From the Editor: It’s Complicated

By Kieran Beer

The value of sanctions in accomplishing foreign policy objectives has long been a subject of intense debate. While financial professionals must intercept payments to and from blacklisted entities regardless of the efficacy or wisdom of sanctions, the conversation is clearly one in which they have a stake.

Banks have paid billions of dollars in penalties over the past decade for failing, often willfully, to reject or block prohibited transactions, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars more to upgrade their compliance programs.

Those costs coincide with, though are not necessarily related to, the ascendancy of sanctions critics in the debate over the current U.S. regime—a patchwork of nuanced restrictions and designations targeting dozens of countries and thousands of entities and individuals.

A survey published by Foreign Affairs magazine in June showed most experts agreeing that “Washington’s use of sanctions is doing more harm than good.”

As is the way of experts, the majority who view U.S. sanctions as harmful disagree on the nature of that harm, while the minority who find value in those sanctions differ on what that value is. More significantly, the experts surveyed by Foreign Affairs shared a wide range of views on the efficacy of sanctions in general.

The debate calls to mind a trip I took many years ago to visit a friend then enrolled at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., where I crashed a class that featured a heated discussion on sanctions.

Class ended with the professor decreeing that sanctions never help achieve foreign policy objectives. His view was informed by contemporaneous U.S. sanctions against South Africa, which at the time were not working.

A few years later and pretty much the entire world coalesced around them, isolating the minority apartheid regime, leading to a new South African constitution and, ultimately, the election of Nelson Mandela.

Significantly, while global sanctions against South Africa was not driven by the United States, it succeeded only after U.S. lawmakers voted in favor of sanctions against the country’s government in 1986.

But not all sanctions are equal.

As a guest on my podcast series “Financial Crime Matters,” John Smith, former director of the Office of Foreign Asset Control and now an attorney with Morrison Foerster, noted: “There have been sanctions on the government of Cuba since I think 1961, and the government of Cuba remains the same non-democratic government …”

Smith however cited sanctions against Myanmar as a success that required a concerted effort by the United States, the United Nations and others, and eventually prompted the country to conduct democratic elections in 2015.

Still, doubts around the efficacy of such restrictions are justifiably rooted in the question of goals. Sanctions against Myanmar brought some success because they enjoyed global consensus, targeted certain egregious actions and made specific demands on the country’s ruling military junta.

They did not, however, seek to prevent all flagrant misconduct. In 2017, for example, the Burmese military massacred large numbers of resident Rohingya Muslims and pushed survivors across the border to refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they still live under horrific conditions.

Similarly, the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table succeeded only as part of a global united front, eventually forcing the Islamic Republic to enter into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, pursuant to which the country agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and other aspects of its nuclear program.

The JCPOA did not target Iran’s funding of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, or Houthi rebels in Yemen, which the Trump administration last year cited as reason to withdraw from the agreement.

Decades after my Georgetown visit, I remain convinced that the professor’s categorical denial of the efficacy of sanctions was ill-informed: We have seen them succeed when they have clear, limited objectives and a large, preferably global, consensus backing them.

However, the potential of wreaking collateral damage and the expense borne by many, including financial institutions, to make sanctions work means they should not be imposed routinely, and only when they have international support.

Contact Kieran Beer at

Find Kieran on Twitter @kieranbeer and on LinkedIn.

Topics : Sanctions
Source: U.S.: OFAC , U.S.: Department of Treasury , U.S.: Department of State
Document Date: October 1, 2019