further, periodic reauthorization requirements, and regular reviews to Congress” of their effectiveness and humanitarian impact.

Experts also noted that so-called “targeted sanctions” are far from the panacea that many in Congress view them as.

“Sanctions aimed at weakening the targeted government will often cause that regime to adopt more repressive measures to stay in power,” argued Daniel Drezner of Tufts University, adding that such sanctions also tend to have a negative impact on the country’s overall economy.

Another issue raised during the hearing was “overcompliance,” or cases in which businesses and NGOs choose to avoid doing business in a sanctioned country even though they would likely qualify for a waiver. Organizations often fear that they will accidentally violate sanctions, and many nonprofits are simply unable to shoulder the legal costs associated with guaranteeing compliance, as Yale professor and Quincy Institute non-resident fellow Asli Bali explained.

“For an aid agency working internationally, being cut off from international financial transactions due to the provision of humanitarian supplies to a sanctioned country imperils their work globally,” Bali said. “This is a risk many corporations and NGOs have proven unwilling to take regardless of how well designed a humanitarian waiver exemption system might be.”

When it comes to sanctions imposed on Russia, experts were more positive. Bruce Jentleson, a professor at Duke University who previously served in a range of foreign policy-related roles, argued that economic restrictions have had an impressive impact on Moscow’s military effort in Ukraine. Perhaps the largest benefit of such measures is that they could strengthen Washington’s hand in future negotiations — that is, assuming that policymakers are willing to get past concerns about looking “soft” on the Kremlin.

“We really need to be thinking about, if we get to that point, what are the sanctions that we lift […] for what concessions?” Jentleson said.

Some experts also weighed in on the debate over whether to designate Russia a state sponsor of terror, a conversation that has heated up in recent weeks as members of Congress have pressured President Joe Biden to make the designation.

“Some measures that have been suggested — for instance, the state sponsor of terrorism designation — may close off opportunities to start considering an earnest sanctions relief,” Simon of the ICG argued, adding that it could also have negative effects on the global humanitarian situation.

More generally, experts argued that the U.S. would be better off if it stopped using economic punishment as a knee-jerk response to issues around the world. “We need to stop making sanctions the default option,” said Jentleson.

Courtesy: Responsible Statecraft.