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US Economic Sanctions at the Tipping Point

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The ever-expanding use of US sanctions to regulate the conduct of foreign companies trading in foreign markets has alienated US trading partners and could ultimately unleash a wave of counter-retaliation by foreign governments.  Although US politicians and the US media see these sanctions as lawful regulatory instruments rather than weapons of war, they involve a modern form of gunboat diplomacy using coercion rather than legal process to obtain foreign cooperation.  US trading partners thus far have found no effective response, but that may soon change, and in ways that will badly damage US interests and erode US power.

At some point, in the absence of US self-restraint, the tables will turn and foreign government adoption of their own coercive measures will create enormous challenges for US and global business.  The risk is not only or even largely to the primacy of the US dollar in world trade but rather the ability of US-based and multinational companies to access major markets whose governments at some point will no longer tolerate US encroachment on their sovereignty.

US sanctions programs seek to achieve US foreign policy and political objectives, often without regard to whether other countries share those objectives.  For example, when President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, he said the deal was non-binding on him because it was signed by President Obama.  The fact that the European powers, China and Russia also had signed it, the UN Security Council had endorsed it, and Iran had not violated it did not deter the Trump Administration from re-imposing and expanding all of the previously waived US sanctions.  Under these coercive measures, the Administration has designated or threatened to designate foreign companies as US sanctions targets for engaging in entirely foreign business with Iran that has no connection to the United States.

The US sanctions rules have always applied differently to foreign companies than to US-based and US-owned companies. Since 1995, the so-called primary sanctions against Iran have prohibited the involvement of US persons in nearly all types of Iran-related business.  In more recent years, the US government has required even non-US companies to obey the primary sanctions whenever their transactions involve US persons, the US financial system or US-origin goods.  However, the US government has no law enforcement jurisdiction over transactions by non-US companies that do not involve any such US elements.

Critics of US sanctions policy often focus on the enormous fines imposed on foreign companies, particularly banks, for violating the primary sanctions, and the risk that such aggressive enforcement tactics will cause a foreign flight from US dollar-based trade and payments.  Although that risk is real, the fines relate only to activity within US law enforcement jurisdiction and leave foreign companies free to choose whether to continue transacting with US sanctions targets without involving any US elements and therefore with violating US law.

To overcome this jurisdictional hurdle, when the US government decided, beginning in 2010, that it wanted to deter certain types of entirely non-US business with Iran, it did so by labeling such business as “sanctionable” under so-called secondary sanctions that authorized the designation of foreign companies engaged in such non-US business as US sanctions targets.  During the Obama Administration, the secondary sanctions on Iran generally worked in parallel with European and UN sanctions against Iran’s nuclear proliferation drive, culminating in the multilateral negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal.  To strike that deal, the Obama Administration waived the secondary sanctions on Iran, while leaving most of the primary sanctions in place.

As a result of the Trump Administration’s restoration and expansion of the secondary sanctions on Iran and use of similar extraterritorial sanctions measures against a wide range of other targets, US sanctions policy now conflicts with European and global norms to an unprecedented degree.  Instead of respecting the sovereign right of our trading partners to decide how and with whom their companies cantransact from within their own territory and in their own currency, the US Treasury and State Departments dictate to foreign companies a complex series of sanctions red lines, entirely outside US jurisdiction. 

It matters not whether the sanctionable activity involves the US dollar or any other US elements because the US Treasury and State Departments do not need a US jurisdictional hook to put a foreign company on a US sanctions blacklist.  Instead, crossing a red line into sanctionable activity can trigger a US sanctions designation of the offending company, prohibiting their involvement in any business that involves US persons or other US elements.  Foreign purchases of Venezuelan crude oil, foreign participation in Russian pipeline projects and foreign transactions with literally thousands of persons blacklisted by the US government under a range of sanctions programs, even if unrelated to Iran (or Syria or North Korea),could all trigger a boycott of a foreign company by the US Government, without any need to tie the sanctionable activity to the United States.

Unlike the primary sanctions, which operate within the same legal structure as other US administrative and criminal laws, the secondary sanctions provide Treasury and State nearly complete freedom to strike preemptively against their foreign targets.  Although the target can attempt after-the-fact to demonstrate that they did not infringe any sanctions or negotiate a resolution, that process can take years, by which time the US blacklisting often has already put the target out of business. 

