Last year, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a record 944 individuals and entities, according to a count provided by the law firm Gibson Dunn. This year, the number is expected to far exceed 1,000, according to Adam M. Smith, who was a top sanctions official in the Obama administration. By comparison, President Barack Obama imposed penalties on 695 individuals and entities in 2016, the previous high mark.
“Sanctions are the perfect tool for someone like President Trump, who arrived into office with no governing experience and no real relationships in Congress, the bureaucracy or among world leaders,” Mr. Smith said. “Sanctions let him govern on his own. He just has to write an executive order, and it’s done.”
Mr. Trump’s fondness for sanctions illustrates a core contradiction of his foreign policy. No modern American president has been as dismissive of “globalism” or as vigorous in the defense of sovereignty as Mr. Trump. “We reject the ideology of globalism,” he said at the United Nations on Sept. 25, adding that “responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other new forms of coercion and domination.” And yet the power of sanctions springs from the very system of international agreements that Mr. Trump rejects, and it is a device widely seen outside of the United States as an assault on sovereignty and a form of American coercion and domination.
In some ways, sanctions are the perfect American weapon. They are cheap, put no American lives at risk and elicit no equivalent response. Thanks to the centrality of the dollar to the global financial system, only the United States has the power to fully wield them. Sanctions’ power was demonstrated in April when penalties against the Russian aluminum producer Rusal for its connections to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and against the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE for doing business with Iran and North Korea, crippled the two global giants.
The big problem, however, is that sanctions rarely work. Robert Pape, director of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, said that in his study of 100 years of sanctions efforts, 90 percent of the penalties applied for national security purposes ultimately failed. In some cases, they were disastrous: Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was in large part a response to American oil sanctions.
Iran proves the point. Tehran’s regional meddling was particularly ambitious from 2012 to 2015 — just as sanctions were at their most onerous. There is a small chance that sanctions could lead to the overthrow of Iran’s government, but the administration has repeatedly insisted that regime change is not its goal.
Besides being largely unsuccessful, the Trump administration’s unilateral use of sanctions has fueled a campaign led by Europe, Russia and China to remake the financial system, removing the United States from its heart. The consequences for America’s power, economy and alliances could be profound.