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Though many commentators have suggested that the Trump administration’s approach with respect to sanctions threats against Europe is “unprecedented,” the relative comity in US-European sanctions policymaking in recent years may be the aberration. The United States and Europe have often disagreed about whether, when, and how to impose sanctions against even common adversaries and in order to resolve mutually recognized problems. One of the most serious examples of this occurred in 1982 when the United States and its European allies broke sharply over the US decision to impose sanctions on the Soviet Union over the crackdown on the Solidarity Movement in Poland. The crisis that emerged tested the NATO Alliance, European governments, and the Reagan administration.
This paper reviews the 1982 example and then sets some lessons from it against the current US-European relationship. It offers an assessment not only of the changing political, economic, and social factors that have contributed to greater compliance with US sanctions dictates on the part of Europe over the last few years, but also the relatively brittle nature of this cooperation. It underscores that, though the United States may be in a relatively predominant economic position at present, this situation may not and likely will not persist indefinitely.
From this perspective, it concludes with three recommendations for how to modify current US sanctions practice in order to help manage partner concerns and avoid future crises.
- Adopting a process more akin to the Federal Register notice procedure for new sanctions programs. There is a yawning need for more consultation in advance of US sanctions decisions that could have major market moving and alliance shaking potential. It is not necessary, nor would it be prudent, to have a process that required public scrutiny of individual or entity asset freeze scenarios, but for other, more broad sanctions initiatives, it would help to avoid unintended consequences and ensure a more comprehensive debate. Exceptions could also be made to this rule in the event of a legitimate emergency.
- Establishing an independent commission to evaluate US sanctions policies and challenges. Congress should set up an independent, bipartisan commission to examine the issue of US sanctions policy now and for the next twenty-five years. Its assignment would be to evaluate how sanctions have been used in the recent past, the international operating environment for sanctions now, and the dimensions of the sanctions policy challenge in the future.
- Improving congressional oversight of the sanctions process. Congress should also require evaluation reports for individual sanctions regimes as a standard part of the executive branch’s use of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). Of course, similar requirements ought to be considered a standard part of congressionally mandated sanctions as well.