Do economic sanctions serve U.S. policy objectives? An important new report from the Government Accountability Office raises the question, but supplies an unsatisfactory answer: Although the departments of Treasury, State and Commerce all pay close attention to the impact of specific sanctions on their targets, there’s no reliable way to assess whether — or even to what extent — broader objectives are being served.

Gauging the success of sanctions isn’t an exact science. Officials may, for instance, be able to tell when a targeted bank has ceased to enable money transfers to a rogue regime, but if the regime finds other ways to get cash, then the goal hasn’t been reached.

All the same, there are ways to improve the chances that sanctions are effective. The first is a clear articulation of goals, which has not been the strongest suit of President Donald Trump’s administration. To cite the most obvious example, it’s hard to tell whether the sanctions Trump has imposed on Iran are designed to curtail its nuclear program, discourage its other menacing behavior or overthrow its regime. The GAO found that “evolving foreign-policy goals” make it harder for officials to tell if sanctions are working.

In addition to clarifying its objectives, the U.S. should always seek to coordinate with other countries when imposing sanctions. The report notes that such measures tend to be more effective when “implemented through international organizations.” As obvious as this seems, the Trump administration frequently makes no effort to get its allies on board. Regimes are more likely to mend their ways when faced with multinational approbation.

Finally, the Trump administration could improve the effectiveness of sanctions by conducting periodic reviews to judge if its goals are being achieved and presenting progress reports to Congress and the public. That would help it coordinate policy across the executive branch, sharpen its focus and encourage broader support for its objectives.

This is all the more important because Trump has imposed sanctions with more enthusiasm than any of his predecessors. One analysis shows almost 1,500 individuals, companies and institutions are now on the Treasury’s sanctions list. In 2018 alone, Trump added more than 700 — or 50% more than had ever been added in a single year. On Friday, the administration threatened Turkey with “very powerful sanctions” over its offensive in Syria. Whether it plans to act on the threat remains to be seen — but the readiness to invoke it reflects the fact that the traditional tools for transnational problem-solving are losing their edge. Diplomatic solutions are harder to achieve when rogue states have more power to resist American coercion, not least because they can rely on other powerful actors, such as China and Russia, to overlook their roguishness. Military solutions have been discredited by spectacular failures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sanctions can be a good alternative to futile diplomacy and violent conflict. But, as with war and diplomacy, they should be employed with care and forethought.

Editorial by Bloomberg News

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