The Problem With Sanctions

From the White House to Turtle Bay, sanctions have never been more popular. But why are they so hard to make work?

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
un-sanctions-inspectors-china-foreign-policy-illustration
un-sanctions-inspectors-china-foreign-policy-illustration
Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

2021

Sanctions have never been more popular in Washington and at the United Nations, but the system for enforcing them is under threat, raising questions about the viability of a critical diplomatic and economic tool for compelling terrorists or renegade governments to abide by international norms. The Biden administration recently conducted a review of its sanctions policy, following criticism that U.S. sanctions impose excessive hardships on ordinary civilians while doing little to bring rogue regimes from North Korea to Venezuela to heel. In the end, the United States doubled down on its current strategy, concluding that sanctions remain a vital diplomatic and economic cudgel to knock sense into recalcitrant governments and cut off funding to terrorists.

At the U.N., meanwhile, sanctions have been the weapon of choice for half a century, sending what seems like an unambiguous message to renegade countries to stop invading their neighbors, flouting international norms, or massacring their own minorities. But the 15-nation U.N. Security Council, which is dominated by its five veto-wielding powers—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—has been more ambivalent about enforcing those sanctions once they’re in place.

This year, Foreign Policy published a five-part series on the lives and struggles of U.N. sanctions experts, who face threats of rape, violence, and murder as they struggle to enforce Security Council sanctions. Based on extensive interviews with current and former sanctions experts and access to thousands of pages of internal documents, the series reviews the history of U.N. sanctions and plots the uphill battle U.N. experts face given increasing pressure from China, Russia, and other targeted countries to limit their work. As one former U.N. sanctions expert bluntly put it: Enforcing sanctions for the U.N. is “the worst bloody job in the world.”

Sanctions have never been more popular in Washington and at the United Nations, but the system for enforcing them is under threat, raising questions about the viability of a critical diplomatic and economic tool for compelling terrorists or renegade governments to abide by international norms. The Biden administration recently conducted a review of its sanctions policy, following criticism that U.S. sanctions impose excessive hardships on ordinary civilians while doing little to bring rogue regimes from North Korea to Venezuela to heel. In the end, the United States doubled down on its current strategy, concluding that sanctions remain a vital diplomatic and economic cudgel to knock sense into recalcitrant governments and cut off funding to terrorists.

At the U.N., meanwhile, sanctions have been the weapon of choice for half a century, sending what seems like an unambiguous message to renegade countries to stop invading their neighbors, flouting international norms, or massacring their own minorities. But the 15-nation U.N. Security Council, which is dominated by its five veto-wielding powers—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—has been more ambivalent about enforcing those sanctions once they’re in place.

This year, Foreign Policy published a five-part series on the lives and struggles of U.N. sanctions experts, who face threats of rape, violence, and murder as they struggle to enforce Security Council sanctions. Based on extensive interviews with current and former sanctions experts and access to thousands of pages of internal documents, the series reviews the history of U.N. sanctions and plots the uphill battle U.N. experts face given increasing pressure from China, Russia, and other targeted countries to limit their work. As one former U.N. sanctions expert bluntly put it: Enforcing sanctions for the U.N. is “the worst bloody job in the world.”

But sanctions aren’t going away anytime soon—especially since the Biden administration has made economic warfare its rejoinder to Russia’s threatened invasion of Ukraine.

Here are five of Foreign Policy’s best pieces this year on sanctions, what makes them work, and, most importantly, what doesn’t.


1. Biden Might Stop a Sanctions Revolution

by Paul Massaro and Casey Michel, Aug. 24

The Biden administration promised a sweeping review of U.S. sanctions policy, reflecting mounting pressure to shield guiltless civilians from suffering the sting of painful U.S. punitive measures. In the end, the U.S. review frustrated sanctions reformers after it concluded that the country’s sanctions policy was an overwhelming success. But before the final verdict was reached, Paul Massaro and Casey Michel made the case that U.S. policymakers need to rethink the goal of sanctions.

“[T]hose focused on behavioral change as the sole raison d’être of sanctions programs miss the forest for the trees,” they wrote in August.


2. ‘It Was Like Having the Chinese Government in the Room With Us’

by Colum Lynch, Oct. 15

The Chinese government has long had an ambivalent attitude toward U.N. sanctions. As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Beijing has either approved or at least acquiesced in the passage of multiple resolutions imposing sanctions against recalcitrant regimes and terrorist organizations. But China harbors deep-seated philosophical misgivings about sanctions, which it views as an instrument of Western power, and it has quietly used its influence in the 15-nation council to weaken sanctions’ implementation.


3. The Worst Bloody Job in the World’

by Colum Lynch, Oct. 20

Foreign Policy illustration/Getty Images

The U.N. has assembled a cadre of some 60 independent sanctions experts to ensure that governments, businesses, and others comply with U.N. Security Council sanctions. But it’s a job that often places them in the crosshairs of key powers, including China and Russia, whose sanctions breaches they have exposed, and targeted countries, which resent scrutiny. In October, I documented the threats of violence, rape, detention, and murder the experts face in the field and the tepid support they receive from their masters in the Security Council and secretariat.


4. ‘You Live With a Degree of Paranoia’

by Colum Lynch, Oct. 28

In its effort to evade international sanctions aimed at curbing its nuclear weapons program, North Korea has developed an elaborate sanctions-dodging system, opening secret bank accounts, establishing front companies, and conducting ransomware attacks to amass mountains of cash. North Korea’s principal intelligence agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, also has a team of hackers to penetrate the personal and work email accounts of U.N. sanctions experts to gain deeper insights into how they seek to thwart Pyongyang’s illicit activities. “The North Koreans have definitely stepped up efforts in the past two to three years,” said one North Korea expert whose account has been hacked.


5. A New Sanctions Strategy to Contain Putin’s Russia

by Daniel Fried and Adrian Karatnycky, May 4

U.S. President Joe Biden put Russian President Vladimir Putin on notice in December that he would hit the Russian leader’s regime with sanctions “like none he’s ever seen” if the Russian forces massing along the Ukrainian border invaded the country. In May, Daniel Fried and Adrian Karatnycky outlined a raft of economic measures—including further targeted financial sanctions against Putin’s enablers, both at home and abroad; greater restrictions on investment in Russia’s energy sector; and penalties against Russian financial institutions—that the United States and Europe could take against Moscow.

“While scattershot sanctions may appear limited and weak right now, their long-term impact will likely be profound—especially in setting back the Russian economy on which its kleptocratic power structure feeds,” they wrote.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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