International Sanctions: Getting to Goldilocks - Global Trade Magazine
  December 14th, 2017 | Written by

International Sanctions: Getting to Goldilocks

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  • Countries contemplating sanctions often overreach or underreach in their approaches.
  • Economic sanctions are nonmilitary means increasingly used to advance foreign policy aims.
  • State Department higher ups were skeptical whether sanctions could possibly work against Iran.

In the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a little girl, walking in the forest, encountered the home of the three bears and let herself in.  On the kitchen table were three bowls of porridge, the first of which was too hot, the second too cold, but the third was “just right.”

That’s the kind of situation encountered by crafters of today’s international sanctions, according to Richard Nephew, a Columbia University scholar and author of the new book, The Art of Sanctions: A View From the Field.

Countries contemplating sanctions often overreach or underreach in their approaches, at least initially, Nephew said at a book launch event in New York last week, bungling the opportunity to get sanctions “just right.”

Economic sanctions are nonmilitary means increasingly used by countries and international organizations as a means of advancing foreign policy aims. Nephew was a leader in the design and implementation of sanctions on Iran while serving in the State Department during the Obama administration and related that higher ups at the time were skeptical whether sanctions could possibly work against Iran.

“Now, sanctions are seen as a solution to everything,” he said, illustrating how the landscape has changed.

“Sanctions are meant to cause pain,” Nephew added. “We apply pain to those doing things we don’t like so that they stop.”

But sanctions will likely be ineffective if they are executed without a clear strategy. In the book, Nephew offers a framework for planning and applying sanctions that focuses not just on initial actions, but also on calibrating them along the way and to assess whether they are being effective. The framework includes five strategic levels.

The first is to identify the objectives of the sanctions, what the applier of sanctions can live with before removing them. “That is harder than it sounds,” Nephew commented.

The second is an evaluation of the sanctions target. It’s important to understand the reasons for the objectionable behavior, to understand how likely the target will be to persist in that behavior in the face of sanctions, and to figure out whether the target will “evolve to evade” the sanctions, all of which would impact on their ultimate success.

Third, the strategy must build in the likelihood of resistance to the sanctions regime. “You need to be responsive to what transpires on the ground,” said Nephew.

Fourth, the plan needs to have the capability of being moderated and calibrated. “You have to see what works and what doesn’t,” said the author, “and you have to be prepared to walk away from something that isn’t working.”

Finally, a set of criteria for the removal of the sanctions must be communicated to the sanctions target. “Otherwise,” Nephew explained, they have no incentive to respond.”


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