Analysis & Opinions - Bloomberg Opinion

The One Big Problem With New Russia Sanctions

| Aug. 10, 2017

Congress won't let Trump waive penalties, which gives Moscow no reason to change its behavior.

The latest round of congressional sanctions against Russia garnered much attention for the message they sent to President Donald Trump: We don’t trust you to decide when to lift or ease sanctions on Moscow. True, it was an important signal to the American people, the president and the rest of the world that nearly all of America’s legislators felt Russia had to pay a price interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

But there were two other important messages embedded in the sanctions bill that are equally interesting and consequential.

The statement of congressional distrust of the president was indeed remarkable. It is extremely unusual for a bill instituting sanctions or other penalties not to give the president some power to override or delay them. This is usually achieved through a built-in "national interest waiver." For example, President Bill Clinton used waivers to diffuse growing tension between the U.S. and Europe over the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which called for secondary sanctions on European firms that invested in the energy sectors of those two countries.

The new law does include a national interest waiver, but a weak one -- it does not give the White House the final word on whether sanctions are implemented or lifted. Instead, Congress can to review any presidential move to issue a waiver within 30 days of the executive branch informing lawmakers of its intention to employ it.

While this override of a traditional presidential prerogative got most of the attention last week, it's important to consider the other messages Congress sent. The second was perhaps unintentional -- and it was about the type of Russia strategy lawmakers want to see the administration pursue. In my 2003 book "Shrewd Sanctions," I identified three broad types of approaches to economic coercion: one for containment, one for regime change and one for behavior change. Depending on the goal policy makers have in mind, the structure of the sanctions regime should be crafted accordingly.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: O'Sullivan, Meghan.“The One Big Problem With New Russia Sanctions.” Bloomberg Opinion, August 10, 2017.