During the past few decades, Congress and the executive branch have repeatedly imposed unilateral economic sanctions on a variety of countries in the pursuit of foreign policy goals. With so few positive results—and so many unintended consequences—it’s time for a fresh look at U.S. sanctions policy.
Unilateral sanctions cover a range of policy tools from import bans and embargoes to restrictions on U.S. investment and expatriate activity overseas. All too often, unilateral sanctions have been imposed for ill-defined purposes or with little consideration of their real impact. Rather than altering the behavior of foreign governments, these sanctions have often damaged U.S. economic interests at home and overseas.
Consistently, U.S. unilateral economic sanctions create a vacuum that is quickly filled by companies from other countries. Further, most Americans agree that sanctions limiting access to food and medicine should never be used as a foreign policy tool.
Over the past 30 years, some sanctions legislation has imposed restrictions on commercial activity in an extraterritorial fashion that incites economic, diplomatic, and legal conflicts with our allies. In the past, U.S. laws imposing restrictions on the activities of European subsidiaries of U.S. multinationals have met with intense resistance from European governments. While the United States eventually lifted the restrictions, the damage to its foreign policy goals had been done.
Not only do such moves undermine efforts to build a consensus for multilateral action, they make the United States more vulnerable to international commercial complaints. They can also damage U.S. leadership by greatly expanding the universe of entities subject to countersanctions to include insurers, creditors, and foreign subsidiaries.
There is no better example of the ineffectiveness of U.S. unilateral sanctions than Washington’s policy toward Cuba. Implemented in October 1960 to pressure Cuba to democratize, the embargo arguably has helped prop up the current regime. It is unlikely the Cuban dictatorship could have withstood six decades of free trade, free markets, and free enterprise, powered by its own entrepreneurial citizens.
U.S. unilateral sanctions impose real costs. According to a March 2016 report by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC), the removal of U.S. restrictions on exports to Cuba could boost U.S. sales of select agricultural and manufactured goods by some $2.2 billion, up from a mere $180 million in 2015. Such a policy change could create thousands of American jobs.
A comprehensive review of U.S. unilateral economic sanctions is overdue. From the five-decade old embargo on Cuba to extraterritorial sanctions on other countries, unilateral sanctions bring a host of unintended and unhelpful consequences. It’s time to put an end to these damaging policies.