America has a penchant for unilaterally imposing economic sanctions on other nations. It's a "ready, fire, aim" approach to international policy that angers allies, harms US businesses, and almost always inflicts pain on innocent people in the targeted nation.
Congress has dabbled at reforming US sanctions policy, but it should now take up the issue in earnest and redirect it on a more rational and prudent course.
Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a senior member of the Foreign Relations panel, was exactly right when he said "unilateral sanctions have become, too often in the post-cold-war era, a policy of first use, rather than a policy of final resort."
Economic sanctions are the deliberate, government-directed withdrawal or threat of withdrawal of customary trade or financial relations with a targeted country. They can take a number of forms, including trade embargoes; restrictions on imports or exports; denial of foreign loans and investments; or seizing control of foreign assets or economic transactions.
They can be used to punish a nation for policies the United States doesn't like, or to warn a nation not to continue objectionable policies, or even to encourage the removal of a regime.
In the continuum of international intervention that extends from polite protest to full-scale war, economic sanctions fall in the middle. More forceful and consequential than diplomatic admonishments, they're obviously less harsh than sending in the Marines.
The US International Trade Commission has identified 142 provisions under 42 federal statutes that require or authorize the US to restrict international trade and finance. The ITC also reports there are 27 state, county, and city laws that impose sanctions.
It concludes that by the end of 1998, 29 nations were then being sanctioned by the US.
Another report - by the President's Export Council - found 73 nations were targets of some form of unilateral US economic sanctions during 1997.
It uses a broader definition of sanction than does the International Trade Commission and includes limits or prohibitions of US foreign aid.
While the debate sometimes degenerates into a disagreement over the number of nations now punished by the US, virtually no one disputes that the US is the world leader in imposing unilateral economic sanctions, especially since the end of the cold war.
It now seems that whenever Congress is angry or frustrated at another country - or even at the executive branch's handling of a crisis involving another nation - it slaps on sanctions. Unfortunately, sanctions are too often imposed with little thought or planning, often at the urging of strong domestic lobbies in the US.
A report by the Institute of International Economics found that economic sanctions have some impact only a third of the time. Several studies have shown that America's sanctions policies cost about $15 billion to $20 billion a year in lost exports and 200,000 lost export-related jobs.
It's now time for Congress to overhaul sanctions policy. A good start would be to approve legislation along the lines of a bill drafted by Sens. Lugar, Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, and Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska.
The legislation's central premise is that Congress should slow down and think before imposing sanctions. More specifically, it requires any new unilateral economic sanctions to:
*Include a clear statement of foreign policy goals.
*Be as narrowly targeted as possible.
*Exempt food and medicine.
*Include a timely analysis of the likely costs and gains before it is imposed.
*Have periodic assessments of effectiveness.
*Expire after two years unless re-authorized by the president and Congress.
The bill also gives the president latitude to waive sanctions when he deems it to be in the national interest.
This legislation is a good start to fix the economic sanctions mess, but several other initiatives are also needed.
First, a bipartisan working group of senior congressional and administration officials should be created to review the array of sanctions that are on the books and decide which, if any, are inappropriate, outdated, or counterproductive.
Second, this same panel should review a new State Department study that spells out dozens of political, cultural, diplomatic, intelligence, and military tools that could be used as alternative instruments of persuasion.
Third, the US government should oppose state and local government use of economic sanctions. This issue is under judicial review, but it seems clear state actions hamper the ability of the executive and legislative branches to conduct foreign policy.
Sanctions should not be abandoned as instruments of US trade and foreign policy. But these tools work better if they're used rarely and shrewdly, rather than frequently and crudely.
*John Shaw is a reporter for Market News International in Washington, D.C.