The Use (and Abuse) of Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool

The Center on Global Economic Governance hosted Ambassador Daniel Fried, distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council and former sanctions coordinator at the U.S. State Department on Friday, April 20th. The event, “The Use (and abuse) of Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool” was part of The Ambassador Donald and Vera Blinken Lecture Series on Global Governance. Merit E. Janow, the Dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, introduced Ambassador Fried while Jan Svejnar, Director of the Center on Global Economic Governance, moderated a Q&A session following Ambassador Fried’s opening remarks.

Ambassador Fried began his talk by recounting how President Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 14 Points Speech to the American Congress marked the first iteration—albeit a flawed one—of a grand strategy for American foreign policy. Wilson’s speech outlined a framework for global governance that could be shaped by America and its allies. It is this vision of global governance that unified policymakers after World War II to establish the international architecture that largely governs today’s world. Ambassador Fried explained that sanctions must be rooted in a broader foreign policy strategy if they are to be successful. He stressed that sanctions work best when employed in solidarity and unison by like-minded governments, rather than unilaterally.

Next, Ambassador Fried recounted some of his “do’s and don’ts” of optimal sanctions policy. It is important for policymakers to not overreach with the goals for sanctions; objectives must be proportionate with the strength of sanctions the government is willing to impose. Sanctions also take time to work and policymakers must be patient to see their effect. Ambassador Fried emphasized the importance of making clear the specific actions the target government must take to have sanctions against them lifted, and how changing the “goal posts” can undermine the credibility of the government imposing the restrictions.

Finally, Ambassador Fried discussed US sanctions policy in the context of Iran, North Korea, and Russia. While each sanctions regime has different characteristics, objectives, and reasons for its existence (ranging from nuclear weapon programs to human rights violations), they are all meant to be a coercive instrument that lies between military actions and diplomatic protests. Ambassador Fried concluded his remarks by reiterating the need for an American grand strategy in which effective sanctions policies can be embedded.

--Kevin Gilmartin, MPA 2018