Drop a dumb bomb and once it leaves the aircraft, it does the damage it will do. There is no further targeting, control, negotiation, or ability to recall. Launch a smart bomb or a drone, with laser targeting, programmed maps, and complex engines, and there is all of that. It is more likely to hit the target – or can be diverted away – as the operator desires.

As policymakers increasingly turn to sanctions as an instrument of choice when other options seem inappropriate, they invariably use sanctions like dumb bombs. We need to make them smart. But how?

There are three possible reasons to apply sanctions against an adversary:

  • to punish past behavior
  • deter such behavior in the future, or
  • seek a change in ongoing behavior.

Sometimes, punishment and especially deterrence may be deemed necessary, even though there will be no visible real-world impact. Human rights-driven sanctions in particular fit this category: by sanctioning past abusive behavior, we may deter it in the future.

That said, sanctions for punishment or deterrence have no natural end-point. There is nothing an adversary can do to have sanctions lifted, because the sanctionable actions have already taken place, or have not yet taken place and therefore still need to be deterred.

In these cases especially, it is important to maintain an inventory of all sanctions – economic, trade, financial, visa – and to assess on an annual basis whether they still serve U.S. interests. At an absolute minimum, we must know whom we are sanctioning and why.

At the moment, we do not. There is no such comprehensive inventory and review mechanism of all U.S. Government-imposed sanctions, no formal means of a petition for a sanctioned entity to have them removed, and no way of leveraging these sanctions through diplomacy and negotiation to achieve an objective. The sanctions may still be appropriate — that is for policymakers to decide. But decide they must. Otherwise, they remain dumb bombs. They should be made smart by empowering diplomats to negotiate their removal in exchange for desirable action.

Take, for example, the accumulation of persons subject to individual visa sanctions because of some past or ongoing activity. The individual may or may not know they are being sanctioned unless they apply for a visa. A given U.S. administration — whether it is Biden today or Trump last year — may not know who was subjected to a visa ban by a prior administration unless that person applies for a visa again. There is no systematic review and no fresh decision-making by each administration as to whether it continues to serve U.S. interests to apply such a sanction. There is no mechanism for diplomats to negotiate with these individuals to obtain desirable behavior – e.g., cooperation with the FBI – in exchange for being issued a visa. This can all be changed.

Sanctions aimed at changing ongoing, malign behavior — such as attacking or occupying another country’s territory or engaging in corrupt practices — are perhaps the most important use of this administrative tool. If successful, sanctions can actually make a difference in the real world, saving lives and restoring justice.

Sanctions that target ongoing activity at least convey the implication that if the behavior changes, the punishment will end. This implication, however, is again seldom explicitly communicated and used as negotiating leverage.

Sometimes, this occurs because Congress often mandates the sanction, while the administration administers it (or not). Far better would be for the administration and Congress to agree on both the nature and target of the measures and the conditions under which they could be lifted. This would have a greater chance of impacting malign behavior than a sanction which an adversary feels cannot be lifted anyway.

Negotiating leverage would be increased exponentially if sanctions — and their possible removal — could also be coordinated internationally. When the EU and U.S. act in concert on sanctions it sends a far stronger message than when it is only one or the other. And if they acted in concert also in negotiating the conditions for lifting sanctions, it could have an even greater real-world effect.

There is good reason to use sanctions as an important policy tool, especially when done in coordination with others. But to achieve real impact through sanctions, we need to get smarter.