Shadow government: Trump’s use of sanctions is nothing like Obama’s

Since the onset of his term, Trump has relied on economic sanctions as a tool against declared adversaries. In his latest Foreign Policy Article, Peter E. Harrell, a senior sanctions official at the State Department in the Obama administration, offers a comparative analysis of economic sanctions during the Trump and Obama administrations.

Harrell argues that the Trump administration’s sanction use 1) targets more countries and  agents that are more enmeshed in the global economy, 2) relies more heavily on secondary sanctions and sanctions with outward objectives, and 3) employs more export controls and other coercive economic tools aside from sanctions, ultimately amounting to a foreign policy relying less and less on diplomacy. 

Harrell’s question of if the sanctions are working is a good one. Harrell notes the geopolitical backlash to new sanctions regime against Iran and the continued inaction in Iran and Venezuela to U.S. demands despite the sanctions.

However, in that analysis, Harrell misses an important additional contrast between the pre-JCPOA Iran sanctions and those post JCPOA of the Trump administration: multilateralism. It is not only that the EU is working to counter US sanctions on Iran, it is that they are not participating in the first place as they did during the Obama and Bush sanctions leading to the Iran Deal.

Looking forward, an understanding of the administration’s maximum pressure strategy is critical to evaluating the impact of U.S. policy and the larger question of leadership in the post-Pax Americana International System. 

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