April 21, 2020 4:45PM

Sanctions and COVID-19

By James Knupp

In the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. sanctions continue to have a major impact on the lives of citizens in a number of countries, including Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. How do sanctions affect a country during a pandemic? And does this crisis make a case for reimagining how the United States conducts sanctions?

Yesterday afternoon, Richard Nephew of Columbia University joined Cato’s Emma Ashford and John Glaser to discuss U.S. sanctions policy, and especially how the current pandemic has been exacerbated by these sanctions, in a live stream event, “Economic Sanctions during a Pandemic.”

While sanctions often have a devastating effect on the populations of targeted countries, crisis or no, humanitarian aid and supplies are supposed to be exempted under the 2000 Sanction Trade Reform Act. However, as Richard Nephew pointed out, sanctions inherently raise the cost of doing business with a country, even when the business is humanitarian in nature, which discourages many companies from engaging with them. This has prevented much‐​needed resources for dealing with the pandemic from reaching sanctioned countries. Nephew suggested that even if the Trump administration is opposed to temporarily lifting sanctions, the United States should work with firms to facilitate certain transactions and meet humanitarian needs.

The effect of sanctions during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the need to reevaluate U.S. strategy. Sanctions broadly have become a “tool of first resort,” said Emma Ashford. Policymakers look at sanctions as a middle ground between doing nothing and using deadly force, which makes them appealing. They’re an easy tool to implement and seem like policymakers are taking action. However, sanctions are only that: a tool, not a strategy. In order to be effective, sanctions need to be used as part of a broader strategy, and they need to be narrowly focused with a specific goal in mind. Too often, the United States has been pushing sanctions as a strategy of regime change, a much broader goal than sanctions are able to accomplish on their own. A recent Cato Policy Analysis by Richard Hanania, “Ineffective, Immoral, Politically Convenient: America’s Overreliance on Economic Sanctions and What to Do about It,” found that sanctions “almost always fail to achieve their goals, particularly when the aim is regime change or significant behavioral changes pertaining to what states consider their fundamental interests.”

Not only does the way the United States utilizes sanctions fail to elicit the change intended, but it often backfires, promoting more repression, killings, and humanitarian crises. We’re seeing some of the worst of that in today’s crisis.

You can watch the entirety of Monday’s event below: