Tag: sanctions

Sanctions: How to Hurt North Korea’s People Rather than their Government

North Korea’s ruling elite appears to be getting along fine despite international sanctions. Washington needs to find a new approach toward the North.

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea poses one of the most vexing challenges to American policy. For more than 20 years U.S. presidents have insisted that the DPRK cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Yet it apparently is preparing for a fifth nuclear test.

A military strike, as proposed by Ashton Carter before he was appointed Defense Secretary, would risk engulfing the peninsula in war. So the U.S. has relied on sanctions. Every time Pyongyang misbehaves—especially tests a nuclear weapon or launches a missile—American officials impose tougher domestic economic penalties and press for harsher UN sanctions.

 After the North’s latest nuclear test earlier this year, China agreed to a new round of restrictions. The increased penalties had no impact of North Korean policy. To the contrary, in early May the Kim regime used the party congress to highlight Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Crimea after Two Years as Part of Russia: Time to Drop Sanctions

Two years ago Russia detached Crimea from Ukraine. Since then the Western allies have imposed economic sanctions, but to little effect. No one believes Crimea, Russian until six decades ago, is going back to Ukraine.

Yet the European Union called on other countries to join its ineffective boycott. However, most nations have avoided the controversy. They aren’t going to declare economic war on a faraway nation which has done nothing against them.

Although Washington, with less commerce at stake, remains among the most fervent advocates of sanctions, Europe is divided over the issue. Opposition has emerged to routine renewal in July of restrictions on Russia’s banking, energy, and military industries. Particularly skeptical of continued economic war are Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, and Italy.

Sanctions supporters insist that Russia more fully comply with the Minsk peace process and end support for the separatist campaign in Ukraine’s east. “Today Russia faces a choice between the continuation of economically damaging sanctions and fully meeting its obligations under Minsk,” contended Secretary of State John Kerry.

Time for a Debate on Sanctions Policy

This morning, I attended an interesting speech by Jack Lew, Secretary of the Treasury, on the future of economic sanctions. The speech was notable in that Lew made not only a defense of the effectiveness of sanctions, but also highlighted their potential costs, a variable that is too often missing from debates over sanctions policy.

Some of the points Lew made – like the argument that multilateral sanctions are better than unilateral ones – were hardly novel. Yet others were more interesting, including the argument that sanctions implementation should be based on cost/benefit analysis and an assessment of whether they are likely to be successful. Though such an approach sounds like common sense, it has not always been the rule.

He also focused on the importance of lifting sanctions once they’ve achieved their ends. This is a rebuke to some, particularly in congress, who have argued for reintroducing the sanctions on Iran lifted by the nuclear deal through some other mechanism. As he pointed out, refusing to lift these sanctions now means that they will be less effective in the future: if states know sanctions will remain in place regardless of their behavior, what incentive do they have to change it?

Perhaps most interestingly, Lew argued for the ‘strategic and judicious’ use of sanctions and against their overuse. This is an interesting argument from an administration for whom sanctions have often been the ‘tool of first resort.’ In doing so, he referenced both growing concerns about the costs of sanctions from the business community, and the broader strategic concern that overuse of sanctions could weaken the U.S. financial system or dollar in the long-run.

I still disagree with the Secretary on several points. While he is correct that nuclear sanctions on Iran have broadly been a success, he dramatically overstates the effectiveness of sanctions in the more recent Russian case. Much of the economic damage in that case was the result of falling oil prices, and sanctions have produced little in the way of coherent policy change inside Russia.

He also overstates the extent to which today’s targeted sanctions avoid broad suffering among the population. In fact, evidence suggests that modern sanctions still suffer some of the same flaws as traditional comprehensive trade sanctions, allowing the powerful to deflect the impact of sanctions onto the population, and reinforcing, not undermining, authoritarian dictators.

Despite this, it is refreshing to hear concerns about the long-term implications of runaway sanctions policy expressed by policymakers. In alluding to these concerns – many of which have been noted for some time now by researchers – the Treasury Secretary may help to spark a broader policy discussion of the benefits and costs of sanctions. If we wish to retain sanctions as an effective tool of foreign policy moving forward, such discussion is vital.

For more on some of the big issues surrounding sanctions policy, you can read some of Cato’s recent work on sanctions policy here and here, or check out the video from our recent event on the promises and pitfalls of economic sanctions

The Failure of Sanctions on Russia

On Friday, European Union envoys agreed to extend sanctions on Russia, continuing the restrictions placed on Russian businesses and citizens following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and aggression in Eastern Ukraine. The sanctions prevent some of Russia’s largest companies from raising capital in the West, restrict the export of technology and technical services for unconventional oil and gas drilling, and freeze the assets and travel of Russian elites.

Unfortunately, as I show in a study published in the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs, sanctions on Russia have been largely unsuccessful. The Russian economy is certainly hurting, but most of this damage was done by the extraordinary drop in oil prices over the last year:

The ruble’s exchange rate has tracked global oil prices more closely than any new sanctions, and many of the actions taken by the Russian government, including the slashing of the state budget, are similar to those it took when oil prices fell during the 2008 financial crisis.

And economic damage itself isn’t necessarily the best measure for sanctions success. Ultimately, sanctions are a tool of economic coercion and statecraft. If they do not cause a policy change, they are failing:

After the initial round of sanctions, the Kremlin’s aggression only grew: Russia formally absorbed Crimea and upped its financial and military support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine (including those who most likely shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight).

The performance of modern targeted sanctions –which promise that damage will be narrowly focused on elites rather than the population in general – is also questionable in the Russian case, where the Kremlin has effectively redirected the economic burden of sanctions onto the population:

By restricting access to international financing during a recession, the sanctions have compounded the fall in oil prices, requiring Moscow to slash spending on health care, infrastructure, and government salaries, which has created economic hardship for ordinary Russians. The crash of the ruble, meanwhile, has not only destroyed savings but also increased the monthly payments of those who hold mortgages denominated in foreign currencies.

Perhaps worst of all, the sanctions are costing US and European companies billions of dollars in compliance costs, lost business and broken contracts:

The brunt is being borne by Europe, where the European Commission has estimated that the sanctions cut growth by 0.3 percent of GDP in 2015. According to the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, continuing the sanctions on Russia could cost over 90 billion euros in export revenue and more than two million jobs over the next few years. The sanctions are proving especially painful for countries with strong trade ties to Russia. Germany, Russia’s largest European partner, stands to lose almost 400,000 jobs. 

Ultimately, as I argue in the article, the success of sanctions can be judged by a variety of standards. Yet by virtually all of them, they are failing. This is a blow for those – myself included – who seek restrained policy options to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Yet given the costs to U.S. businesses, it’s probably time for policymakers to consider whether continuing sanctions on Russia is really the best option, or whether there are more effective diplomatic or economic policy tools we can use instead.

You can read the whole article, with more data and policy recommendations, over at Foreign Affairs

Republicans in Congress Really Like the Cuba Embargo

President Obama made a number of spot-on arguments yesterday for why the United States should end the ineffective trade embargo that has helped impoverish the people of Cuba for over fifty years.  However, the core components of the embargo are statutory law that will require an act of Congress to overturn.  While it’s very encouraging to see the president take a leadership role in pursuit of a good policy, getting Republicans on board is going to be difficult to say the least.

Over the last 20 years, there have been 11 votes in the two houses of Congress seeking to eliminate or amend the Cuba embargo.  In all of those votes, loosening the embargo got majority opposition from Republicans.  According to Cato’s trade votes database, it wasn’t even close.  Republican support for the embargo has ranged from 61% (in support of travel ban) to 91% (in support of import ban) with the average level of support at 77.5%.  Indeed, in 2005 more Republicans voted to withdraw the United States from the World Trade Organization than voted to end the Cuba embargo.

That’s not to say that positive movement on the embargo in a Republican congress is impossible.  There are encouraging signs as well: shifting opinion among Cuban Americans alters the electoral politics of the embargo in favor of opposition; resurgent emphasis on free markets may temper the Republican party’s reflexive love for belligerent foreign policy; and long-time Republican opponents of the embargo will now have renewed energy. 

In practical terms, embargo opponents will need to persuade House leadership to schedule a vote and find enough support in the Senate to overcome an inevitable filibuster from Marco Rubio and others.  It may not be impossible, but there’s a lot of heavy lifting left to do.  Hopefully, the President’s actions will be enough to get the ball rolling toward more reform of this antiquated and harmful policy.


Time to Trade with Cuba: Regime Change through Sanctions Is a Mirage

President Barack Obama used negotiations over a couple of imprisoned Americans to refashion the entire U.S.-Cuba relationship. He aims to reopen the embassy, relax trade and travel restrictions, and improve communication systems.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida charged the administration with appeasement because the president proposed to treat Cuba like the U.S. treats other repressive states. But President Obama only suggested that government officials talk to one another. And that peoples visit and trade with one another.

More than a half century ago Fidel Castro took power in Havana. In the midst of the Cold War the Kennedy administration feared that Cuba would serve as an advanced base for the Soviet Union. Having tried and failed to overthrow the regime militarily, Washington saw an economic embargo as the next best option.

But that didn’t work either. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow ended subsidies for Cuba, sanctions achieved nothing.

Today Cuba’s Communist system continues to stagger along. The only certainty is that economic sanctions have failed.

Failed to bring down the regime. Failed to liberalize the system. Failed to free political prisoners. Failed to achieve much of anything useful.

After more than 50 years.

But that should surprise no one. Sanctions are most likely to work if they are universal and narrowly focused. For instance, the Institute for International Economics found that economic sanctions did best with limited objectives, such as “modest” policy change.

Congress Quietly Passes Ukraine Bill

While Washington focused yesterday on the prospect of yet another government shutdown, both House and Senate quickly and quietly passed bills which increase sanctions on Russia and authorize the sale of defensive arms to Ukraine.  S.2828 passed mid-afternoon by voice vote, while H.R. 5859 was passed without objection at 10:25pm last night, on a largely empty House floor. Indeed, the House resolution had been introduced only that day, giving members no time to review or debate the merits of a bill which has major foreign policy implications.

The bill requires the imposition of further sanctions on Russia, particularly on Rosboronexport, Russia’s main weapons exporter, as well as increasing licensing requirements for the sale of oil extraction technology to Russia. Any Russian company exporting weapons to Syria is also liable for sanctions. In addition, the bill contained a contingency, requiring the President to sanction Gazprom in the event that it interferes with the delivery of gas supplies to NATO members or to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The bill also takes aim at Russia more broadly, directing the President to hold Russia accountable for its violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and to consider whether it remains in U.S. interests to remain a party to this treaty.

Significantly, the bill authorizes the president to make available defensive weapons, services and training to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, crew weapons and ammunition, counter-artillery radar, tactical troop-operated surveillance drones, and command and communications equipment. It  also includes additional aid for Ukraine, earmarked to help Ukraine loosen its reliance on Russian energy, and strengthen civil society. Other funds go to increasing Russian-language broadcasting in Eastern Europe by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in order to ‘counter Russian propaganda.’