The impact of a US sanctions designation is supremely powerful because it not only terminates the target’s access to the US economy and US financial system, but also imposes a secondary boycott designed to force foreign firms to choose between business with the target or business with the US.  Following the designation, any foreign company that transacts with the blacklisted person, and thereby provides “material assistance” to them, could itself be blacklisted in turn, even if the alleged material assistance has no connection to the United States.  Thus, banks and many other companies globally will refuse any new business with, and run in the other direction from, anyone that US Treasury, through its Office of Foreign Assets Control, has put on the so-called Specially Designated Nationals list. Once blacklisted, the US sanctions target finds itself persona non grata not only in the United States, but most of the world.

In fact, the pressure on foreign companies to respect US sanctions red lines and avoid any sanctionable activity is often greatest within their own financial services community.  Before providing a large loan or underwriting securities, in any currency, for Asian or European companies, the participating banks typically will require an undertaking from the borrower or issuer not to engage in any sanctionable activity, as defined by the US government.  Even Chinese companies that prefer to list their shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, rather than in New York, still need to address their US secondary sanctions risks as part of the listing process. 

The extraordinary deterrent effect of the US secondary sanctions contrasts with the historic failure of the Arab League’s long-running secondary boycott of Israel to deter companies in the United States and third countries from Israeli business.  This difference is easily explained.  First, companies that needed to choose between business with Israel or the countries that boycott Israel often have seen Israel as the greener pasture.  Second, the US and many other leading countries prohibited their nationals from supporting the Arab League secondary boycott.  As explained by the US Office of Antiboycott Compliance, the US antiboycott rules “have the effect of preventing US firms from being used to implement foreign policies of other nations which run counter to US policy.”

The hypocrisy of prohibiting US companies from complying with other countries’ secondary boycotts while threatening to boycott foreign companies for dealing, entirely outside US jurisdiction –with US embargoed countries and/or Specially Designated Nationals– is not the issue here.  Hypocrisy in foreign policy is nothing new. Historic international law principles and constraints also have not deterred the expansion in US secondary sanctions.  Instead, before either Congress or the Executive Branch will lose their voracious appetite for secondary sanctions, the cost-benefit analysis of these measures in economic and thus political terms will have to change in Washington.

In the current political environment, this change will occur only when foreign countries with sufficient market power impose sufficient counter-measures to make the US reconsider its approach.  Thus far, US trading partners, particularly in the EU, have relied primarily on their own version of the US antiboycott rules to threaten their nationals with domestic legal action if they comply with US secondary sanctions.  But these counter-measures have failed, for two principal reasons. 

First, most multinational companies, particularly in Europe, have no interest in tempting fate by crossing a US sanctions red line. In contrast, they know the domestic antiboycott laws to which they are subject, even if enforced, which they rarely are, would not have anything like the nuclear impact of a US sanctions designation. The EU’s blocking regulation in particular is widely viewed as no more than a political statement.  Second, many EU and other foreign companies to which these local antiboycott rules apply can typically justify their withdrawal from and avoidance of Iran, Cuba and other targets of unilateral US sanctions for business reasons, without expressly acknowledging they have done so in response to a US secondary boycott.

In the military realm, to deter a nuclear strike against them or their allies, the world’s major powers have developed their own nuclear deterrents. The strategy of mutually assured destruction has withstood the test of time.  Because it has proven to work, the same logic will ultimately prevail in the world of sanctions, led by China.

Last year, China announced that it would create its own “Unreliable Entity List” to punish firms whose actions were harmful to China’s national interests.  Although China has not yet put any companies on this list, it presumably would do so if OFAC puts a major Chinese company on the Specially Designated Nationals list and seeks to compel foreign as well as US companies to sever their ties with that Chinese company. Alternatively, China could find other ways to retaliate in kind, with the aim of restricting US access to China’s market sufficiently to match the harmful impact of US secondary sanctions on Chinese firms.

An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  If the retaliatory threat is both credible and commensurate in scope with the sanctions threatened by the US government, the US will have as much to lose as to gain by imposing a secondary boycott.  For this reason, the US has yet to impose a secondary boycott on any major Chinese company.  Instead, even under President Trump, the actions taken against Chinese companies generally seek to restrict their access to US markets and US technology under US trade, investment and export control laws; i.e., various forms of primary boycott. 

In such cases, the US requires foreign companies to exclude all or some US elements from their dealings with the Chinese target company, but does not threaten them with retaliation for their entirely non-US business with that Chinese company.  With the exception of some smaller Chinese companies that the US has listed as Specially Designated Nationals, the US Treasury and State Departments have not threatened to blacklist foreign companies for entirely non-US business with any leading Chinese company.  Moving in that direction against China would appear certain to trigger swift retaliation and thus mutually assured economic damage.

