When Congress wields a tool of peace

Lawmakers are strongly bipartisan in support of new sanctions on Iran, Russia, and North Korea. The mixed record on sanctions requires Congress to be vigilant in tracking their impact.

A vendor receives Chinese banknotes after selling North Korean goods to tourists on a boat taking them from the Chinese side of the Yalu river for sightseeing close to the shores of North Korea near Dandong in China's Liaoning Province.

One shining example of bipartisan cooperation in Congress has been strong lawmaker support for a popular tool in foreign policy: sanctions on other nations or their leaders and companies. This week lawmakers are even more united as they move to approve new sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The new measures, however, deserve a close watch.

If done well, sanctions can alter the behavior of a country, as happened in white-ruled South Africa and many countries that abused their own people or another country. They might even prevent war, and for good reason. Sanctions are not so much punitive as a hopeful view that a country’s people really want peace and democracy. They signal a better path. At the least, they bolster regular diplomacy and help delay possible military action.

Most sanctions restrict the flow of money, trade, or people. Scholars debate whether past sanctions actually “worked” as intended, or even backfired. The evidence is not always clear, especially in determining if they deterred other bad behavior or set a higher moral standard in international affairs.

US sanctions on Cuba, for example, have done little to alter the Castro regime’s abuses. Yet they might have given pause in other countries to emulate Cuba. And as the Trump administration stiffens US sanctions on individuals in Venezuela’s regime, it remains to be seen if the new measures force high-level defections.

Congress will need to keep engaged on events in Russia, Iran, and North Korea because the new measures, which include specific targeting of key individuals involved in military affairs, aim to reduce the president’s ability to fine-tune many sanctions. In Russia’s case, Congress aims to must determine if Moscow is intervening in the elections of other countries as well as ending its aggression against Ukraine. For Iran, Congress must be careful in how that country reacts to new sanctions as it continues to cooperate with a 2015 agreement to curb its nuclear program. And as for North Korea, Congress must judge not only whether that country seeks negotiations but how well China restricts its support of a regime making rapid progress on nuclearized missiles.

Sanctions have usually worked for the United States if a sufficient number of other countries join in. The US cannot rely solely on its power as a large trading nation or the prominent use of the US dollar in global financial transactions to ensure sanctions have an impact. Sanctions must have moral weight that draws allies.

The fact that most US sanctions enjoy bipartisan support in Congress helps in their effectiveness. Yet Congress cannot simply pass such measures without tracking whether they are working. The mixed record for sanctions requires vigilance in using this tool for peace.

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