President Joe Biden and his top officials have announced a comprehensive review of the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions since coming to office nearly a month ago, but so far one staple of U.S. statecraft remains in steady use: sanctions.
The United States maintains broad or targeted economic, diplomatic and travel restrictions against at least 30 countries or territories, with vastly differing degrees of scope and effect.
Some experts champion the implementation of sanctions against countries, organizations or individuals as a practical or at least symbolic act of enforcing U.S. foreign policy with more restraint than the more kinetic options available to the strongest military power on Earth.
However, others, such as City University of New York Newman School of Journalism Professor Peter Beinart, fear that when this strategy is used in wholesale, not only does it consistently fail to advance U.S. interests, it actually mitigates Washington’s influence, while leaving behind a trail of worsening humanitarian woes.
Beinart, whose recent op-ed in The New York Times compared the longstanding sanctions campaign to the “forever wars” waged abroad by U.S. forces at air, land and sea, told Newsweek that the Biden administration was appeasing political rivals by upholding certain hawkish positions in the economic realm as well.
“In its desire to focus on domestic policy, I fear the Biden administration is taking a risk-averse approach to foreign policy—trying not to pick fights in Washington except where absolutely necessary,” Beinart said. “Unfortunately, I’m afraid that means accepting policies like sanctions that enjoy bipartisan support, even if they are morally indefensible and endanger American power.”
These sanctions come in varying degrees, and Newsweek has compiled a list of some of the most-affected nations, beginning with those targeted by broad measures affecting nearly the entirety of the country.
Cuba has been subject to one of the longest-running economic embargoes in modern history. The boycott was put in place by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, in the wake of the rise of the Cuban Communist Party that deposed a U.S.-backed president and led to the establishment of the first socialist state on the wrong hemispheric side of the Cold War.
After six decades of bad blood that included a failed invasion, nuclear standoff and countless assassination attempts, the U.S. and Cuba remain at odds.
A brief detente emerged under former President Barack Obama, who moved to normalize ties and even traveled to Cuba in the last year of his presidency—as did Biden’s wife, Jill, on a separate 2016 trip. But the Trump administration moved to reverse these measures, and went so far as to reinstate Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism in the final days of the 45th presidency.
While the Biden administration quickly repealed another controversial last-minute Trump administration bid, labeling Yemen’s Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement a foreign terrorist organization, there have been no plans announced to revoke Cuba’s designation nor to return to the rapprochement pursued when Biden was vice president only several years ago.
Another Trump administration reversal of the Obama-era approach was seen on Iran. As Obama was warming ties with Communist Cuba, he was also pushing for high-level diplomacy with the revolutionary Shiite Islamic Republic, whose enmity is rooted in at least two pivotal events: the 1953 U.S.-backed coup that reinstated the shah, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ultimately overthrew the Iranian monarch.
Obama had joined the international community in expanding sanctions on Tehran as it developed a nuclear program the country insisted was simply for peaceful purposes. But in 2015 the U.S. managed to bring together China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom to strike an agreement with Iran to curb nuclear production in exchange for sanctions relief.
The Trump administration accused Iran of backing terrorism and developing outlawed missile technology. By 2018, Trump unilaterally abandoned the accord and instituted crippling trade restrictions that have contributed to Iran’s economic tailspin as it contends with a particularly devastating COVID-19 outbreak.
Although Iran has remained a party to the agreement, it has rolled back limitations on uranium enrichment, raising concerns about the deal’s survival. While Biden has vowed to reengage in order to revitalize the agreement, he has said since coming to office that the U.S. would only do so if Iran first returned to full compliance, leading to a dangerous impasse.
Meanwhile, unrest between factions aligned with both sides continues throughout the Middle East, raising fears of a potential escalation that could set Washington and Tehran on an irreversible path toward confrontation.
One of the most elusive hardline nations in the world was the site of a rare instance of early diplomatic success for the Trump administration, though this breakthrough ultimately collapsed into a return to tensions. The previous White House viewed direct talks with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un as an opportunity to showcase Trump’s transactional approach to foreign affairs, which managed to bring together one of the world’s most ardent capitalists and the absolute commander of North Korea’s uniquely strict ideology of self-reliance.
Though history was made and “love letters” exchanged, no deal was ever reached as the U.S. side sought a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal prior to offering any sanctions relief. As a result, North Korea remains one of the most heavily sanctioned nations on the planet, not only by the U.S. but by the international community at large.
