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What the history of U.S. sanctions can tell us about their sway on the Ukraine crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When American presidents want to deter or punish another country without going to war, there is one tool they often reach for.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

BILL CLINTON: The Iran and Libya sanctions bill I sign today will help...

GEORGE W BUSH: ...Is tightening U.S. economic sanctions on Sudan.

BARACK OBAMA: New sanctions against the Syrian government and Iran.

DONALD TRUMP: We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until it delivers full political freedom for the Cuban people.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Well, now President Biden is following the same path, hoping it will keep Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: He's never seen sanctions like the ones I promise will be imposed if he moves.

SHAPIRO: Cornell University historian Nicholas Mulder has researched the history of U.S. sanctions for his new book "The Economic Weapon." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NICHOLAS MULDER: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: American leaders have not always seen sanctions as a useful tool to achieve American foreign policy goals. So what changed?

MULDER: So in the early 20th century, actually, when sanctions were first created, that was done mainly by European countries who had just gone through World War I. And they wanted to come up with an instrument that could deter countries from going to war again. And they hit on this thing that they had used during the war itself, economic blockade, and began to use that in peacetime as a form of pressure to try and prevent countries from going to war.

And Americans, who had been involved at the end of the war briefly but then actually rejected joining any international organizations, continued to see sanctions as a kind of Old World, European-style coercive instrument, so they weren't very enthusiastic about it. But that changed in the 1940s, when the U.S. became a dominant global power. And since then, American governments have seen it as a pretty attractive tool to try and pursue foreign policy.

SHAPIRO: Are sanctions effective at preventing war? I mean, I think about Saddam Hussein, who faced a lot of sanctions. And still, as we all know, the Iraq War followed.

MULDER: Yeah. So the record of sanctions at deterring war is pretty mixed, and one of the reasons for that is that it's quite difficult to calibrate, to sort of - to really arrange the pressure exactly right. If you make a threat that is too weak, then it doesn't deter. But if you make a threat that is very strong, then you might not be actually able to deliver on that threat, and it might not be credible.

SHAPIRO: Another element of calibrating sanctions is trying to make sure that innocent civilians are not affected by them. Are there good ways to protect sanctions that are intended to target a regime from also harming the general population?

MULDER: There definitely are ways of doing that, and you can target them quite specifically at people in a ruling elite. But the problem there oftentimes is that then the pressure isn't necessarily strong enough to actually make them change behavior. And that's kind of the paradox - that in order to really force a change in behavior, you need to apply pressure that is so strong that you also thereby harm many civilians. And in the case of a dictatorship, they're as much a victim of the government.

SHAPIRO: What does that harm against civilians look like?

MULDER: It can take a variety of forms, but right now in Afghanistan, you see one of the most dramatic cases of it in a country with a very low level of economic development that was supported while there were Western forces there by development aid. And now that we've withdrawn militarily but continued actually to freeze the assets of the Afghan government, they are unable to import food and medicine, and it leads to starvation, destitution. And probably this winter, the United Nations is warning that as many as 1 million people might die.

SHAPIRO: Russia has been under Western sanctions since 2014. Have they had any positive impact that you can see?

MULDER: Well, they've definitely had serious economic impacts. They've reduced the rate of growth of the Russian economy. They've also caused the living standards of ordinary Russians to stagnate. So in that sense, there's been an effect.

But in terms of political efficacy, I think their effect has been pretty disappointing because the Russian government hasn't really changed its behavior. If anything, actually, relations now with Russia are probably worse than they were in 2014. So in that regard, I think the sanctions we've had in the last eight years haven't really proven to have worked.

SHAPIRO: And does anything in your research led you to believe that, if Biden follows through on his threat of harsh sanctions against Russia or harsher sanctions, that that could change Vladimir Putin's calculus regarding Ukraine?

MULDER: It might, but honestly, it's very difficult, certainly based on the experience of the past eight years, to be certain about that, particularly because Ukraine is an issue that the Russians do seem to care about a lot. They also have taken certain preparations to try and withstand sanctions. They're better prepared than they were eight years ago to make it through an initial economic shock.

In the long run, it might still have an effect and force them to change course. But the question is whether that's soon enough and whether, by that time, we aren't in a much worse, more destabilized situation.

SHAPIRO: What kind of sanction do you think might have the best outcome? I mean, how would you design that round of sanctions.

MULDER: Right now, actually, I think that we're looking too much at only negative sanctions that put further pressure. What I do think we can do is to think in a more creative way about how the existing sanctions could be leverage in negotiations. And we do actually have one model in the last few years of that being used as a very successful strategy, and that was Obama's Iran deal because there were pretty big sanctions in effect against Iran. And what the U.S. negotiators realized and what bore a lot of fruits is that they promised to lift those sanctions in return for Iranian concessions.

And I think we could actually try something similar with Russia. The sanctions right now aren't changing Russian behavior, but they are having an economic cost, and I do think that the Russian government wants to get rid of them ultimately. Basically, thinking about positive inducements rather than negative inducements, I think, is a worthwhile thing to consider.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. So you're saying that instead of threatening Russia, Biden might consider trying to entice Russia to do the right thing in exchange for some of these sanctions being relaxed or lifted.

MULDER: Exactly. I think we've tried the stick for eight years, and it hasn't really worked. We might as well now shift to making the carrot more attractive.

SHAPIRO: There are a lot of countries you can look at right now and say, despite U.S. sanctions, those countries are still moving in a direction that the sanctions were meant to deter. That's true of Iran. It's true of North Korea. It's true of Russia. Why do you think they aren't working?

MULDER: I think fundamentally, these countries have goals that they find more important than short-term economic loss. That's one thing. But I also think that the United States hasn't made it quite clear that they could actually lift the sanctions if these countries behave better.

And domestically in the U.S., it's quite difficult politically to lift them quickly. Biden can do some things with an executive order, but there are certain sanctions that are congressional legislation. Those are much harder to lift. But if the United States shows that it can do that, then its negotiating leverage will be much enhanced.

SHAPIRO: If sanctions are more common than they used to be and less effective than they used to be, why do the U.S. and other countries keep reaching for this tool?

MULDER: There's a variety of reasons. But certainly, in the last 10 years, one of the reasons is that in the United States and also elsewhere in the West, the population has grown quite tired of military intervention. That's not popular, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan. We don't really want to risk putting boots on the ground and getting involved in endless wars.

But still, of course, foreign policy goals need to be pursued. And in that regard, the foreign policy establishment has seen sanctions as a very effective way of using pressure without actually putting boots on the ground.

SHAPIRO: Cornell University historian Nicholas Mulder. His new book is "The Economic Weapon: The Rise Of Sanctions As A Tool Of Modern War." Thank you for talking with us.

MULDER: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEN-MATE'S "NUNDS TOLLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.