In contrast, the US Congress has enacted, and President Trump has implemented, a broad range of secondary sanctions against Russia intended to deter foreign companies from entirely non-US dealings with targeted Russian persons, companies and energy projects.  Although not comparable in either scope or extent of actual use to the US secondary sanctions against Iran, the ones on Russia have succeeded in deterring a range of foreign investment in and foreign business with Russia that the previously-imposed US and EU primary sanctions had failed to accomplish.

Although Russia has threatened to retaliate in kind, its economy is far smaller than China’s.  In 2015, when Russia put 60 US politicians on its version of a sanctions list in response to the initial wave of US sanctions against Russia, the late Senator John McCain quipped “I guess this means my spring break in Siberia is off, my Gazprom stock is lost and my secret bank account in Moscow is frozen.”A tooth for an eye has never provided an effective deterrent.

Apart from China’s credible defensive capability, it also has the ability to play offense.  If the US can retaliate against foreign companies for their entirely non-US dealings with US sanctions targets, what is to stop China from doing the same to US and other non-Chinese companies in response to their dealings with Taiwan or other future targets of Chinese sanctions?  What is to stop India from imposing a secondary boycott on Pakistan or Turkey on Cyprus?  The US can use its antiboycott law to prohibit US companies from cooperating, but only at the cost of losing their business with the boycotting country.

In sum, relying on secondary boycotts to achieve US policy objectives is dangerous not only because it invites retaliation but also because it invites imitation. The US therefore should use them cautiously rather than capriciously, recognizing that at some point the balance will tip and the costs might quickly begin to outstrip the perceived benefits. 

In particular, how much longer will the EU tolerate US insistence that EU companies abandon entirely non-US business with US sanctions targets before the EU adopts its own version of China’s Unreliable Entity List and directs EU companies to resist US pressure?  Like China, EU counter-retaliation could be both credible and commensurate in terms of the costs imposed on US interests.  EU self-restraint to date reflects its preference for rules-based diplomacy, but when that enables the US to encroach European sovereignty with impunity, even the EU at some point, if pushed too hard, will have to respond in kind.

If and when we reach the tipping point, what the world sees as US sanctions bullying will be met with a jab in America’s eye by a major US trading partner rather than foreign subservience.  Various potential scenarios come to mind.  Let’s assume a new and potentially more rational leadership takes the helm in North Korea, and South Korea as well as China quickly offer trade and investment even before any major and verifiable concessions by Pyongyang.  Let’s further assume the US, backed by Japan, rejects any such premature concessions and threatens to use its existing secondary sanctions against North Korea to blacklist any South Korea or Chinese company that supports their own government’s strategy of economic engagement.  When the foreign policy and domestic political stakes are that high, resistance to US secondary sanctions not only by China but also South Korea becomes inevitable, creating enormous risk of miscalculation, counter-retaliation and destabilizing after-shocks.

The effectiveness of US secondary boycotts to date appears to have created a misplaced confidence in Washington that ever-expanding use will not diminish their effectiveness or harm US interests.  Rather than continue along the current path, inciting US trade partners to copy our own tactics to our detriment as well as theirs, the US should develop a more restrained and strategic approach to preserve the usefulness of sanctions.  Coordinating US sanctions policies with America’s closest allies rather than trampling on their sovereignty would be a helpful starting point.

A US Sanctions Specialist, and partner at international law firm Clifford Chance, George Kleinfeld has 30+ years of experience in the fields of international economic regulation and foreign trade controls. He advises leading financial institutions, industrial enterprises, trading companies and global investors on US sanctions issues and compliance with US sanctions laws and regulations. He has participated in a wide range of US sanctions investigations and enforcement actions as well as designing compliance programs and providing compliance training and risk analyses for multinational corporations and financial institutions in Europe, the Middle East, Australia, Asia and the Americas. George also advises on compliance with US export controls and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and has obtained scores of national security clearances for foreign acquisitions of strategic US business assets from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The opinions within this commentary are his own and not that of his firm.

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Biden Revises US Sanctions Policy

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

In the United States, a revision of the sanctions policy is in full swing. Joe Biden’s administration strives to make sanctions instruments more effective in achieving his political goals and, at the same time, reducing political and economic costs. The coordination of restrictive measures with allies is also seen as an important task. Biden is cautiously but consistently abandoning the sanctions paradigm that emerged during Donald Trump’s presidency.