President Biden has not displayed his predecessor’s enthusiasm for engaging in the sort of theatrical moves toward North Korea’s young ruler, whom Biden referred to as a “thug” guilty of widespread human rights abuses, but he has left the door open for diplomacy. Kim, on the other hand, unveiled a return to toughness in his last major speech, describing the U.S. as his nation’s top foe and calling for even more advanced nuclear weapons.
The current U.S. leadership has emphasized a need to act in concert with allies in regard to major issues like North Korea, but finds two of its closest regional friends—South Korea and Japan—divided on how to handle the DPRK. While Seoul seeks a timely end to the technically ongoing conflict that has divided the Korean Peninsula since 1950, Tokyo has consistently emphasized the need for a careful approach to a country it considers one of its top national security threats.
The checkered history of U.S.-Syria relations also dates back to the 1950s with a failed coup attempt, and further deteriorated in the following decade with the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel first took control of Syria’s southwestern Golan Heights. While it was the Obama administration that initiated U.S. involvement in Syria with covert support for an insurgency fighting to overthrow the government, Trump became fixated on oil and gas resources while presiding over the defeat of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), and ultimately recognized Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.
Biden has since inherited the conflict on the eve of its 10th anniversary, and the tripartite group of Russia, Iran and Turkey has come to be the most influential international force in the conflict. But as they heckle over Syria’s future, the Biden administration appears willing to maintain the heavy human rights-related sanctions instituted by the Trump administration, while restoring the vital humanitarian aid that had been interrupted.
Syria is also joined by Cuba, Iran and North Korea on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, further restricting commerce with the war-torn country also undergoing a financial crisis.
Today, the U.S. primarily restricts business in Syria to the autonomous northeast, held by the Pentagon-backed majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. While millions are estimated to live here and in northern areas under rebel, jihadi and Turkish control, the vast majority of the country’s population lives under government rule.
The rise of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the turn of the 21st century led to an ideological split between Washington and Caracas that marked a new “pink wave” of left-wing leadership in Latin America. These trends have ebbed and flowed on the continent, but Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, remains firmly in control in Venezuela despite efforts led by the U.S. and its allies to oust him.
Unlike the oil-fueled boom under Chávez, however, Maduro’s rule has witnessed a sharp economic downturn exacerbated by the sanctions laid on by the Trump administration since 2017. As Venezuela’s financial, humanitarian and political crises intensified over the past two years, Maduro, like many others on this list, turned toward top U.S. rivals such as China and Russia for support, and fastened even closer ties with fellow sanctioned blacklisted states Cuba and Iran.
While the European Union appears to have begun backing away from its endorsement of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the Biden administration continues to recognize him as interim president and allows his officials to administer the Venezuelan embassy in Washington.
And with Trump having gone to considerable lengths in an attempt to paint Biden as soft on socialism, the new administration has dispelled the notion of early negotiations with Maduro, who further entrenched himself in another round of disputed elections in December.
Another leftist-led Latin American nation targeted alongside Cuba and Venezuela is Nicaragua, where a number of officials were accused by the Trump administration of suppressing democracy.
The Commerce Department, Department of the Treasury and the State Department maintain various restrictions against individuals and organizations in more than two dozen other countries including top strategic competitors China and Russia, as well as Moscow’s allies in Belarus and Ukraine. Other sanctioned parties linked by the U.S. to Iran in the Middle East can be found in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, while in Africa scores of officials are designated in countries such as Central African Republic, Mali and Zimbabwe, among others.
The Biden administration rolled out the first sanctions of its own last week by announcing punitive measures against Myanmar military officials after a recent government takeover.
Comprehensive sanctions from the likes of the U.S., especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, have been the subject of criticism by the U.N. Human Rights Council, which the Biden administration has rejoined after Trump’s 2018 departure.
“As the UN Human Rights Office, our general position on sanctions is that, as a complement to wider accountability measures, targeted sanctions against individuals credibly alleged to be responsible for serious human rights violations must be fairly applied and respect due process, and not otherwise impinge on wider human rights that are applicable,” spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani told Newsweek in a statement earlier this month.
Otherwise, Washington may do more damage than good, she argued.
“We have consistently criticised the application of broad sectoral sanctions, with wide economic impacts, as overbroad and with disproportionate human rights impacts on the wider population,” Shamdasani said. “Already vulnerable groups are at particularly high risk in that regard.”