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10 Common Critiques of the U.S. Financial Sanctions Regime

June 2023
While financial sanctions imposed by the United States can be effective tools for achieving foreign policy and national security goals, they have drawn criticism for a variety of reasons. Here are ten flaws commonly identified:
  1. Overuse: The U.S. has often been criticized for overusing sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. This can lead to “sanctions fatigue,” where the impact of sanctions diminishes over time as targeted states find ways to circumvent them or become less responsive to the pressure they create.
  2. Lack of effectiveness: Sanctions do not always achieve their intended political objectives. For instance, despite decades of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and North Korea, these regimes have not capitulated to U.S. demands.
  3. Unintended consequences: Sanctions often have unintended negative effects on the civilian population of the target country. This can result in humanitarian crises, leading to international criticism and potentially undermining the legitimacy of the sanctions.
  4. Harm to U.S. businesses: Sanctions can hinder U.S. companies’ ability to compete in global markets, as they are often prohibited from doing business in the sanctioned countries.
  5. Alienation of allies: The use of extraterritorial sanctions, which apply not only within U.S. jurisdiction but also to entities in other countries doing business with sanctioned states, can alienate allies and partners.
  6. Lack of multilateral coordination: Unilateral sanctions can be less effective than multilateral ones. When sanctions are not universally applied, targeted states can shift their business to non-sanctioning countries, reducing the impact of the sanctions.
  7. Erosion of the U.S. dollar’s dominance: Overuse of sanctions can incentivize countries to reduce their reliance on the U.S. dollar, which could ultimately undermine its status as the world’s primary reserve currency.
  8. Sanctions evasion: There are always actors who seek to evade sanctions, through tactics like smuggling or using cryptocurrencies. This can undermine their effectiveness.
  9. Weak enforcement: While the U.S. often imposes financial sanctions, its capacity to monitor and enforce these sanctions can be stretched thin. This results in inconsistent enforcement, which can undermine the credibility of the sanctions regime.
  10. Legal complexities and uncertainties: The legal basis for U.S. sanctions can be complex and sometimes unclear, leading to uncertainties for companies trying to comply. This can have a chilling effect on legitimate business activities, as companies may avoid certain transactions out of an abundance of caution.