The US sanctions policy under Trump was characterised by several elements. First, Washington applied them quite harshly. In all key areas (China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc.), the United States used economic and financial restrictions without hesitation, and sometimes in unprecedented volumes. Of course, the Trump administration acted rationally and rigidity was not an end in itself. In a number of episodes, the American authorities acted prudently (for example, regarding sanctions on Russian sovereign debt in 2019). The Trump-led executives stifled excess Congressional enthusiasm for “draconian sanctions” against Russia and even some initiatives against China. However, the harshness of other measures sometimes shocked allies and opponents alike. These include the 6 April 2014 sanctions against a group of Russian businessmen and their assets, or bans on some Chinese telecommunications services in the United States, or sanctions blocking the International Criminal Court.

Second, Trump clearly ignored the views of US allies. The unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 forced European businesses to leave Iran, resulting in losses. Even some of the nation’s closest allies were annoyed. Another irritant was the tenacity with which Trump (with Congressional backing) threw a wrench in the wheels of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Despite the complicated relations between Moscow and the European Union, the latter defended the right to independently determine what was in its interests and what was not.

Third, concerns about sanctions have emerged among American business as well. Fears have grown in financial circles that the excessive use of sanctions will provoke the unnecessary politicisation of the global financial system. In the short term, a radical decline in the global role of the dollar is hardly possible. But political risks are forcing many governments to seriously consider it. Both rivals (Moscow and Beijing) and allies (Brussels) have begun to implement corresponding plans. Trade sanctions against China have affected a number of US companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sectors.

Finally, on some issues, the Trump administration has been inconsistent or simply made mistakes. For example, Trump enthusiastically criticised China for human rights violations, supporting relevant legislative initiatives. But at the same time, it almost closed its eyes to the events in Belarus in 2020. Congress was also extremely unhappy with the delay in the reaction on the “Navalny case” in Russia. As for mistakes, the past administration missed the moment for humanitarian exemptions for sanctions regimes in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic. Even cosmetic indulgences could have won points for US “soft power”. Instead, the US Treasury has published a list of pre-existing exceptions.

The preconditions for a revision of the sanctions policy arose even before Joe Biden came to power. First of all, a lot of analytical work was done by American think tanks—nongovernmental research centers. They provided a completely sober and unbiased analysis of bothха! achievements and mistakes. In addition, the US Government Accountability Office has done serious work; in 2019 it prepared two reports for Congress on the institutions of the American sanctions policy. However, Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election significantly accelerated the revision of the sanctions instruments. Both the ideological preferences of the Democrats (for example, the emphasis on human rights) and the political experience of Biden himself played a role.

The new guidelines for the US sanctions policy can be summarised as follows. First, the development of targeted sanctions and a more serious analysis of their economic costs for American business, as well as business from allied and partner countries. Second, closer coordination with allies. Here, Biden has already sent a number of encouraging signals by introducing temporary sanctions exemptions on Nord Stream 2. Although a number of Russian organisations and ships were included in the US sanctions lists, Nord Stream 2 itself and its leadership were not affected. Third, we are talking about closer attention to the subject of human rights. Biden has already reacted with sanctions both to the “Navalny case” and to the situation in Belarus. Human rights will be an irritant in relations with China. Fourth, the administration is working towards overturning Trump’s most controversial decisions. The 2020 decrees on Chinese telecoms were cancelled, the decree on sanctions against the International Criminal Court was cancelled, the decree on Chinese military-industrial companies was modified; negotiations are also underway with Iran.

The US Treasury, one of the key US sanctions agencies, will also undergo personnel updates. Elisabeth Rosenberg, a prominent sanctions expert who previously worked at the Center for a New American Security, may take the post of Assistant Treasury Secretary. She will oversee the subject of sanctions. Thus, the principle of “revolving doors”, which is familiar to Americans, is being implemented, when the civil service is replenished with personnel from the expert community and business, and then “returns” them back.

At the same time, the revision of the sanctions policy by the new administration cannot be called a revolution. The institutional arrangement will remain unchanged. It is a combination of the functions of various departments—the Treasury, the Department of Trade, the Department of Justice, the State Department, etc. The experience of their interagency coordination has accumulated over the years. The system worked flawlessly both under Trump and under his predecessors. Rather, it will be about changing the political directives.

For Russia, the revision is unlikely to bring radical changes. A withdrawal from the carpet bombing of Russian business, such as the incident on 6 April 2018 hint that good news can be considered a possibility. However, the legal mechanisms of sanctions against Russia will continue to operate. The emphasis on human rights will lead to an increase in sanctions against government structures. Against this background, regular political crises are possible in relations between the two countries.

