Sanctions Are an Inherently Indiscriminate Weapon

The Biden administration concluded its very long review of US sanctions policy this week, and the results were woefully inadequate. Judging from the review and the administration’s record so far, there isn’t much reason to expect a significant change in the frequent use of broad sanctions. The sanctions review has dragged on all year, and in the meantime the US has kept in place all Trump-era sanctions imposed as part of the failed “maximum pressure” campaigns on Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and most recently on Syria. The administration’s refusal to offer even token sanctions relief in the middle of a pandemic has further harmed the Iranian people and hamstrung the effort to salvage the nuclear deal with Iran. The continuation of Trump’s economic wars against all these countries has inflicted even more misery on tens of millions of ordinary people that were already enduring terrible conditions. An honest review of these policies would have to find that the use of indiscriminate economic warfare on entire nations is unjust and cruel aggression. The Biden administration is not going to repudiate the use of the economic weapon when its policy goals are largely just as inflexible and unrealistic as those of the previous administration.

It is well-known that broad sanctions do not achieve the goals that their advocates set for them, but the most important reason why no government should use this weapon is that it always causes enormous harm to innocent people. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if these sanctions "work" or not because their use on a civilian population is criminal. Broad sanctions are a form of collective punishment in that they attack everyone in a country to penalize them for the actions of their government, and like other kinds of collective punishment they strike at the guilty and the innocent alike. They are inherently indiscriminate, and they attack the entire economy of another country by design. The more comprehensive they are, the greater the destructive impact they are bound to have on the people. The burden of sanctions falls heaviest on the weakest and most vulnerable while having the least effect on the well-connected and powerful, and so they punish the innocent more for things they did not do and cannot control.

Broad sanctions are nothing more than a way for the world’s most powerful state to trample on much weaker countries in a vain bid to compel them to surrender to Washington’s demands. It doesn’t help that these demands are usually so extreme that no government would agree to them. The central problem with this effort to coerce smaller states into obedience is that it is an abusive and imperialistic practice that would be wrong even if the policy goals were more modest. The states that the US targets with the harshest sanctions are the ones that are least likely to yield to US demands, but Washington insists on strangling their people anyway. It has reached a point with these sanctions regimes that their supporters no longer even pretend that they are trying to achieve anything except causing destruction and inflicting pain. Sanctions serve as a ready-made tool for American policymakers to deal out suffering and death to other nations while pretending to "stand with" the people they are impoverishing and killing.

In a recent message, Pope Francis denounced several exploitative and cruel practices around the world, and one of his targets was the use of economic warfare that harms innocent people: "In the name of God, I call on powerful countries to stop aggression, blockades and unilateral sanctions against any country anywhere on earth. No to neo-colonialism." The message did not mention the US by name, but that wasn’t necessary. There is no other government that routinely engages in aggressive economic warfare against other countries as often as the United States, and there is no other country with the financial clout to wield the weapon of sanctions to such devastating effect on weaker states.

There are some encouraging signs that more people in Washington are beginning to wake up to the pointless cruelty of broad sanctions. There is an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress on the humanitarian impact of these sanctions. Until now, the government has not investigated how much harm its sanctions policies have done. This amendment is a small step in the right direction of documenting what US sanctions are doing to other countries, but that will need to be followed up by much more far-reaching measures. Americans should settle for nothing less than the total repudiation of broad sanctions as a foreign policy tool.

The US has no right to starve and kill people in other countries when their governments do things that displease our political leaders. When our government imposes broad sanctions on another country, all Americans need to understand that it is declaring aggressive war in our name on the people that live there. The victims of our economic wars remain largely invisible to us, but their lives have been wrecked or ended all the same by the policies of our government. It is our responsibility to rein in our own government and to stop it from committing these crimes against innocent people around the world.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.