Neither pure diplomacy nor outright war, sanctions are often better than both

Last week Donald Trump grudgingly signed what he described as a “flawed” Russian sanctions bill into law. While the president has his own reasons to be concerned by putative links to Moscow, the sanctions are broad enough to potentially damage billions of dollars worth of oil and gas projects in Russia. The episode is noteworthy in all sorts of ways but it is a reminder also that sanctions are a centrepiece of how power games play out today.

Globalisation hastened the use of sanctions as a tool of diplomacy. Before 1990, the UN imposed sanctions on just two states, Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. Since then, the UN has put more than a dozen sanction regimes in place. Economic measures have taken on increased importance because of the way international trade and finance work. As a result, more levers are handed to western powers than to emerging countries. The US uses economic sanctions more than any other country – 26 are administered by the US Treasury alone. This imbalance would be best addressed by acting within the largest possible multilateral framework.

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