From our partner RIAC

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Sea Breeze 2021: U.S. is worryingly heading closer to conflict with Russia in the Black Sea

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On July 10th, the 2021 iteration of the joint military exercise, Sea Breeze, concluded in the Black Sea. This exercise, which began on June 28th was co-hosted by the Ukrainian Navy and the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet. According to the U.S. Navy, the annual Exercise Sea Breeze consists of joint naval, land, and air trainings and operations centered around building increased shared capabilities in the Black Sea.

This year’s Sea Breeze included participation from 32 countries, including NATO members and other countries that border the Black Sea, making it the largest Sea Breeze exercise since its inception in 1997. All other countries bordering the Black Sea were included in participating in the joint drills, except Russia.

Russia’s exclusion from these exercises is not unsurprising, due to its current tensions with Ukraine and its historical relationship with NATO. However, it signals to Moscow and the rest of the world that the NATO views Russia as an opponent in a future conflict. At the opening ceremony of Sea Breeze 2021 in Odessa, it was made clear that the intention of the exercise was to prepare for future conflict in the region when the Defense Minister of Ukraine, reported that the drills “contain a powerful message – support of stability and peace in our region.”

These exercises and provocations do anything but bring peace and stability to the region. In fact, they draw the United States and NATO dangerously close to the brink of conflict with Russia.

Even though Sea Breeze 2021 has only recently concluded, it has already had a marked impact on tensions between NATO countries and Moscow. U.S. Navy Commander Daniel Marzluff recently explained that the Sea Breeze drills in the Black Sea are essential deterrents to Russian assertions in region. However, these drills have consisted of increasingly provocative maneuvers that ultimately provoke conflict in the region.

These drills have done anything but act as a deterrent for conflict in the Black Sea. In response to the Sea Breeze drills, Russia conducted its own drills in the Black Sea, including the simulation of firing advanced missile systems against enemy aircraft. As the Black Sea is of utmost importance to Russia’s trade and military stature, it follows that Russia would signal its displacement if it perceives its claims are being threatened.   

Sea Breeze followed another rise in tensions in the Black Sea, when just a week prior to the beginning of the exercise, a clash occurred between Russia and Britain. In response to the British destroyer ship, the HMS Defender, patrolling inside Crimean territorial waters, Russia claimed it fired warning shots and ordered two bombers to drop bombs in the path of the ship. When asked about the HMS Defender, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the ship’s actions as a “provocation” that was a “blatant violation” of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Putin also went on to claim that Moscow believes U.S. reconnaissance aircraft were a part of the operation as well. Despite this, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded with a denial of any wrongdoing.

Russia’s actions to provocations by the United States-led Sea Breeze and interaction with the HMS Defender in the Black Sea signal its resolve to retaliate if it feels as its sovereignty and its territorial claim on Crimea is being impeded on. Despite Russia signaling its commitment to defending its territorial claims in the Black Sea, the United States still willingly took actions during Sea Breeze that would bring the United States closer to a clash with Russia.  

Provoking conflict in the Black Sea does not align with the national security interests of the United States. In fact, it only puts the United States in the position to be involved in a costly clash that only would harm its diplomatic relationships.  

As Russia has signaled its commitment to its resolve and scope of its military response in a possible conflict, any potential conflict in the Black Sea would be costly for the United States. Over the past few years, Russia has increased the size and capabilities of its fleet in the Black Sea. Two of these improvements would especially pose a challenging threat to the U.S. and NATO – Russia’s drastically improved anti-access/area-denial capabilities and its new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile. This would mean any conflict in the Black Sea would not be a quick and decisive victory for U.S. and NATO forces, and would instead likely become costly and extensive.  

A conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only be costly for the U.S. and its allies in the region, but could irreparably damage its fragile, but strategically valuable relationship with Russia. If the United States continues to escalate tensions in the Black Sea, it risks closing the limited window for bilateral cooperation with Russia that was opened through increased willingness to collaborate on areas of common interests, as evidenced by the recent summit that took place in Geneva. After a period of the highest levels of tension between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War, this progress made towards improving bilateral relations must not be taken for granted. Even if the U.S. and NATO’s maneuvers in the Black Sea do not ultimately materialize into a full-scale conflict with Russia, they will most likely damage not just recent diplomatic momentum, but future opportunities for a relationship between the two powers.

