In the right circumstances, sanctions can be very effective indeed. David S. Cohen, a former Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence (and ex-CIA deputy director) has suggested that sanctions work best when they meet three conditions: when they serve clear and attainable policy objectives; when they are used in conjunction with other levers of pressure, like diplomacy and the threat of military action; and when other countries lend support by imposing their own restrictions on the targeted individual, institution or regime.

All three conditions applied to the sanctions on Iran in the mid-2000s, when the European Union and the United Nations shared the American goal of preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons. Facing prolonged isolation and deep economic pain, the Iranians grew serious about negotiations with the U.S. and other world powers, and eventually signed the 2015 nuclear deal.

Cohen’s criteria represent the ideal; not all three conditions are absolutely necessary for sanctions to work. The Trump administration didn’t need other countries to endorse, much less join, its sanctions against top Turkish officials last year, to secure the release of the American pastor Andrew Brunson. The sanctions were promptly dropped after Brunson came home.

The deepening cleavage of world politics into liberal and illiberal camps will make multilateral consensus over sanctions almost impossible to achieve. Russia and China are unlikely to agree with Western democracies to impose more sanctions on Syria, for instance. Within the European Union, which requires unanimous consent for such decisions, right-wing and populist leaders — Hungary’s Viktor Orban, say — would likely balk at new sanctions on Russia.

Thank goodness for American exceptionalism — and American muscle. Given the size of the U.S. economy, and the dollar’s role as the world’s main trading currency, sanctions imposed unilaterally by the White House have the same effect as multilateral restrictions. Consider the current U.S. sanctions on Iran, imposed after Trump abrogated the 2015 nuclear deal last year. The other signatories to the deal remain vocally committed to it; Germany, France and Britain have devised a “special purpose vehicle” to give companies a supposedly fail-safe way to evade American sanctions.

Not a single European company has stepped forward, for fear of attracting the attentions of the U.S. Treasury.

The risk, of course, is that the Trump administration will overuse the weapon. Former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has warned of sanctions overreach: “If foreign jurisdictions and companies feel that we will deploy sanctions without sufficient justification or for inappropriate reasons — secondary sanctions in particular — we should not be surprised if they look for ways to avoid doing business in the U.S. or in U.S. dollars.”

This was not a problem for Pericles when he dealt with the Megarians, but American presidents — even Donald Trump, who is as far removed from the Athenian statesman as can be imagined — must reckon with the risk that one of their most versatile and potent instruments of coercion might, with overuse, lose its persuasive power.

This article provided by Bloomberg News.

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