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Past Event

Economic sanctions: Assessing their use and implications for U.S. foreign policy

Past Event

Event summary by Holly Cohen and Emilie Kimball on Friday, February 7, 2020

On January 27, Foreign Policy at Brookings hosted a panel discussion on economic sanctions and their implications for advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives. Moderated by Robert Bosch Senior Visiting Fellow Jim Goldgeier, the panel included experts with a combined background on the use of sanctions in the Middle East, Latin America, and North Korea: Brookings Senior Fellows Suzanne Maloney, Ted Piccone, and Jung Pak.

Since the 9/11 attacks, and particularly under the current administration, the United States has expanded its use of economic sanctions as a tool to address a broad range of national security and foreign policy objectives. With the increasing reliance on economic sanctions as a tool to achieve U.S. strategic objectives, our scholars gathered to discuss their long-term effectiveness and their potential to generate unfavorable consequences.

Each panelist spoke on the current state of U.S. economic sanctions toward their respective regions of expertise, and whether they think sanctions have become a more effective tool of American foreign policy through the years.

On Iran, Maloney highlighted two factors that have allowed sanctions to have a more immediate impact on the country’s domestic economy: the evolving structure of the global energy market, which decreased the global reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf; and the creation of authorities following 9/11, which created new opportunities for the U.S. to target not only trade, but also financial flows.

Piccone highlighted the evolving nature of the U.S. approach to sanctions toward Venezuela, saying that it is characterized by a shift from targeting individuals to targeting sectors — particularly the oil and gas industry, and most recently the gold mining industry.

Pak debunked the widespread notion that North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned country in the world. In fact, Pak noted the U.S. is only “just getting started,” as it only began to “pile on” economic sanctions in 2016. Pak argued the U.S. implementation of sanctions was the weakest point of the U.S. approach to North Korea.

Scholars debated the effectiveness of economic sanctions and emphasized the importance of choosing metrics that reflect the underlying intention of the sanctions. Maloney asked: “Is it purely economic measure or is it in fact a policy outcome?” Iran provides an important example where U.S. sanctions had a dramatic economic price, yet the Iranian regime has not changed the core of its foreign policy approach. She concluded that “policymakers…should be looking for the policy outcome.”

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