In such a critical time for the relationship between the United States and Russia, it is counterproductive for the United States to take actions that it can predict will drive Russia even further away. Entering into a conflict with Russia in the Black Sea would not only engage the U.S. in a costly conflict but would damage its security and diplomatic interests.  

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Maximizing Biden’s Plan to Combat Corruption and Promote Good Governance in Central America

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Authors: Lauren Mooney and Eguiar Lizundia*

To tackle enduring political, economic and security challenges in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the Biden administration is attempting to revitalize its commitment to the region, including through a four-year, $4 billion plan submitted in a bill to Congress.

In its plan, the White House has rightly identified the root causes of migration, including limited economic opportunity, climate change, inequality, and violence. Systemic corruption resulting from the weak rule of law connects and entrenches the root causes of migration, while the increased devastation brought about by climate change exacerbates economic hardship and citizen insecurity. 

The renewed investment holds promise: previous foreign assistance in the Northern Triangle has shown results, including by contributing to a reduction in the expected level of violence. As the Biden Administration finalizes and begins implementing its Central America strategy, it should include three pillars—rooted in lessons learned from within and outside the region—to maximize the probability that the proposed spending in U.S. taxpayer funds has its intended impact. 

First, the Biden administration should deliver on its promise to make the fight against corruption its number one priority in Central America by supporting local anti-graft actors. The sanctions against officials which the United States is considering  are a step in the right direction, but lasting reform is best accomplished through a partnership involving regional or multilateral organizations. Guatemala’s international commission against impunity (CICIG) model was relatively successful until internal pushback and dwindling U.S. advocacy resulted in its dismantlement in 2019. Though Honduras’ equivalent was largely ineffective, and El Salvador’s recently launched version is marred by President Bukele’s campaign against judicial independence, there is room for learning from past mistakes and propose a more robust and mutually beneficial arrangement. The experience of Ukraine shows that while external engagement is no silver bullet in eliminating corruption, the role of foreign actors can lead to tangible improvements in the anti-corruption ecosystem, including more transparent public procurement and increased accountability for corrupt politicians.

In tandem with direct diplomatic pressure and helping stand up CICIG-like structures, the U.S. can harness lessons from prior anticorruption efforts to fund programs that address other aspects of graft in each country. This should involve empowering civil society in each country to monitor government compliance with anti-corruption laws and putting pressure on elected officials to uphold their commitments. While reducing impunity and improving transparency might not automatically persuade Central Americans to stay, better democratic governance will allow the three Northern Triangle nations to pursue policies that will end up expanding economic opportunities for residents. As Vice President Harris recently noted, any progress on addressing violence or food insecurity would be undermined if the environment for enabling corruption remains unchanged.

Second, the United States should support local initiatives to help reverse the deterioration of the social fabric in the region by expanding access to community decision-making. Given the high levels of mistrust of government institutions, any efforts to support reform-minded actors and stamp out corruption at the national level must be paired with efforts to promote social cohesion and revitalize confidence in subnational leaders and opportunities. In the Northern Triangle countries, violence and economic deprivation erode social cohesion and undermine trust in democratic institutions. The U.S. government and practitioners should support civic efforts to build trust among community members and open opportunities for collective action, particularly in marginalized areas. A key component of this is expanding sociopolitical reintegration opportunities for returning migrants. In so doing, it is possible to help improve perceptions of quality of life, sense of belonging, and vision for the future. While evidence should underpin all elements of a U.S. Strategy for Central America, it is particularly important to ensure social cohesion initiatives are locally-owned, respond to the most salient issues, and are systematically evaluated in order to understand their effects on migration.

Lastly, the U.S. should take a human-rights based approach to managing migration and learn from the pitfalls associated with hardline approaches to stem migration. Policies rooted in a securitized vision have a demonstrable bad record. For example, since 2015, the European Union undertook significant measures to prevent irregular migration from Niger, including by criminalizing many previously legitimate businesses associated with migration and enforced the imposition of legal restrictions to dissuade open and legal migration. Not only did this violate freedom of movement and create adverse economic consequences, but it also pushed migration underground, with individuals still making the journey and encountering significant threats to their lives, security and human rights.

A welcome realignment

Acknowledging the role of push factors is key to responding to migration effectively. Most importantly, putting political inclusion and responsive governance at the center is critical for ensuring vulnerable populations feel rooted in their community. A more secure, prosperous, and democratic Central America will pay dividends to the United States not only in terms of border security, but also in the form of improved cooperation to tackle global challenges, from climate change to the rise of China. 

*Eguiar Lizundia is the Deputy Director for Technical Advancement and Governance Advisor at IRI

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