Why Sanctions Aren’t Working (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Adam DuBard, Fall 2021 Marcellus Policy Fellow

Even as the U.S. continues to levy sanctions with increasing frequency, the results are clear. Economic sanctions are simply not working. Policymakers utilize sanctions to portray themselves as crusaders fighting to punish bad actors, while their actions work against American interests. With years of evidence, American sanctions against Syria and Venezuela have proven incredibly ineffective. The Assad and Maduro regimes are no closer to falling, and the middle- and lower-class citizens of these nations have handled the brunt of these economic sanctions. Meanwhile, armed groups in Syria and both governments have maneuvered to ensure these sanctions work to their benefit.

The idealistic goal of economic sanctions is certainly worthwhile. American policymakers wish to punish bad international actors without resorting to military action. Unfortunately, the method in which American sanctions are currently levied is both haphazard and counterproductive. This paper analyzes how American sanctions not only result in unintended consequences for civilians, but actively work to undermine American interests. Unilateral sanctions against Syria and Venezuela have had devastating results for regional allies such as Lebanon and Colombia and have in increased tensions with our European allies.

A more pertinent strategy would include annual strategic reviews of sanctions, as well as an increased emphasis on cooperation with our European allies. Targeted sanctions against individual bad actors would also serve to avoid increased suffering for innocent civilians. A significant change of course for U.S. sanctions policy is long overdue. The Biden administration’s review of sanctions is a good first step, but the ultimate result is merely an admission of serious missteps that need to be corrected. If the Biden administration is serious about improving sanctions policy, serious steps for reform are necessary.